Monday, December 28, 2009

On Coming of Age

A new year begins. Heck, a new decade begins. Well, nearly. Remember "Party Like it's 1999?" Remember Y2K? Remember back when Monica Lewinsky was considered newsworthy? When social networking wasn't something you could major in? Remember back before we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, back when airport security took thirty minutes, tops, and we took our film to drugstores to get pictures "developed?"

I still have a few dozen sheets of negatives lying in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, just in case. Sometimes I wonder if the figures in those freeze frames could ever live out alternate realities, seeing as they are stuck in that sepia limbo between the camera and the page.

Last week, one of my fortysomething colleagues said offhand, "Man, so much happened in the last ten years--I can't imagine coming of age during the 2000s." I started to nod, and then stopped before I realized I had come of age in the 2000s. I went to prom in 2000--with five girls. I went to an anti-inauguration rally in 2001, and watched Bush get sworn in twice. I got diabetes a few short months later, in February 2001. I graduated from high school in 2002, the "Year of the Palindrome." I went to college. I went to weekly protests against the Iraq war, starting in 2003. I fell in love for the first time in 2004. I studied abroad in 2005, then went back after graduating from college in 2006. I saw my first series of peers get married. I worked my first "real job" in Spain, 2006-2007, and my first "real real job" in San Francisco starting in 2008.

I saw our first African-American president get sworn into office, January 2009. I started graduate school. I learned how to navigate the awkward office politics of a corporate world. I saw friends fall in love. In the past ten years, seven of my friends came out to me as gay or lesbian. I saw my grandparents lose their brothers and sisters, significant others and friends. I saw more friends than I can count suffer with various forms of depression. I worked at two different camps for kids with diabetes. I saw gays marry, legally, in San Francisco, both in 2004 and in 2008, and then saw their rights denied again. I met Spaniards, Belgians, French, Mexicans, Moroccans, Brits, Scots, Finns, Swedes, Chileans, Colombians, Bolivians, Peruvians, Australians, Israelis, Russians, Portuguese, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Kazaks, Turks, Brazilians, Germans, Americans.

In ten years, I've been an "editorial intern" seven times, and am about to start my eighth. I've made coffee. Taught English, journalism, comics, poetry, art, Spanish. I've photocopied my share of paper. I've answered phones, and lots of them. In ten years, I've interviewed for more than 50 jobs, and applied for at least double that. I've applied to graduate school twice. I've rowed, played soccer, run at least 20 races between 5-12k, waterskiied every summer, biked to work or school most weeks. I've read some books, but never enough. I've written some, but in surprising bursts of energy. I've saved letters, photographs, books, cards, favorite t-shirts and countless mix cds, but never enough money.

I've tested my blood sugar at least 32,850 times.

I broke one person's heart. I think. To my knowledge.

Amidst all of this "coming of age" business, a few things remain the same. The same passions: the urgency to express, whether it be via writing, teaching, community service. The same family core: a wealth of love and support that I appreciate in different ways every year. The same base root of friends, both those that I have loved and known most of my life, and the ones I meet along the way. The same annoyances (this diabetes b.s., political propaganda, the bizarre emergence of ignorance in all its gnarly forms), the same curiosity for all things international. The same undeniable randomness of the universe, the world that brings us both Dick Cheney and Planned Parenthood, J.K. Rowling, Zadie Smith, and Twilight, Sudan and Darfur and Hurricane Katrina and Wangari Maathai and Haruki Murakami.

And although there are so many headaches and so many complications in this world, thank goodness for the plot twists, for the complexity, for the questions. This is what keeps us reading, what keeps us writing, what keeps us interested.

Coming of age in the 2000s -- the "thousands" or "ohs" -- we're not Gen-Xers or post-modernists. There's too many of us, in too many different shades. Thank goodness.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Powers of Observation

What I see when I bike to school:

the firehouse at Holly Park
somebody circling the neighborhood projects in an old Lincoln
Lelenita's Cakes shop all lit up
and, a block later, Adelita's Cakes
professional dog walkers and professional dogs
the 14, 49, 23, 44 and 29 buses, tires sighing
that long line of houses that start in Daly City and trickle all the way down to the beach
crossing guards in chartreuse
kids eating KFC for breakfast and sipping Cokes on their walk to school
Bank of America in Chinese
little hidden comic bookstores nudged in between taquerias
parking lots under construction
women in pantsuits and boys in baggy jeans en route to the City College
usually at least one optimistic skateboarder
delivery trucks transporting surprising products (i.e. scuba gear)
when I'm lucky, the sun

Thursday, December 17, 2009

an email that came out as a poem.

This is better, I think, if left unexplained.

so you could think of emails as receipts, yeah?
like a, hey, got this, don't need to write back,
just want her to know that i read it,
that i know she's crazy about me,
and it's cool for her to tell me that.

so maybe
don't write back
just, like, you know, press enter
write me a letter instead.

i deleted all my old text messages
(after saving them in a word document)
in honor of you.
also so my cheap phone could accept
your mustachioed face.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thanksgiving and the Best Photo (Family) in the World

Sometimes I have these moments when something strikes me with surprising emotional weight, a magnet that pulls me back to ground. One of those moments when I am completely derailed in the act of doing something. I was cleaning my room the other day and stumbled across this photo wedged between my desk and the wall. I soon lost track of time and space, lying with my legs splayed out across the floor I was trying to uncover.

My childhood is a series of stories too long and colorful for a single blog entry, with hidden languages and deeply rooted riddles. Mine isn't any more precious or important than anyone else's. But I have yet to find a photo that captures as much as this one.

Why? Well, the first obvious answer is tie dye. Matching tie dye, nonetheless. Handmade matching tie dye, with more drying tie dye in the background, in case the clothes we were posing in weren't colorful enough. If you squint, you can make out my little tie dye hat hanging on the back "wall." Handmade matching tie dye made that week at family camp. Tent 19: that was our little half-cabin half-tent, our home for a week each summer for eight (count 'em) years.

And then there's the Birkenstocks and velcro shoes. My mom had the same green Birkenstocks for most of the 1990s, those telltale comfort shoes that gave us away when we visited the East Coast.

But perhaps the most telling thing about this photo is the fact that I'm smiling. Not only smiling, but laughing openly. I was deeply, frustratingly shy for most of my childhood. In most photos pre-adolescence, I'm frowning, crying, looking desperately away from the camera, have my hands in front of my face, or am trying to hide behind someone else. That was never easy, as I was a big kid. But this photo is different: this photo shows an honesty I didn't realize I was capable of at six or seven years old. It was summer. We were at camp. We had goddamned matching tie dye outfits. Maybe I actually saw how lucky we were -- are.

And now, twenty years later, the only remnant of my tie dye life is a single pair of socks, a birthday present from my mother that I still wear with regularity. We are all taller, with darker, shorter hair, we are educated professionals, we live in different cities, we have witnessed a few murky political administrations, cheered over personal victories and bemoaned our own unforeseen stumbling blocks.

As well documented as my life has been, and still is, I can't find a recent photo of the four of us, all in the same place at the same time. It will happen soon, I'm sure, but somehow I doubt we'll be in matching shirts, sitting in a row on wooden planks.

This is for them, for Thanksgiving. For my brother, the high school science teacher, the one who writes poems with ketchup, surfs on 11 different boards, and taught me stick shift. For my father, my favorite running partner with the ponytail, my personal pharmacist, the man who knows instinctively when I need help and has never judged me for it. And my mother, the woman who has taught me more than anyone that being "multi" is an asset in life; multicultural, multipurpose, multifaceted. Happy Thanksgiving, Team HJ, with love from the girl who finally smiled.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Giants, of sorts

Things that have happened in the past few weeks, in no specific order:

Two British men completed a five-month voyage from Japan to San Francisco. They rowed. As in, the two of them sat in a tiny shell, took turns rowing two hours on, two hours off, and together they crossed the Atlantic.

They shuffled beneath the Golden Gate bridge on Friday, November 13. I crossed the same bridge later that evening, just as the sun was beginning to set. I, too, was once rowed port, and sometimes calluses still surface, years later. These middle-aged men apparently had trouble staying on their legs once they docked, having spent nearly half the year seated in a boat. To think of the animals they must have seen, the zigzag of currents, passing liners and cruise ships, not to mention the slight possibility of pirates--there are few stories more remarkable.

A sadder story, also last week: The first fatality on the still-under-construction Bay Bridge. A 50-something Hayward truck driver took the new S-curve ten miles too fast and barreled over, crashing 200 feet to Yerba Buena Island below. He was transporting pears. I can't help wondering what that must have sounded like, and what pattern the fruit made as they hit the asphalt.

Saturday was World Diabetes Day. My parents went to Sacramento, where the State Capitol was lit up in blue. There is a strange comfort in knowing that the intricacies of diabetic life can now be recognized in a single color. As if by giving it a color, we are assigning it some manageable potential. I wonder how politicized the color choice was; if, by giving ourselves a ribbon, we are adopting our own font, a marketable campaign, a battle plan.

And that's fine--battle plans are fine by me. The silver lining of living with a chronic condition is knowing that, at any given moment, I can rejoin the campaign. It'll still be there for me when I have money to donate, or time to spare. The sucky times are evenings like one last week, when I excused myself from drinks with friends to run a lap around a block downtown. Because sometimes our bodies do these things. Make us blue.

But perhaps the best part of the last few weeks: Muir Woods on a Sunday afternoon. My aunt lives in Marin County, and invited us out to house-sit while she was away. Muir Woods National Monument is a short jaunt from San Rafael, a surprising glimpse of insane coastal greenery. Walking amongst those trees, whose height and age already eclipsed my own a hundred times over, I felt all the blues shrink down. I had never noticed how multiple trees can grow quite seamlessly out of the trunk of an old redwood. The light was dappled in the way that it should be, little circles of yellow making patterns on the forest floor.

Sometimes we need more giants in our lives to remind us just how small we are. Or how the Atlantic can't be that big. That shit happens. Stories multiply; we just have to be awake enough to witness them happen.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lost and Found, Part One

She was forever dropping things. Pens, spare change, grapes. Her phone's most important characteristic was durability; she'd dropped it so many times that her boyfriend called it "the lemming." She blamed it on her fingernails, which grew at an unnaturally fast rate. Her limbs acted as spokes of a great wheel, which made her a confident runner, but caused minor accidents on a regular basis.

"I think I just have an internal magnetic pull," she once joked to her neighbor, who gasped after she had tripped going up the stairs to her apartment. "My body wants to stay nice and close to Earth."

Perhaps it was Ariel's sympathy for fellow klutzes that gave her a keen eye for dropped items. Every day, when walking down the hill to the subway, she stumbled (quite literally) across some forgotten object. A pony-shaped barrette. A grocery list written in grandmotherly cursive. A small baggie full of laundry change. And once, an oversized key labeled "Property of--." The last few letters had been rubbed clean. Ariel turned the key over in her hands, looked once up and down the street for any signs of keyless wanderers. She held it up to the light, admired its curlicued edges and almost gothic charm. She dropped it once on the sidewalk, and then returned it safely to the deep pockets of her jeans. It was foggy day in early September, and Ariel was on her way to the local radio station, where she volunteered once a week. She resumed her walk, aware of the cold weight of the brass against her thigh.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On Subtlety

Del Ray Cross, San Francisco poet and editor of the online poetry journal Shampoo, came to speak in my class. We were assigned to read his collection Lub Luffly, an amalgamation of site-specific poems, largely inspired by New York School poets such as Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson. My own interest in poetry has ebbed in flowed over the years; the poems that strike me often do so with a weight that nearly knocks me down. Otherwise, they leave little to no impression. I admire poems that surprise, that carry unexpected weight, that make you gulp. This poem falls into that latter category:


by Del Ray Cross

While we talk
I'm not gonna
talk about
me or you.

A new sky
is formed
upon the
words we

don't use.
Two pillows
raised to it,
and a laugh

that starts in
one throat
and ends
in another

The simplicity of his prose, paired with the short lines and even the poem's slender length, packs a hidden punch. The clear evasion of feeling is exactly what gives it its oompf. I can sympathize; these days I feel the need to swamp my brain with material, to saturate my life with small, manageable tasks that all at once must be creative and practical. But the moments I remember are rarely accomplishments, or even minor victories; instead they are the quiet ones, the innate ones, the shared glances or imperceptible nods. I hope to recapture a similar subtlety in my own writing.

Speaking of subtlety: A moment of shameless self promotion.

My first KALW radio story was played last week. The piece, "Creating Altars for the Day of the Dead," is my interview with Mexican paper artist Herminia Albarran Romero, who taught a series of workshops at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts here in San Francisco.

More to come -- including a piece about local music label and record store Thrillhouse Records.

Maybe, sometime soon these projects and internships and personal explorations will result in a neat little poem, one that starts in the throat and ends on the page.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Learning to Write

Clarity comes in disguise. I think.

I'd like to peel through the fog sometimes, to suck the very condensation out of the air as it creeps over Twin Peaks and into the city. I find myself in a writing program where I am reading, critiquing, editing, and editing; that is, doing everything except writing itself. I can't tell if what I'm feeling is more the mismatched alchemy of being back in school again after three years working, or maybe if I've somehow trained myself to instantly miss that which I no longer do. The comfort of routine is something so embedded in my bones that I don't know how else to shake it off. That, coupled with an inbred pressure to get a job, any job, to look ahead, to afford health insurance (that which shackles me and so many others to jobs we don't love), to be practical, pragmatic, responsible, efficient.

I want to learn how becoming a better writer will solve all that. And the thing is, that's a tall order. Expecting some mind-altering short story or career-launching novel to suddenly give birth in my brain is a little like hoping, no, demanding, our current president to solve all the world's problems. Now that he's got a Nobel Peace Prize, he can get down to the nitty-gritty and actually be that change he promised us last year. Right?

Ever since I quit my job to start grad school, I find myself waking up every weekday with a hummingbird's heartbeat. The first thought on my mind is to get shit done. This is motivating, yes, and sometimes crazy-making. My dad always jokes that if I were a dog, I'd be a sheepherder, because I always need a job to do. The irony is that good writing is the one task that is really difficult to instantly produce. Coffee--that I know how to make quickly. I can answer phones. I can improvise a short lesson. But how does one demand creativity of oneself? The demand itself can kill an idea.

One way I've tried to jumpstart my creative brain is to take on multiple side projects. Every Monday I volunteer at KALW 91.7, a radio station based out of Philip Burton High School here in San Francisco. Every week, a team of reporters and volunteers produce Crosscurrents, a half-hour segment devoted to culture, context and connection in the Bay Area. I've done a few short interviews, have learned to use the recorders and hope to learn ProTools in the coming weeks.

I've also started blogging for Eduify, a start-up company whose aim is to use social networking to help high school and college students improve their writing. Writing these posts forces me to focus in on exactly I want to know as a writer myself, and what resources out there will help me and others develop. So far I've written two Halloween-themed piece (one on zombie romantic comedies, the other on Edgar Allan Poe), and interviewed children's book author and poet April Halprin Wayland. I've since done two other interviews, and will be interviewing a few more writers in the coming weeks.

All this to say that sometimes the things we want most desperately are the things we must go out and create on our own. Which is why I've always wanted to be a writer, and why at the same time it is a very hard thing to be. I saw music critic and radio host Greg Kot speak this past Friday at the Booksmith. His new book, Ripped, covers the revolution that has occurred in the music industry in the past ten years. Kot's main message was that the best artists are the ones who love what they do so much that they see their art as something they simply must do. Music as oxygen. Words--the continuation of our fingers. That's the urgency I feel when I get up in the morning: the need to do, to be, to act, to write.

And who knows? One of these days, maybe all these actions will add up. Until then, I'll keep my eyes on the horizon.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Missed Connections on MUNI

"Missed connections" has many meanings in San Francisco. Before you get any ideas, you should know that I only use Craiglist for job postings and contest announcements.

I was on my way home from school late last night when I experienced a twenty-first century faux paus. My literary magazine class goes fairly late on Wednesday nights, and so I've gotten accustomed to the seeming anonymity of public transit on weekday evenings. Anyone who lives in an urban area will tell you that, like possums and raccoons, the city's best characters come out at night. And they ride MUNI.

Since living in San Francisco, I have acquired the dubious habit of wearing an iPod everywhere I go. My intention is never to shut out the outside world, nor is it to live blissfully unaware of those around me. Rather, I've found that the 45 minutes I spend on buses or trains every day is the best time to catch up on news, podcasts, and all the new music I've downloaded from library cds. It should be known that I've recently developed a particular affinity for comedy-themed podcasts, if anything because when spending so much time alone, it is nice to feel like there's something outside my head to laugh at.

So: Wednesday night, 10 pm, I'm riding the M line from SFSU to Balboa Park, listening to Jordan, Jesse, Go!, a podcast that features the Sound of Young America's Jesse Thorn and Fuel TV's Jordan Morris. It's late, my eyelids are at half-mast, and I'm giggling. Enter Random Inebriated Young Man, stage left.

He spots my stupid smile and sits down next to me. I disregard him and continue to giggle. Oh, Jordan. Oh, Jesse. I turn up the volume on my headphones when it seems that Random Inebriated Young Man wants to talk. He motions that I take off my headphones. I refuse, still smiling. He mouths his words, and they are easy to make out:

"Hey, hey, honey, that smile for me?"

I don't reply, choosing instead to look the other way and continue giggling.

"That smile's for me, yeah?"

I nod "no." Sorry buddy.

"No?" He opens his red eyes wider. There's no way this guy is sober. He reaches down and pulls up the arm of his shirt, exposing his biceps. He flexes, kisses his arm.

"You like that, yeah?"

I can't help it; I giggle.


I nod "no."

He puffs out his chest, grabs his pecs.

"You like this instead?"

I nod a halfway committed "no," try instead turning my knees so I'm facing the opposite way.

"Hey girl, we got a black president, you oughta have a black man!"

Who wouldn't giggle at this point? I try to give the appearance that I neither disapprove nor approve; to be true, I'm all for dating anyone interesting. Operative word: interesting.

At this point he gets up and walks to the other side of train. I sigh, relax; he's off to bug someone else. I tune out. Amazingly, the giggles disappear.

Two minutes later, he's back, this time offering me a Fig Newton.

"You want one?"

I smile, nod "no."

"What? Hey, I'll give you a choice: eat a cookie, or take me!"

I nod again. Not sure how it's possible, but his eyes look redder this time.

"You smilin for me?"

I sigh. He's one of those sad dudes who thinks that an uninterested girl is just one who hasn't yet been convinced of his finer virtues.

"I got it!" He snaps his fingers. "'re high, aren't you?"

I giggle. This does not help my case.

"Yes! You like to smoke some doobie, am I right?"

I giggle and nod "no" at the same time.

"Aw, whatever girl, you're totally high." He leans in and sniffs the air around my head. "I can smell it from here."

I snort involuntarily and am relieved when I hear the driver yell, "Final stop!"

I jump up quickly and say, "See ya!" I cross the street quickly and hear him say "What, no number or nothin'?!" as the doors close.

Oh, MUNI. Oh, characters of the night. Fodder for the creative mind, all of us.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Family History, Captured

My mother and aunt grew up on a walnut farm in Yuba City, California. On Christmas Day 1955, their farm was destroyed in a catastrophic flood. My grandfather, Leahn Halprin, who was an art student at UC Berkeley before he inherited his father's farm, filmed the aftermath of the flood. Recently, my aunt April dug up some of her dad's old 16mm film reels and had them converted to digital files. Chuck Smith, a Sutter County official, put together the following YouTube montage:

This haunting footage is a tribute both to the land which raised my family, and to my grandfather and the artistry with which he approached the earth. I watched this in between writing papers at work, and as the chilling guitar melodies echoed throughout the empty room, I felt for a moment that I had been transported back in time. This was another generation's reality. This destruction was later repeated, twice in the 1980s, and twice in the 1990s, during El Nino. I keep wondering how my grandfather kept his hand so still, and wanting so badly for him to turn it and wave at the camera.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fundraising = Sugar for the Sugarless

That's me and my insulin pump enjoying a completo (glorified hot dog) in Santiago, Chile. That little machine is my lifeline, believe it or not. That little machine is one reason to support JDRF.

It's that time of year again: asking for money time.

There are lots of reasons people ask for money, but the very existence of nonprofit organizations is proof that there is a certain talent for asking for money professionally. Ideologically, I support a number of political and charitable causes, and when I can, I donate. There is one cause that has far more personal weight for me, though, and for selfish reasons: the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. JDRF was founded by the parents of children living with type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes, and for that very reason, all of the proceeds go to support type 1 research specifically. The majority of Americans living with diabetes have type 2, a condition of the same name and similar symptoms, but one that is potentially reversible. Type 1 does not have a cure...yet.

Every fall, JDRF hosts a series of Walks to Cure Diabetes across the nation. On October 4, my family and I will be participating in the Walk to Cure Diabetes at the State Capitol in Sacramento. Here are a few brief reasons why this is a good cause to support:

-Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition requiring injected insulin and numerous finger pricks every day to stay alive
-JDRF has contributed more than $1.3 billion to Type 1 diabetes research
-JDRF was founded by the parents of children living with type 1, which means that all of its research resources go to finding a cure
-According to the National Institute of Health, between 850,000 and 1.7 million Americans live with type 1. Of those, 125,000 are under 19 years old.
-About 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with type 1 every year; of those, 13,000 are children.

Inspired? Here's how you can help:

You can donate to our team at
Click on "donate" near the tennis shoe marked "Walk to Cure Diabetes."
Our team is Malibu Pumpers: Team Julia Halprin Jackson.

Or, simply follow this link:

In case you didn't know, I'm diabetic, and I really, truly appreciate your support.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Oakland Fault Lines Project on KALW's Crosscurrents

Anyone who has spent any time in Northern California's Bay Area can sense the tension between its citizens and the local police forces. East Oakland is a neighborhood known for its history of gang violence and police brutality, two problems that many argue could feed off each other. I recently started an internship at KALW Radio here in San Francisco, where I first learned about a unique series of investigative reports called the Oakland Fault Lines Project. Young reporters teamed up with Mills College, the Vesper Society, a local nonprofit entitled Youth Uprising, and KALW to provide an in-depth look at how and why these cycles of violence begin in the East Bay.

The stories, which are reported by Sandhya Dirks and Sarah Gonzalez, have been divided into a series of installments that feature local youth, law enforcement officials, community leaders and nonprofit organizers who engage in an active dialogue to question just how these problems form. The featured stories include an exploration of Measure Y, a campaign that included outreach programs for local youth, as well as an inside look on the accessibility of guns on the street. There are also revealing interviews with Jakada Imani, the Executive Director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and David Kozicki, Deputy Chief of Police. Perhaps the most moving excerpt that I've heard so far was the exchange between Youth Uprising contributor Darrel Armstead, who grew up in Oakland, and Kozicki. Armstead asked him why African Americans are so often targeted by police officers, and explained why so many young people growing up in the area adopt the attitude of "F**k the police."

These stories resonate for me because they find a way to ask the questions that so many people are afraid to broach. Issues of race and class are timeless, and although the public attitude toward both is constantly evolving, I think it is easy to forget that unless we as a society are actively listening to each other, very little will change. It is one thing to acknowledge gang violence, police brutality and institutionalized racism, but is an entirely different act of courage to question it, much less probe those who are most closely affected.

The first time I was made aware of the conflicts between East Bay residents and the police was when I was in high school. I was a senior when the planes flew into the Twin Towers in 2001, and within twenty-four hours I had witnessed the seeds of racial profiling, not just on a national level, but locally as well. I grew up in Davis, a hunky dory university town about 80 miles from the East Bay, not without its own racial mini-dramas. After watching the 9/11 news in my government class, Mr. Winters invited all of us to go to the American Civil Liberties Union conference at UC Berkeley. The conference was scheduled long before 9/11, but the themes were eerily apt: the topics at hand were largely related to racial and social profiling, and how police forces across California were required to adopt a new system of profiling after September 11th.

It shocked me to realize how many innocent people are pulled over for alleged violations (such as faulty headlights, missing registration stickers, etc.) and then treated in a manner disproportionate to their "crime." And then I realized: this is a reality for many people around the world, even within our most democratic United States.I can't claim to know or understand just what this experience is like, being profiled for something simply because I fit a certain set of physical or cultural criteria, but listening to the Fault Lines interviews has given me a greater sense of why these situations occur, and how it makes people feel.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Don't Want to Take Their Word for it.

A part of my childhood died this week when I heard an interview on NPR with LeVar Burton, the brilliantly talented host of the PBS children's television show, Reading Rainbow, who announced that his 26-year-long edutainment program is officially coming to an end.

Burton, whose acting career is studded with conscious role choices (think Kunta Kinte Roots, the epic created by Alex Haley, or Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: the Next Generation), sounded truly sorry that his show, which encouraged children not only to read, but to become active participants in their communities, would no longer be on the air. I remember being transfixed by the programs, which always showcased young kids championing their favorite books, kids who could have been my neighbors or classmates, and often included field trips that were related to each show's theme.

I remember one show in particular, in which Burton interviewed a man who constructed great works of art out of discarded furniture, most of which he found in the city dump. Burton followed him into his garage, and together they picked apart an old bureau, which the man then repainted and redesigned into an amazing collage piece. It was a revelation to me that such everyday things could be truly beautiful. And when LeVar said something was possible, it was possible. That very night I remember tearing through my bedroom for old newspapers, magazines, and postcards, ripping out all my favorite photographs and rearranging them onto a big cardboard box. This box became my "idea box," the one I returned to whenever I had a story in mind.

It later occurred to me that Burton had created the world's best job for a literature major. I mean, the very concept of the program was to promote literacy, to tell stories, inspire new generations of readers, writers, and thinkers. And think of what his program did to boost the careers of hundreds of children's book writers. As a child, I wanted more than anything to be that kid with her chosen book, explaining all the critical plot points during the last two minutes of the program, my face bobbing into view while a virtual image of the book opened and closed. As an adult, I wanted that to be my book, or that producer to be me.
But now, more than anything, I just wish that this show, this truly noble, innovative program, could triple its lifespan, and thus make more kids want to be that kid.

His interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation was followed by a series of calls, all from listeners who, like me, had grown up with Reading Rainbow, or had children who had competed in his writing contests. Burton sounded calm, yet tragically defeated, and I wondered why it is that these productions of true quality--reading shows for children, public radio news programs, heck, public education in general--are so often scrapped for the ones that have no moral or social core. Do we really need another reality show? Or trendy romantic comedy?

No. We need someone who has the courage to say: "This is one opinion -- now go out there and create your own."

Friday, September 4, 2009

In essence, I poop Frisbees.

This is my dog. And my father. And, somewhere in there, a Frisbee that aforementioned dog was supposed to deliver during Davis' Picnic Day festivities. Bear with me for a moment while I make a wild personal comparison:

I sympathize completely. I mean, Taj was under a lot of pressure. He was capable of achieving the task at hand, and had demonstrated his ability many times before. He had a task to do (i.e. retrieve Frisbee successfully as many times as possible in 60 seconds), he enjoyed doing it, and when it came down to it, the very concept of performing said task in front of such an expectant audience was so overwhelming that his body just took over.

So, grad school. You see the parallel, right? So much energy and effort placed into something so effervescent, so well-intended, with surprisingly high stakes. Such earnest attempts to manage time. And, as always, there is that sixty-second clock. Metaphorically, that is.

I'd like to crack open San Francisco as if it were an egg, watch as its life slips through my fingers. I want a character I could date, adopt, despise (not necessarily in that order). Basically, I'd like to be this:

Well, maybe without that crazy gleam in my eye, sans canines. I'd like to stand up a little taller, take a little more control of what stories my fingers digest and compute. Maybe what I need is a little less manic and a little more awkward-goofy:

Someone with flair, unafraid to look away as others point and giggle.

Although, who knows, that might already be happening:

Note: All dog photos should be credited to the lovely and talented Lyra Halprin.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I Prefer Music for Breakfast

Five Albums I've Recently Developed Crushes On:

1. The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1

Randy Newman is the best possible mixture of political satire and bedtime storyteller. My favorite is his classic "Political Science":

Asia's crowded and Europe's too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada's too cold
And South America stole our name
Let's drop the big one
There'll be no one left to blame us

2. Konk, by U.K. rock group the Kooks. This is one of those albums that makes you forget where you are and start skipping.

3. Fiona Apple is pretty much the classiest little lady with the biggest, most surprising voice. Zach Galifianakis has got deadpan down pat, and has nailed that fine line between awkwardness and ironic wit. Now, the two of them together...well, check our Not About Love.

4. I fell in love with Bon Iver through NPR's Live Concerts podcast. Bon Iver, or "good winter" in French, is the result of one of Justin Vernon's better winters. And then I stumbled upon La Blogotheque, a French music criticism website. Their videos show how music create communities:

Oh, Skinny Love. I want to be someone's.

5. This final group wins for weirdest (a.k.a. best) name: Blitzen Trapper. What does that mean, anyway? It means the newest, hippest version of Bob Dylan, complete with trendy glasses and Portland boys decked out in plaid.

All of these songs are the stories that at some point were just thoughts in heads.

I am going to think about that, go to sleep, and wake up inspired.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Five Observations

I have been missing something in my life.
The sound of fingers hitting key. The excitement to share something: a story, a vignette, a metaphor, an idea. The daily ritual of writing it all down. When I lived in Spain, I got into the habit of writing five observations a day. In college, I kept a narcissistic livejournal that I updated obsessively. It didn't matter what I wrote. What mattered was that it was always a part of my day, and a part of my day that I enjoyed.

That said, here are my five observations from today, August 31, 2009:

1. It's okay to slow down every now and then. Last week I panicked when I realized that, for the first time in three years, when I woke up in the morning, I didn't have an immediate task. That is to say, my only responsibilities were to eat, get dressed, go to school, and generally just let things happen.

Let things happen
. That could be the best possible parable for writing a good story, and yet for me it is the most difficult. How does one just stand aside and let an experience develop? It's hard not to meddle, not to email out cover letter after cover letter, insisting that yes, I'm a terrific barista, or a fantastic afternoon tutor, or goshdarnit, I do love answering phones. I find it takes an entirely different kind of courage to just wait. To accept help when it is offered. To understand that it is absolutely legal to study something simply because you can, and because you think it is important.

Here are the things I am letting happen:
my first semester of graduate school
the search for a new housemate
internships and job opportunities
direction, in general

2. Two things that help me relax:

and Zoe Keating's One Cello x 16 album.

Walking around Lake Merced listening to her amazing looped cello is perhaps the most relaxing exercise I've had since returning from my trip.

3. Mitchell's Ice Cream is the best use of well-earned calories in San Francisco.

4. Example of a writing prompt I can get behind: the Six Word Memoir, a project of SMITH Magazine. I discovered this while proctoring level tests back at Kaplan, and was amazed at the community of writers it has created. The stories are economic, artfully depicted and really fun to write. Try it out!

5. The California State University system has had to increase fees 32% this semester. Many of our classes have been cut. There are 24 furlough days on campus this year, which means that on these weekdays, the entire school is closed. No class, no student services, no work hours. A disheartening introduction to the world of graduate school. One lecturer said it best: "If you want to know the way I really feel about this, and what is actually going on, I'll happily send you some information. But in the meantime, we're here now, so let's accomplish something!"

Damn straight. I'm going to accomplish something by letting things happen, and watching my fingers as they hit keys.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Jump. Is how I feel right now.

There's a story about the desert that people should know. I'd never quite felt that absolute stillness before. I love the way heat settles--it's as if air itself were a dog twirling in tight circles before sitting down for a nap. I admired how tenacious the heat was, and how little it discriminated between person and plant.

Laurel, Oscar and I hiked the Pukara de Quitor, Incan ruins that lead up the hillside and into the sky. We wandered up the hillside to a large monument in the shape of a cross, which read: "Dios Mio, Dios Mio, por que me has abandonado?" (My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?) We were surrounded by a half-circle of face sculptures, and a plaque commemorating the indigenous people who were beheaded there. It was a bright, clear, eerie place with a 360 panorama of salt flats, jagged valleys and neighboring mountains. The sky was impeccably clear, and the sun happily fierce. The three of us were bound there, up above all the rocks, above our bicycles in the sand, above the bullshit of cell phones and health insurance and purposeful enterprise. Serenity itself made its home here, in the desert.

This was the Valle de la Luna. This was our Great Wall of Chile. We biked through the sand and climbed uphill just before the sun began its descent. The air was finally cool, quiet, and the stars were blossoming like late night flowers, bright and powerful. The air is so potent when you stop and realize it's there. We followed a narrow path along the hill's spine, practically running to keep up with the darkening sky. The sides of the valley shivered with excitement, with a shudder of orange, yellow and blue. What a privilege it was to be there, witnessing. How many other ways can we witness the world in a new way?

Fast forward to my last night in Chile. Laurel and I were staying in a tiny cabin in Cajon del Maipo, a village near the Andes about an hour outside of Santiago. Her friend Marcelo had driven us up the night before to stay in the little place he himself had helped build. The house was small and compact, with two little bedrooms and a snug living room. It relied mainly on a few battery-operated bulbs and a wide main window -- otherwise, no electricity. Marcelo dropped us off, leaving us with an expanse of countryside and a pack of friendly outdoor dogs. We were so unbelievably removed, I felt my body and mind completely used, stretched out, drawn to their limits. And yet it was a wonderful feeling, a sensation of having really lived to see something, and done it completely.

We made a small dinner of avocado and cheese sandwiches and grilled them over the stove, finding our way around the cabin in candlelight. The sun sank earlier here, where winter was slowly maturing. We could hear the dogs outside in the cold.

Later that evening, around three am, the most wonderful thing happened. It began to snow.

"Nieve! Nieve! Mira, chicas!" Marcelo and his friend Cesar ran into our room, hair dripping wet. Laurel and I threw on our coats and boots and ran outside, where the snow fell in thick chunks, like ripe fruit. It was all the endings of all the movies I've ever seen all thrown into one tight little ball: mountains, snow, best friends, remembered twilights, long bus rides to faraway destinations. And the occasional curveball, thrown in for good measure.

It made me want to jump.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


One week ago I was in the San Pedro de Atacama desert in northern Chile with the one and only Laurel Brittan. Two extraordinary things to know: San Pedro de Atacama, and Laurel Brittan. At its very essence, my trip to Chile was an exciting, bilingual exile from the world of programmed daily ritual; a reminder that there is so much more to see when you are not seated behind a desk. To distill everything we did and everywhere we went into one simple summary is about as easy as sifting through two thousand photos for the best thirty.

In fourteen days, we went from the city of Santiago (engaging, active, albeit polluted) to the port town of Valparaiso (stunningly colorful series of hills by the beach) to the jaw-droppingly desolate Atacama desert, and finally to the Cajon del Maipo, where we stayed in an electricity-less cabin about a dozen yards from the Andes mountains.

I learned a few Chilenismos. Vacan = cool. Hueyon / hueyona = dude. Palta = avocado. Pololo / polola = boyfriend/girlfriend. Cachai? = Got it?

We met artists. Single dads. Fellow travelers. Friends of friends who introduced us to their friends. And Oscar Montecino, the rare traveling Chileno who we met in the desert and instantly became the glue that held us together. The three of us rented bicycles and hiked Incan ruins. We watched the sunset over the Valle de la Luna and the sunrise over the Geyser del Tatio. Things happen when you meet gentle strangers in beautiful places. Meaning comes from surprising sources. Best friends develop when sharing close quarters.

The desert inspires. I feel stories growing up my spine, not quite ready yet, but hopefully soon. Now that I'm back home, where we have easy access to hot water, where the beds are warm and clean, reality awaits. School. Insurance. Work. Growing up.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

On Maturity

Transitions. I forgot about those.

It is official now. I quit my job. I'm going to visit my best friend in Chile in about four days. I will be starting a graduate program in creative writing a week after I get back. There are moments when this feels like the best decision in the world, and moments when it feels like I just shed about ten years of maturity, lost and unsure of myself.

Last night, while at a dinner party in my parents' neighborhood, I met a young man who is doing an MFA at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, perhaps the most prestigious graduate program for writers in the country. I asked him what his experience has been like, and he asked me what my goals were. I sputtered like an old gas pipe and started to repeat the feeble little mantras that have been rolling around in my brain for the last three years.

"I want to write," I said first. "I mean, I want to be better. I want to know what I'm doing, and know what to do next. I want to know how to submit work properly. I like teaching. I could teach. I want to learn about publishing and editing. Journalism's cool too."

He looked at me blankly. I cringed. It sounded like I was reading the back of an educational leaflet and highlighting all the words in bold. That's kind of what this application experience has been like. But I've got to start somewhere, right? The reason I quit my job was the same reason I am going back to school: somehow I've learned how to do whatever work I am assigned, but I never manage to get around to what I feel is important. This sudden invitation to write what I want, and to work creatively, is so open that I find myself missing the confines of a 9-5 job.

And then I blinked, and he pushed a glass of red wine across the table to me, and I remembered where I was, and how these are the internal ramblings of a truly lucky person. It was just past midnight, and we were sitting at a long table in my neighbor Lizzy's dining room. Lizzy had just prepared a gourmet organic meal for twenty people. Almost all of the guests were kids I had grown up with, a band of tall, loud and happy siblings who have since scattered across the globe and come back. I watched them all in the dimmed white lights, many of them bearded, nearly all of them over six feet, all of them grinning. All of them, from my high-school-science-teacher brother to the Lizzy, the event-planner-turned-chef, had made their careers piece by piece. There's no one way to be. I knew that, and I know that, but sometimes it's easier to allow others the freedom you can't (or won't) allow yourself.

Freedom, eh? I guess freedom starts with a ticket to Santiago, Chile...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NerdFest 9000

I had a moment of startling self-realization yesterday when it struck me that I listen to (on average) probably about 10 hours of podcasts per week. Ten hours?! That's ten hours that I'm not actively engaged in communicating with other people, or writing, or exercising, or working, for that matter. I feel less guilty when I consider that the first five are usually my early-morning-coffee hours before leaving the house to bike to work Monday through Friday. But the other five? Generally, those are my cooking hours, or my BART- and MUNI-riding hours, the occasional lunch break or stroll over Bernal Hill.

I start feeling better when I realize how supremely QUALITY these shows are, and even though I'm too broke to actively support any of them (at this point in time!), I do listen to them obsessively. I can't help it. These are my stories, my soap operas, the intellectual conversations I have with my coffee mug or the train station. And, in the tradition of my favorite podcast nerd-celebrities, I am going to make a TOP 10 list of my favorites and post them here:

1. This American Life

Okay, so this is a cult classic now, but I have been a loyal fan of Ira Glass and his band of microphone-wielding journalists since 1997, when I inherited an 8-track tape of the show "Music Lessons." This show was actually taped live in San Francisco, and featured David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott, three writers that I later saw speak at UCSB. The radio show has just gotten better with the years, and I'll grudgingly admit that its new television series is quite good too. Not the same, but also good.

2. Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me

Another NPR classic, this weekly news quiz show offers some of the best and most current satire out there. This captures my love for old-timey radio shows a la Prairie Home Companion, although it's punchier, more progressive, and not quite so Lutheran. I had the opportunity to see a live taping of Wait, Wait at UC Berkeley last spring, and it was even funnier in person. There's nothing quite like Peter Sagal making penis jokes in between interviewing prominent senators.

3. Radio Lab

This is THE BEST RADIO SHOW EVER PRODUCED, hands down. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich literally make science the coolest thing in the world. They only produce about 12 shows a year, but every show is fascinating, hilarious, poignant, dutifully researched, and truly, amazingly original. My physicist friend Melina turned me on to them, and these babies are staying on my laptop until it bites its digital dust.

4. Sound Opinions

Think Chuck Klosterman meets Carl Kasell meets MTV for adults. Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot host this great weekly podcast where they interview contemporary musicians of all genres, deconstruct musical movements such as disco, punk, and heavy metal, and break down the legal side of the music industry. I've become addicted to music criticism thanks to them, and find that this is podcast in particular is my favorite one to work out to, maybe because it makes me think and plays good music at the same time. They recommend music based on a "Buy It, Burn It, Trash It" scale which is at times hilarious. The show itself is Buy It all the way.

5. The Sound of Young America

Jesse Thorn hosts this hip and thoughtful podcast, which he updates regularly on his awesome blog, This guy is my hero. He has interviewed all of the people I have ever wanted to meet (Janeane Garafalo, Gift of Gab, Neil Gaiman, Mike Birbiglia, Louis C.K., Ira Glass, and so so many more), and asks really thought-provoking and never patronizing questions. Perhaps my favorite part about him (aside from the fact that he's crazy talented) is that he started this show as a student at UC Santa Cruz, and his nonprofit podcast and radio empire has just multiplied since then. He also co-hosts Jordan, Jesse, Go!, which is the goofier, more casual side to Young America. A Plus to Jesse Thorn and his cronies for putting together a really fabulous DIY network.

6. The Moth

The Moth is a storytelling and open mic series that is hosted in New York City and Los Angeles. These stories are told by comedians, actors, writers, and really anyone with a fifteen-minute story who comes to the stage. The shows are organized by theme (a.k.a. "Loss," or "Animals," etc.), and are always insightful. Some of the best recordings I've ever heard were only about ten minutes long, from people I'd never heard of, but their words stayed with me. I heard a rumor that the Moth will be starting an hour-long public radio show soon, and I can't wait.

7. New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman hosts this monthly podcast which features a prominent writer reading his or her favorite story. The genres and styles of the stories vary greatly, as do the readers themselves, but these are the podcasts that remind me why I was a literature major, and what I could look forward to, if I ever achieve any success as a writer. The discussions before and after are really interesting, too. I first heard of Junot Diaz through a reading of one of his stories by Edwidge Danticat, and was so thrilled to find a writer who captures where I'm at right now. A great show.

8. Selected Shorts

Another great radio show out of WNYC--this one showcases live recordings of literary readings at New York City's Symphony Space. Isaiah Sheffer helps produce these evenings of short story brilliance, selects actors to perform the stories, and sometimes interviews performers and writers afterward. This is one of the shows that inspires me as a writer and reader, and sharpens my vocabulary as well. Would be a fun place to work...although I'd work for any of these podcasts for free!

9. To the Best of Our Knowledge

This Wisconsin-based PRI show tackles topics of many natures--anything from Military Identity in America to Atheism and its Critics. One of the best, most poignant radio stories I've ever heard was about how to parent transgender children. This radio could be the one thing that convinced me to move to Madison, one day.

10. NPR Live in Concert

For those broke music nerds who can't afford to see their favorite bands in concert, but do have the two hours to burn en route to and from work, this is the perfect podcast. I've used this podcast to check out bands whose work I'm not familiar with, but whose live performances seem absolutely transformative. There are a few concerts whose sets I've practically memorized--Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, the Ting Tings, Mates of State. Now this is a job I would love to have: recording and meeting all these bands. Sweet.

I thought I was exaggerating when I said ten hours of podcasts per week, but really that might be a conservative estimate. Maybe this is what happens when you grow up on PBS and NPR: maybe you have nerdy cravings for people with soothing voices deconstructing science or critiquing an old John Cheever story. Regardless, I love these podcasts in part because they make that part of the day mine, all mine, whether I am brushing my hair before work or walking up the hill home.

Oh, it feels good to be nerdy.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Comedy with an Edge

I am finally feeling San Franciscan, now that I have gotten the chance to see a live show at Cobb's Comedy Club. Ryan, Tiff and I got tickets last minute to see Wyatt Cenac, a.k.a. Correspondent to the Daily Show.

It's only recently that I've taken a sincere interest in stand-up comedy, although I've always been a huge fan of Eddie Izzard, Mitch Hedberg and Mike Birbiglia. I'd heard of Wyatt Cenac, but knew as much about him as I did the other two performers. Cenac walked onstage in military green and a smart little cap. I've heard him referred to on the Daily Show as its "Senior Black Correspondent," and his ironic coverages of the Obama campaign interspersed over the past several months have spiced up the show. On Friday, my favorite bit was his brief take on gay marriage:

"When I was growing up, my uncle told me that there was nobody more powerful than a white man. So, wouldn't TWO white men be simply unstoppable?"

He did have one bit on dating a Jewish girl that left a weird taste in my mouth:

I should mention that this followed up a particularly funny bit about how sad it is that all the words that begin with the letter N can never lay claim as "the N-word," save the racial slur. I should also mention that the reason I felt weird about the Jewish-American-Princess bit is that it (at times) rings true. I am proud to say that I have never been that girl, nor was the term "JAP" ever part of my vocabulary. However, I have heard the term being used more than once, with a hint of pride, and it made me a bit sick to my stomach.

The summer I turned 16, I had the unbelievable opportunity to spend 6 weeks in Israel. I had just completed a Confirmation class through the local synagogue, and qualified for a modest scholarship to travel with a Jewish youth organization for the summer. It was, without comparison, the best summer I've ever had, partially because it triggered a series of personal epiphanies. One of these was the discovery of the word "Jap," and an intense disgust for the subculture that it brews. The first time I heard it, I was one of about five hundred teenagers backpacking through the Negev Desert. We met a few Israelis, and one or two Arab farmers, but for the most part, the land was pristine, lush in an almost Biblical way. And somehow I felt myself separating more and more from the group of girls with whom I was assigned to travel--the ones who complained about dust and applied makeup over mountain streams.

"Oh, I'm such a Jap!" I remember one of them giggling.
"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked her.
"Oh, you know what a Jap is, you silly," said her friend.
"I know what I think it is, and it's not a good thing," I said.
They both sighed. "Jewish American Princess! Hello!" And then they laughed, kept walking.

Fast forward almost ten years, and I felt a slight chill during Cenac's performance. He's right about many things, and that's why it's important to hear it as comedy. For some reason, hearing the same bit by a white comedian would feel anti-Semitic somehow, but knowing that he himself finds himself representing a minority, whether or not he likes it, makes it better somehow. More real, more meaty, and funnier all around.

One thing's for sure, though: I'm nobody's princess, thank you very much.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Joys of Science

This is an underwater perspective of the California Academy of Sciences, perhaps the greatest interactive science museum on Earth. Or, at the very least, in San Francisco. My friend Tiff and I made our first visit to the recently renovated center in Golden Gate Park today, and spent the better part of the day there.

First stop was the Rainforests of the World exhibit, a four-story glass globe that has visitors wandering through the layers of a tropical climate. There were butterflies everywhere, and by butterflies, I mean crazy flits of orange, blue and green that would land on your nose if you weren't careful. There were little yellow birds and tiny tree frogs hidden along the way like Easter eggs. For a few short hours I remembered the rush of enthusiasm that I used to feel for the Sacramento Zoo or the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Science was cool, and you could touch it.

It was a surprisingly sunny afternoon, so our jaunt to the Living Roof was especially nice. I felt a like a Hobbit, or maybe Laura Ingalls Wilder when she describes the house at Plum Creek. From our vantage point we could see the de Young museum, the Japanese Tea Garden and the Shakespeare Garden. We were surrounded in a sea of little purple flowers and circular windows popping out of domes.

As cool as the California Academy of Sciences was, the best part of our day in the park was actually witnessing the California Outdoor Rollerskating Association's tribute to Michael Jackson. There is literally nothing cooler than seeing people in glittery hot pants do the zombie dance on skates.

How to Coach Soccer Without Being Good at It

This is my soccer team. Or rather, this was my soccer team. Friday was my last big soccer game with the international students at Kaplan Aspect, the English language school where I've been working the past two years. In this photo, we represent the following countries: Russia, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Korea, Brazil, Kazakhstan, France, Switzerland, South Africa, and the U.S. It was a beautiful day at Golden Gate Park, and for once we had the whole field to ourselves.

I started a soccer club at Kaplan about a year ago, when our Activities and Student Services Manager asked me if I could help her out by leading weekly and monthly activities. The group has alternately shrunk and expanded as each subsequent group of students has come and gone; first I had a wave of serious players who wanted to help me rent out Balboa Park, then there were the chill Japanese guys with the fanciest footwork I'd ever seen, and even, when I was the lucky, the occasional girl. For months all we had was a single soccer ball, and then when my friend Itaru left for Japan, he gave me another one. Eventually I bought a pump, and my colleague surprised me for Christmas with a set of bright orange cones.

We've wandered around different parts of the Park--usually Hippie Hill, near Haight St., or behind the baseball field at 7th and Lincoln. Sometimes I could convince them to ride the 5 bus out to Marx Meadows, which added ten minutes to our public transit journey, but afforded us longer, sunnier fields. Once we got kicked off the Polo fields, and once we had to settle for a small patch of land between bramble bushes.

The most amazing thing about soccer is that no matter who came, and how they identified with the sport, once we started the game, everyone relaxed. Those who claimed to be "too good" for our squirrel-studded fields and chastised me for playing without shin guards eventually forgot their complaints and focused on the game. Those who had never played before, and insisted that they had only come to take photos, eventually found themselves gravitating from the sidelines to the field. This last game I felt especially proud because I had finally gotten a Korean girl to play, and she was fantastic.

There are few things more universal than sports, and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, there are few things more gratifying than knowing you've somehow managed to bring an entire community of English-language-learners together. Huzzah.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Falling In --

Every now and then I have one of those absolutely perfect weekends. You know the kind: when you can stay up as late as you feel, and wake up whenever the light hits you right. When you are active and feel all the cells buzzing around inside you with the same electricity as that summer pulse that fills the air. When the moon is just nearly full, and you are just nearly infatuated with it all, or at the very least, the person laying next to you on the lawn. That was the kind of weekend I had.

It helped that it was the Fourth of July, and that Friday was a day off work, and that the Sacramento River was clean and clear just past noon. There are little clusters of swallow nests that bead the underside of the Knights Landing bridge, and they were all absent, empty. Instead, the birds filled the air, swooping in even arcs above us as we passed the fishermen with their lines cutting the water fresh.

It was hot, but not hazy, and the air hummed with cicadas and grasshoppers. Waterskiing is an exercise in defeating gravity. My favorite feeling is when the water is glassy smooth, and while speeding above the water, you can lean over and dip your fingers down into the spray. On days like Friday, clear water makes for a perfect mirror image.

Saturday was just as nice, between the bustling farmer's market and the bicycle races circling downtown Davis. It reminded me of the Triplets of Belleville, watching all these muscled men and women stream by in dizzying pelatons. Ryan and I drove back to San Francisco in time for the fireworks show down by Pier 39. We took the J Church MUNI downtown -- my favorite train, the one that reminds me of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood in the way it snakes over and through Dolores Park.

The Wharf was filled with tourists, vendors selling flashing wands and teenagers barely hiding their bags of alcohol. We wandered out onto the edge of the dock, the smell of churros and bacon-wrapped hot dogs overpowering the wafts of gunpowder. It was, by all means, an extraordinary evening. There were actually two dueling sets of fireworks: one above Pier 39, near the water, and one on the other side of Coit Tower, which we could barely make out on the other side of Telegraph Hill. For every bright explosion, we saw its cousin mirrored in the sky just beyond the hill.

The spirit of the Fourth was no less strong today. I woke up to the sound of firecrackers down the street. We biked down to see the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform "Too Big to Fail" at Dolores Park. The actors and musicians had set up a wooden stage adjacent to the tennis courts, and the sunlight did indeed finally peek through the mid-afternoon fog. The entire play seemed like the unlikely love child of NPR's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me!" news quiz and any kid-friendly PBS show. Basically, the writers pared down the 2008 economic meltdown to a greedy frenzy for credit, which was the best explanation of our current market that I've heard. That, and it involved musical numbers and a woman dressed as a huge shark.

And now, somehow, it's Sunday evening, and the spell of summer is beginning to lift. Work again tomorrow. Ryan is back home. The fog has rolled in. Rent due. Grocery shopping. Vacuuming the room, sweeping up remnants of the past few weeks--ticket stubs, photos, programs, postcards from Chile, Greece. I am reminded again of why I must always return to the keyboard: to remember it all, because none of it lasts long.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Un ejercicio de idioma

De vez en cuando, me siento la necesidad de practicar espanol. Hace mucho tiempo que he usado el espanol duante mi vida cotidiana. Oigo el castellano en mi oficina, especialmente durante el verano, cuando tenemos muchos estudiantes hispanohablantes aqui para aprender ingles. Mi capacidad para escuchar no ha cambiado mucho durante los dos anos desde que sali de Espana, porque durante el dia estoy rodeada de espanol. Pero la urgencia de expresar, la habilidad de explicar conceptos, y la gramatica fundamantal--estas cosas me han empeorado (sabes lo que te digo?!) un monton.

Hay dias cuando entran un grupo de espanoles hablando muy rapido en espanol, y siempre asumen que no les entiendo. Ya no he decidido si me satisfecho mas si les respondo directamente en espanol, para que no me digan cosas privadas, o si es mejor esperar unos dias para que intenten hablar conmigo en ingles primero. Ayer, dos mujeres hispanohablantes(parecian espanoles, aunque pueden ser latinoamericanas) pasaron por la escuela para preguntar cosas sobre los programas, y me vieron mirandolas.

"Jo, ves que nos esta viendo?" la primera dijo a la segunda.
"Da igual, porque no nos entiende," la segunda respondio.

Estuve sonriendo cuando me vieron, y casi dije algo en espanol, pero decidi que era mas importante esperar. Recorde la escuela donde trabaje en La Cala de Mijas, en el sur de Espana, y los padres britanicos que siempre asumian que nadie les entendian cuando hablaban en ingles. A veces decian cosas terribles a los camareros, los baristas o los camioneros, y cada vez me sentia una verguenza universal. La cortesia debe ser algo universal, internacional, sin frontera, si quieres. Pero la realidad es que todo el mundo hace el mismo error: todo el mundo vive en su propio mundo pequeno, donde las unicas fronteras son los que construye si misma para protegerse de la ignorancia de otros. Ironico, no, como queremos evitar la ignorancia, pero es casi imposible ver la ignorancia en que ya vivimos?

Bueno, al final, no dije nada, pero he creado una nueva manera de responder a los estudiantes que me hablan en espanol. Cuando les veo hablando en la escuela, y cuando ya lo se que realmente hablan y entienden el ingles, les digo: "Por favor!" y sigo trabajando. Lo hice ayer con un grupito de espanolas, y empezaron a reir, deciendo, "Pero hablas espanol, no?" Sonrie, y segui trabajando.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Stochasticity, or: RadioLab is the pretty much the best thing since sliced bread

Five Days Later


I heard an interview with Regina Spektor on Kurt Anderson's PRI show, Studio 360, and found myself humming on the bus this morning. Not only can she sing and play the piano, but she's one of those quietly articulate people who says really intelligent things when provoked.

I want to be one of those people. You know, those eloquent people, who share their strongest opinions in the most convincing and respectful ways. Instead my thoughts often mirror the language pattern of the international students with whom I work: I start the week as a native English speaker, a competent and clear individual, and by Friday I find myself forgetting key verbs or qualifiers.

Today, while waiting for the elevator, my boss asked me about my upcoming trip to Chile.

"When are you going?" she wanted to know.
"Five days later," I said, my voice halting in that oh-so-familiar imitation of an English speaker who is slowly gaining confidence.
"Five days after?" she said.
"Yes." I thought a moment. "I leave for Chile five days after my last day at work."
We both laughed, but I found myself momentarily worried. I claim to be such a good communicator, and yet--I blamed it on the sunny day outside, and the post-lunch blood sugar rise and fall.

Michelle Obama is eloquent. She was in San Francisco recently, at a conference for nonprofits. It is so refreshing to see a strong, intelligent woman role model in the news. A strong, intelligent woman of color in the news. A strong, intelligent, educated woman of color who's going to help change a few things in this confused, multicultural and bizarre land of "plenty." I saw the work she's done with the White House garden and am so thrilled to have a strong, intelligent, educated green woman feeding our country.

Maybe eloquence isn't just about the way you speak or the things you do. Maybe it's about the lifestyle you adopt, the decisions you make, the reasons why you vote. I actually believe that eloquence is the act of remembering to stop before you do anything. And I don't mean stop-and-smell-the-roses; I mean stop, period. Do one thing at a time, and do it entirely. Own who you are, and be proud of it. Ask questions. And then, when you've stopped long enough to accomplish what you're doing, start again.

So, while I might be going to Chile five days later, while I might erupt into low-blood-sugar giggles at inopportune times, while I might not be going to Yale or earning a sizable salary, I am finally learning to stop, breathe, do what I'm doing, and then move on.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In honor of Mark Twain

Summer hangs sweet in the air like honey.

Or it would, if San Francisco had a regular summer like the rest of the world.

Summer in San Francisco has its own alchemy: instead of relying on vitamin d and long outdoor hours, the city lives off social electricity, music festivals and taquerias and cafes and the rare sunny day at Dolores Park. This year the fog doesn't depress me; rather it is the one constant during a time of personal change. I'm finishing my last few weeks as an International Student Advisor at an international school downtown and will begin an M.F.A. program at San Francisco State in late August. I have three weeks between my last day at work and my first day at school, two of which I plan to spend in Chile with my best friend Laurel. I finally got full-size sheets on my first full-size bed. My mother is retiring, most of my friends split their time between grad school, full-time employment, and traveling the world, and we have a fabulous president for the first time since I was twelve years old.

Life is good.

Except Ahmadinejad won (allegedly) the presidential election in Iran. Except for that, and the murder of a Holocaust Memorial guard in D.C., and the rising prices of education, life is damn good. Summer is the best time of year, even when the MUNI lines light up in the damp evening fog, and bikinis are reserved for the rare trip inland. I feel the need to dig deep for the stories that, soon enough, I'll be required to produce, and yet my mind needs tilling. It's time to turn over the sod that two years of admin does to your head.

Last week, we had to say goodbye to a group of thirty students who had completed our longest-offered program, the Academic Year. I've met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students since I started my job in spring 2008, and there are always a few students in every group that stand out. This particular group, however, were not just students--they were peers. I felt that our school matured with them, as we perfected our customer service and fine-tuned our academics. Many of these students began their English studies in our lowest level, and progressed through the cycles to our more advanced classes. Many of them were in my own classes. One of them was our intern. They were a group of men and women from Japan, Russia, France, China, Korea, and Germany. Both individually and as a group, they made an impression on me, and reminded me that being good at any job, even if it is not your dream job, has its rewards, and they can be overpowering.

In the tradition of all things exciting, the transition from full-time worker to full-time student is a bit daunting. Am I really a writer? I keep asking myself. Is this the right investment? What will I get from this? To be fair, these are all questions I've asked of my current job, and previous ones as well. What is the best way to be professional in this world? Does it even matter?

It helps that, for the first time in many months, I find myself gravitating toward a relationship I hadn't expected. I had forgotten how wonderful it is to learn the little intimate details of another person, the small things that he might not reveal to just anyone, and how all the bullshit tends to fall by the wayside. In many ways, I feel like things are fuller, rounder, and more complete, and those things that are beyond our control are just that -- beyond.

Job ending. Students leaving. Travel planned. Boys with glasses. Sounds like summer.

the coldest winter in my life was a summer in San Francisco -- Mark Twain

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What independence feels like, again

I moved to a different apartment last weekend, and perhaps my favorite thing about it is my fire escape. Fire escape. That just might be the most poetic combination of English words I can imagine. Fire. Passion. Power. Energy. Escape. Freedom. Possibility. Potential. And the two together: the best possible place to sit in the evening, watching the buses as they pass, listening to the pops and whirs of the Chinese restaurant just downstairs, admiring the moon as it rises.

I forgot how much I like the quiet. How nice the evenings are in early spring. How green Glen Park is, and how promising it is to be alone, but not lonely.

Passover starts this week. Passover has always been one of my favorite holidays because it requires its observers to worship storytelling itself. Everything we eat and everything we do is a symbol of something mythical, something legendary, something worthy of retelling. Perhaps my most recent interpretation of religion can be summed up in the way I eat: matzoh ball soup with a side of applewood bacon, green salad and oranges. And yet everything I eat has a story behind it: the butcher's shop down the block with its retro decor, the avocadoes that remind me of my Haitian friends in Spain.

My life right now is that awkward moment between decisions. Do I go to grad school this year? Do I wait it out? Do I work? Do I travel? Is it possible to do all of the above? Waiting is hard for me, and yet I find peace in indecision. It's a bit like waiting for a flower to open. I'm still stuck as a bud.

Stay tuned...

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mills College!

I got in!

To Mills!


For writing!

I am using this space to indicate a level of excitement that supercedes my need to write properly.

My mom bought me these Shepherd-Ferry-Obama-"Change" earrings back in October. I think finally that message has seeped into my personal life, and that, my friends, is long-awaited.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

The joys of Engrish

I am helping produce an ESL newsletter for our school. Every Wednesday I teach a study club for an hour and a half, where I perch on tables in our fifth-floor lunch room with a cluster of would-be journalists to talk about writing. Each month we produce one issue for the following month.

The longer I work with international students, the bigger kick I get out of the way we all (not just ESL learners) communicate. Here's a sampling of our current headlines and stories:

(an "in-depth" interview with a teacher about March Mustache Madness, with a reference to a Dating Game play we performed a few weeks ago, in which a fellow male coworker dressed in drag as a girl named 'Juicy')
(this is our version of "Dear Abby," as written by a Chinese kid who wants to be a psychologist, and his sarcastic Brazilian friend)

and, one of my personal favorites, a student comic which depicts a group of pigeons trying to speak English.

I forgot how much of a better human being I am when I get to do creative things. Our newsletter has been a big success, and I have learned so much by the sheer force of student enthusiasm. Not only that, but in between registering students in classes, grading level tests, organizing orientation materials, and answering the phone, I can also devote a healthy amount of time to a group project that actually students together, in English.

Writing has always been my indoor bird, the fierce and forgotten passion that keeps banging itself against the window. Maybe one day it will open. I want to write and be inspired and offer creative ideas. It's taken me a little while to realize that banging my head against my own windows--comparing myself to others, worrying about the rent, failing to find the time to write and read--is the act of creative expression itself. I'm so grateful to recognize that there's a window there in the first place.

In the meantime, I inadvertently pick up ESL grammatical mistakes, and get to show students exactly how expressive they are, and can be.