Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Married to...the television?

I spent eight hours today on a grant application and my eyeballs started to go in opposite directions. Winter comes smacking in the front door early these days, and so by the time I left campus, I skipped my regular run for a jaunt at the university gym. Davis has a pretty luxurious rec center for students. I believe I could bring a sleeping bag and find a nice corner to nap in somewhere, if it ever came to that. But instead I jumped on an elliptical machine and tuned out the world for a nice long while.

Except that there was something called "Married to Rock Star" on the television just a few feet from my face. I couldn't help it; I'm not much of a television person, and the fact that so much teased blonde hair and male eyeliner dangling within eyesight made it impossible to look away. Those women stole my time, whisked it right away from me with their explicit, recognized vapidity, and their desire for Hello Kitty weddings in castles. I found myself questioning more than just their clothing choices. After a while I started to challenge my own snap judgments--who am I to say what one millionaire lady should say to another? And is it really fair to insist that all the fake conflicts on the show are fabricated, that the plots of "reality television" are dismal inflations of non-problems?

I stayed on that machine a good 45 minutes, and by the time I finally extricated my feet from the elliptical, I had to remind myself where I was, who I was, and what on earth I was doing so far from an enchanted castle. It reminded me of when, as a child, I would watch my brother and his friends playing video games and have to shake myself awake after watching the same little animated figures jump on the same multicolored toadstools time and time again. Is it monotony, or is it hypnotism?

Regardless, by the time I left the gym, I had completely forgotten the stress of the workday. I'd like to attribute that to endorphins, to active, warm muscles, but in my heart I think I know what really happened.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


happy graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge
Originally uploaded by Julia_h_j

What I'm thankful for:

clear blue sky winter days
when (most of) my family fits in one room, and we're all trying to tell jokes at the same time
candied yams
the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean
border collies
tuition remission
friends who like to travel, cook, dance, doodle, adventure
laptops, cell phones, and iPods (oh my)
the entire month of June, and October also
National Public Radio
talking about writing with my mom and my aunt April
San Francisco
health insurance, when it's guaranteed
the best, longest, most satisfying runs, the ones where you come home feeling more hopeful about the world
my big brother and his big grin
postcards from other countries and cities
digital photography
my dad, and how he knows how to make everything better, but then shows me how to make things better too
my white flowered comforter for the bed
the First Amendment
being in love, really in love, and not thinking it's cheesy

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mavericks, renegades, and beards, oh my!

Sarah Palin and Jimmy McMillan (of "The Rent is Too Damn High" fame) exchange political opinions at a recent mixer in San Francisco.

Scary, right?

I can say with some confidence that going out in San Francisco on Halloween, dressed as Sarah Palin, complete with a button reading "Renegade: Palin for President 2012," was a bit like whispering the word "Voldemort" in a fifth grade classroom. On the bus home, people asked who I was, and when they saw me with the glasses and the button, trying to mimic that Alaskan charm, 9 out of 10 people turned away, saying, "Oh God."

Perhaps as scary as seeing a twentysomething white computer programmer glue a cotton beard to his face and pretend to be New York candidate for governor slash muse for aspiring deejays.

Weirder things could happen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Didion doesn't slouch

Tonight I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Joan Didion is brilliant. She writes about all my favorite places: San Francisco, New York, Hawaii, Los Angeles, and yet she writes about them with a complete lack of sentimentality. She seems to possess this unbridled interest in the act of recording that which is truly interesting, truly human. Tragic and entertaining and thoughtful and never patronizing. Straightforward.

And then I read "Notes from a Native Daughter." Didion grew up in the Sacramento Valley, and she manages to articulate the nostalgia, boredom, listlessness and history of the place that I've never really been able to perfectly capture myself:

"...that is what I want to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."

And it struck me, that here in this most fertile of valleys, the communities themselves have grown in a manner disproportionate to the crops that thrive. Maybe that's why it sometimes takes me a few days to fall into hometown habits; because in Davis, even more so than Sacramento, the town wants to grow as much as it wants to drop leaves, or blossom flowers; that is to say, it wants to grow when it is time to grow, and not before.

It makes me feel good to know that a writer like Didion came from a place and a family not too far removed from my own. That maybe, at some point, I'll be able to put into words my own version of that murmuring culture that she captures so beautifully.

Tommy's Tale

Most families have pet folklore. My dad recently recounted the epic story of how he acquired our first family dog, Tomasino Paisano de la Lucci, a black and white springer spaniel mix that he sprung from a pound when he was in his 20s. At the time, my dad was working in the Bay Area, and one day while driving to work, he found an injured puppy in the middle of the road. He gathered him up and took him to his office where he called the SPCA to see if they could save him. The SPCA collected the dog with the understanding that they were required to turn the dog over to the local shelter for three days for the owners to come claim him before making the dog available for adoption. Meanwhile, they agreed to treat the dog's wounds.

My dad went back to the pound a few times to see how the dog was doing. Each time, the technicians reminded him that if he wanted the dog, he'd have to wait til the end of the week, at which point he'd also have to pay the vet bill. Dad showed up just before closing time on Friday, but the technician turned him away, saying that they had to wait three full days, so Dad would have to come back Saturday. They refused to let him come take the dog on the day they told him to come; according to their rules, they had to wait a certain amount of time for owners to collect the dog, but neither could they afford to keep the dog any longer than a specific amount of time.

"If you want the dog, you’ll be here at 8:00 am sharp," they said, "or he’ll be put down on the first rounds tomorrow morning."

Dad was pissed. Why did they even bother treating the dog in the first place, if they wouldn't put him up for adoption, and would end up killing him anyway? He asked to speak to the supervisor, and was told the same thing. Come back Saturday morning, or forget the dog. They would not even take payment and hold the dog until Monday.

He didn't know what to do. He felt trapped. Here he had gone out of his way to follow the center's instructions, and was happy to pay the vet bill, would have arranged for someone else to pick up the dog for him, but they wouldn't allow that either. He went out into the parking lot and watched the dogs interacting in their cages. Tommy was sitting in a little pen surrounded by a chain link fence.

He approached the fence, stuck his hands through the holes and whistled for the dog. Once he was close enough, Dad reached out and took Tommy gently in his hands, slowly edging him up the length of the fence, first withdrawing one hand through the gaps, then the other. Miraculously, no one seemed to notice. He got the little dog him up the height of the fence, he pushed him through a small, puppy-sized opening. Dad says Tommy was a bit confused, but offered no resistance as he hopped across the parking lot and into his car, and eventually, our life.

Tommy lived to be 15 years old. He went where my dad went. I'll never forget the night he died. I was eight years old and it was a school night, so I was surprised when my mom woke me and Josh up in the middle of the night and took us out onto the lawn. Tommy usually slept in a little bed on my parents' floor, but my dad had carried him, wrapped tenderly in towels, down the stairs and outside. I think the moon was full. Tommy was old and frail, his eyes lost in flappy ears and withered fur. And my dad, my dad leaned low over him, as if whispering to him, and stayed that way for what seemed like hours. When it was over we had a little service and dug a little hole for him under the rosebush.

For years my dad referred to Tommy as "my fine dog." My parents have had dogs since, always rescue dogs, always black and white, always T names: Tipper (during the Clinton administration), Tam, and Taj. They were all wonderful dogs, but to be called "fine" -- that was a distinction my dad reserves for a rare few.

Friday, November 19, 2010

So close

You know that feeling when things are just within your reach?

I miss that feeling.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Forget cellar door. Open road is where it's at.

This summer, driving cross country, we passed many cars with decorative antennae. The cacti were often my favorite. Watching their little flapping plastic tendrils zip by on the I-10 made it look like all the passing cars were sticking out their hands for high fives. Parked cars with dangling antennae smirked at us when we stopped to refuel.

I miss watching the scenery change. The concept of settling anywhere is fundamentally mature, and while with every passing year it seems less final, less scary, the romance of the open road is often more attractive than the stability of staying put.

Open road. Can you think of two words more beautiful?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Ingrid Betancourt Woke Me Up

I tend to stress out when I'm on deadline. I'll circle my room like a dog preparing to lie down, and when I finally do get down to work, it will start out feeling so arduous. But then I'll learn about someone who has done something far braver than I, something requiring much more intellect or raw individual power, someone who has faced situations more harrowing and unimaginable than those I have ever experienced, and then I'll stop circling.

One such example is an interview I heard recently with Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian politician who was running for president in 2002 when she was abducted by the terrorist organization the FARC. I first learned about Ms. Betancourt back in 2007, when I was working for the International Museum of Women in San Francisco. We were curating an online exhibit on Women, Power and Politics, and it was hard not to see the parallel between notable female presidential candidates in the months leading up to the 2008 election here in the States.

I remember watching a soul-wrenching documentary about Ms. Betancourt's presidential campaign, which, after she was taken away, was carried on by her then-husband. Kidnapping is such a big problem in Colombia that there are laws stating that political candidates can continue their campaigns even if they themselves cannot participate; in the case of Ms. Betancourt, her husband stepped up in her place. The documentary filmmakers had started the film before she was abducted, so it was especially tragic to see the interviews with her, bright-eyed and idealistic, in the months before her forced exile. By the time I learned who she was in 2007, she had been away for five years, which I took to mean that if she hadn't died already, she probably wouldn't survive.

And then, somewhat miraculously, she reappeared in 2008. I remember hearing the news rather off-handedly,so subtly that I thought perhaps I had made it up. But then I heard her on KQED's Forum, in an interview with Dave Iverson, talking quite earnestly about what it felt like to be captive in the jungle, struggling to hear her mother's voice over the radio airwaves. This was a woman of privilege, who during her latter year or so of captivity, was chained to a tree by her neck. And yet the honesty and emotion with which she expressed herself really woke me up.

Ms. Betancourt's experience - that was true captivity. There was no circling there. I was listening to her interview while biking to work, and by the time I got there and removed my headphones, it was as if I was aware of new sounds in the world.

There are more out there like her - maybe next time I'm stressing about a paper or a deadline I'll revisit Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seeking guard turtle

About a month ago I came home to find a little turtle in the front yard. I thought it was a large rock until Taj sniffed it and pointed his nose, just like a regular bloodhound. And it wasn't until both the dog and I had backed away that I saw four little legs squirm their way out, one at a time, from the shell. The head slinked out last. For a moment the three of us stood there, dog, turtle, and human, regarding one another, none of us sure how to react. And then Taj found something more interesting behind the bushes and I went on to get the mail, and when I came back the turtle was still there, one leg slowly retreating into its shell.

I wondered, at that moment, if I would ever have that kind of patience, if I'd ever be quiet and slow enough to gauge the difference between actual danger and momentary risk.

My mom and I named the turtle Sushi. I imagined us becoming great friends, her acting as my little guard turtle, warding away bad spirits and unwelcome snails. I left some old lettuce out for her. Well, to be perfectly frank, I more or less threw the lettuce onto the surface of her shell as I was rushing out of the house to get to work.

I've been checking the front of the house every morning, but she hasn't been back yet. Either that, or she's waiting for me in a place I haven't yet found.

This image is taken from Delanco Camp's T-Shirt contest. I'm not familiar with this camp, but I found the picture on Google Image.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I recently moved back to my hometown to attend graduate school, and it was only this week that the words home and town seemed like two such disparate worlds.

What is home? Home is a reflection of body memory. A sensual experience involving the food I grew up eating, the smell of our house on cold nights in late winter, the sounds of the records that sometimes skipped while my dad and I washed the after dinner dishes. The awareness that wherever I went there were people I knew.

What is town? Town is a small place, in which social circles overlap so dizzyingly that there are rarely moments of quiet, despite the wide expanse of dried safflower and last season's tomatoes. Town is a place where people gather for the sake of gathering, where my grocer knows my rabbi, who knows my previous employer, who knows my parents and back again. And occasionally they all gather, and when I do go to the farmer's market, the wealth of social knowledge is so abundant that there is simply no way to just walk, and walk, and not talk.

I wonder at what point in our lives we stop longing. For years, I wanted nothing more than to get further away, and further away still, as if with every mile I was proving the power of independence, of unleashed, unabashed curiosity about the world. And yet, each time I moved, I took with me a sense of what I had left behind. I carried photographs of my family and friends, longed for that nuclear sense of familiarity, missed what it felt like to be somewhere where people knew you were before you opened your mouth.

But what happens when you move back, and the dialogue picks right back up where you left off?

It's not a question of good or bad, or even better or worse. It is a revision of memory, a rewriting of the way things used to smell or taste, a new concept of the way you understand your immediate world. And sometimes, I worry that by coming home to work and study, I'm not properly home, but rather just back in town.