Monday, December 27, 2010

one hundred word story #1

Bernadette had never flown before. She circumnavigated the world by boat, train, horseback, and in friendly people's cars. She covered the Argentine Pampas, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Sahara on camel. Then the friendliest person she knew was thrown from a horse in northern Italy. Bernadette was mid-mush on a dogsled outside Nome, Alaska, when she found out. She made it to the nearest airport by nightfall and stared at the great beasts in the sky. She considered the earth and how strong it always felt underfoot. Not friendly enough, she thought, and returned to the snow.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

When long nights are a good thing

On Tuesday night we tromped up to Muir Woods to celebrate the winter solstice. The park is free on the shortest day of the year, and the park rangers decorate the boardwalk pathways through the redwoods with luminarias, paper bags lit by L.E.D. lights. If you get there before sunset, you can hit up the craft table to make your own wreaths, get red "pajamas" for your flashlights to make them forest-friendly, and grab a cup of hot cocoa before the solstice caroling begins. There are shadow puppets and songbooks for solstice caroling, and the Morris Dancers perform a special dance, wearing antlers and mimicking the prances of deer and moose.

My favorite part of the evening is when the dancers lead the crowd into the woods. The trees are so dense and tall, and once the sun goes down and your eyes adjust to the darkness, the trail becomes everything you know. At one point the dancers stop and begin to sing, and it's an unearthly sound, as if they are sliding out of the trunk of a tree and bringing with it a harmony not heard anywhere else. My tolerance for Christmas carols is modest at best, and I really only enjoy them the week of Christmas. But these weren't carols; these were words sung in Latin under a beaded canopy of pine needles and rain. These words went beyond faith, and for me had less to do with a religious holiday, and more to do with a desire to express gratitude. Gratitude to be somewhere beautiful with people you love on the longest night of the year.

Muir Woods 12.21.09
Originally uploaded by Julia_h_j

Monday, December 13, 2010

Canned: the finer side of unemployment?

Franklin Schneider is unemployed, and determinedly so. His new book, Canned, offers a series of essays about the perks of unemployment in the United States, relative to the seemingly ceaseless purgatory of “work.” The collection, published this fall by Kensington Books, is caustic when it’s not ironic, macabre when it’s not darkly funny, and perhaps more than anything, a portrait of America that we should be used to by now. Schneider grew up in small town Iowa, studied writing at the University of Iowa, and went on to pursue a career in…well, a career in unemployment, and more specifically, writing about unemployment.

What perhaps is most interesting about Schneider’s journey is not the number of times he tries to emulate the alleged normalcy of gainful employment, but rather the fact that his intelligence and ability to adapt is given a back seat to an unabashed disrespect for authority. As a graduate student in creative writing, former employee in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds myself, I sympathize with Schneider’s instinct for resisting work for work’s sake. And yet, if I ever were living on unemployment, I think I'd take advantage of that time to travel or volunteer. I don't think I have the constitution to support his bar habits, nor the patience to simply hang out for months at a time. Maybe Schneider would see this as my fatal flaw, proof that I have been fully indoctrinated into the psyche of the working world.

I am not interested in drawing a parallel between Schneider and me, mostly because he alludes to illegal activities that I am too cowardly to ever commit, but also because his acerbic wit is always two steps ahead of my own. It is courageous to publish a book detailing not one, not two, but ten unflattering personal situations. I admire his honesty, and his flourish for the absurd. This is the man whose first job involved detassling corn in fields of hog shit in rural Iowa; how’s that for an introduction to world of "work"?

In many ways, by detailing the darker, more disgusting, and least flattering aspects of his various jobs, Schneider is unknowingly painting himself out to be the martyr of the working class. Perhaps that is a heavy-handed way to put it. I’ll admit that I read this book after finishing a class on “progressive” literature, in which we were asked to compare Communist, socialist, and proletariat theories to novels written in the twentieth century. Maybe that explains part of my innate sympathy to Schneider and his professed love for a life of unemployment, free from bosses who prefer him to settle for mediocrity, or passive-aggressive telemarketers who bully their teams into making their numbers. This is the man who worked at a mall arcade, a pornographic video store, a failing internet startup, a D.C. consulting firm steeped waist-deep in red tape, and even a nonprofit devoted to AIDS research. That’s quite a trajectory. Whether or not Schneider is willing to acknowledge it, he clearly has the skills to succeed in the “working world.” And yet, that’s not where he finds fulfillment. So instead he finds ways to get fired, and then lives as much in the present tense as possible.

To put it bluntly: Schneider’s got balls. That, a finely tuned sense of dark humor, and perhaps a future in stand-up. If he decides it’s worth the effort.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Films and other drugs

I saw "Love and Other Drugs" last night and left the theater wondering who wrote it, not out of any particular reverence or even curiosity, but more as a question of their humanity. The film stars Anne Hathaway as a 26-year-old with early onset Parkinson's disease. She is pursued by a Pfizer drug rep, played by Jake Gyllenhall, who takes it upon himself to "cure" her.

Admittedly, I was taken by Hathaway and Gyllenhall's performance, and the way they both seemed to fully internalize the particulars of their relationship. But the film hedges on this fine line between the drama of emerging love and the melodrama of living with a frustrating and degenerative disease -- all thrust upon young, beautiful people. I don't doubt that these things happen; actually, I believe these circumstances arise more often than the film implies. And yes, sitting in a movie theater late at night with my boyfriend, having just escaped San Jose's Christmas in the Park, I was sold by moments of sappiness.

Perhaps more interesting than the question of romance, however, was this underlying exploration of a young woman and her body. There is a scene where she wanders conveniently into a convention for people with Parkinson's, and she listens as people of all ages relive the frustrations of their lives with humor and perspective--seeing an actual community for the first time. As a type 1 diabetic for nearly 10 years, I know that feeling all too well: the relief you feel when you realize that there are others out there whose daily lives mirror your own, whose secret conversations with their organs are ones you understand, whose arguments with their health insurance, doctors and employers are all too familiar. And perhaps more than anything, the desire to be more self-sufficient than perhaps might be possible.

It's worth noting that the film is an adaptation of the memoir "Hard to Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman" by Jamie Reidy, and the character played by Anne Hathaway is a fictional addition for the film.

I suppose I wanted to find some flaw in this film to prove something about the real truth about living with a chronic condition. And the movie does make many of the same mistakes that all holiday-era romantic comedies make. But I guess there's a part of me that wants to see the credentials of whoever it was that wrote this, to grant a sense of legitimacy to those of us who feel that our stories are ours to tell, and in their retelling they might not be so strange and sad.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I saw this image while walking along the East Side Gallery in Berlin, a one kilometer walkway of the remaining wall along the river which is covered with more than 100 murals from international artists. These two men are meant to be prominent politicians of differing values.

Though this image is in itself powerful, what I find most striking is the word "sanctuary." I thought of this picture again today while listening to news reports on the latest Prop 8 hearings. I wonder when the United States will actually function as the sanctuary it claims so wholeheartedly to be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hannukkah, Chanukah, Januka

This year I am celebrating Hannukkah. Lighting candles in the chanukiah, playing dreidel, frying latkes. The last time I remember taking time out of my day to remember the holiday was four years ago, as an expat in Spain. I remember the day I told my Spanish housemate that I was Jewish, and that I'd never really been to Catholic mass, and she kept blinking as if I'd shined a flashlight in her eyes. "I've never met a Jew before," she said. I wrote home and a few weeks later had received a chanukiah, candles and dreidels in the mail. I lit the first candle using the flame from our stove. My boss at the school where I worked thought I sneezed the first time I asked him about "Januka."

In the years since my return to the United States, I have forgotten what it means to observe something real. Sometimes I wonder if religion is something that grows weaker in an individual over the years, as if we don't experience a miracle early enough, or if we are crammed so full of one-sided religious indoctrination, the opportunity to reach some kind of personal resolution slowly dies out. My own relationship with faith has always been closely tied to the need to explain my family history, and with it, my own personal politics.

Now, though, I prefer to simplify things and say I just like remembering ritual, and sharing it with others. There are a half dozen Hebrew prayers that I probably will never forget. The irony is although these are the only words in Hebrew that I know, and yet I couldn't translate their meaning for the life of me. All I know is the melody that was instilled in me at a young age, the memory of yarmulkes made out of crushed paper cups, of Manischewitz grape juice and handfuls of challah, of Sunday mornings sitting in front of a bimah that looked so modest and so important all at once. I remember our annual latke parties, and the way my mom would somehow fill our kitchen with neighbors and friends, all clustered around two pans filled with hot oil, and us kids spinning tops on the Oriental rug in the next room. And my dad signing little presents for us as "Hannukkah Harry," because when we were kids, Hannukkah always had to be presented with its Christian counterpart (Hannukkah Harry worked alongside Santa Claus).

Happy Hannukkah, internet.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Meet Pingu.

Laurel, Ryan and I discovered this a few weeks ago and I find this little penguin and his friends to be, in a word, captivating. Here are the things to consider: Pingu goes snowboarding with his seal friend, who only has one binding to tie in his big flipper. Pingu gets hurt a few times and is rescued by a ski patrol penguin who ties a cushion to his rear end, which seems to do the trick. And then, perhaps the greatest part of it all, is the fact that I have no idea what they are saying. It sounds like some great Scandinavian language, although they squeak so high and so fast that it could just be two heavily accent English speakers.

I don't really know why, but ever since I first saw that Pingu vignette, I find myself substituting "Pingu!" for words of surprise or joy. The word is just so fun to say. Try it, I dare you: wherever you are, sit up tall, clear your throat, and shout "Pingu!"

Isn't the world a slightly happier place now?