Monday, January 31, 2011

Recipe for Punkara Rock: Spain Series #1

How to dress like a Spanish punkara rocker:

1. Take a low, loose or flimsily cut fabric.
2. Add a silkscreen of Che Guevara, Zapatistas or the Palestinian flag.
3. Emblazon cheery designs with skull and crossbones images of fire, shit, or sex, and work in a good cuss word and/or sexual innuendo. The blunter, the better.
4. Decorate wit ha jagged pattern of large, bulky safety pins. Rip large holes (preferably across the breasts) for a real Frankenstein effect.
5. Top with a paperboy hat (maybe in clashing stripes, polka dots or plaid), a discolored bandanna or otherwise ripped and faded fabric.

Shoes range from the classic multicolored low-top Converse to purple, thick-soled Doc Martens, gothic men's sneakers, hippie Birkenstock ripoffs, to, well, Frodo-style bare feet.

This series is taken verbatim from a series of journals I kept while living in Spain, 2006-2007.

*photo credit: This photo of Spanish band Ojos de Brujo is taken from the blog Dentro Musica.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

one hundred word story #12

Janie stopped by the Career Fair hoping to pick up a career. It was easier than she thought. First there was the aptitude test, which narrowed her down to either flower-arranging or graveyard digging. Then she got to meet professional flower arrangers and gravediggers. There were some pirates, too, and badminton delegates from the United Kingdom. Don't worry, Janie, they all said, just work hard and the right opportunity will come to you. You might even end up arranging flowers above graves! She left with a packet of seeds and a shovel, thinking, America is indeed the land of opportunity.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter fog

Usually when the fog comes in, it is a timid guest. It burns off by midday, then pulls back to reveal the sun, a well-kept secret. But today was a tule day. Today, the air got progressively thicker, fuller, and wetter as the afternoon wore on. I stayed in my office later than normal, absorbed in an essay I am writing on Spain, and was completely unprepared when I emerged from Voorhies at 6 pm and wandered straight into the clouds. The air was mythic. Light from nearby lampposts cut through the fog in broad rays; inverse sunshine.

Within minutes, my coat and pants were streaked in dewdrops, little globules that glistened perversely in the evening light. It was difficult to see further than ten or twenty feet ahead; beyond that was gray emptiness. It made biking through Davis feel like jumping into a void, holding my breath as I trusted the path in front of me to stay a path. This is the kind of environment where stuff can happen. Mysterious stuff. Good stuff. Bad stuff. Surprising stuff. Stuff that can jump out at you.

As a child I associated tule fog with the endlessness of winter nights. It was inevitable; there would always be nights that felt too long or too strange or made it hard to see. I only recently learned that tule fog is particular to the Sacramento Valley, due to the fact that once the cold air enters the valley, it is shut inward by the Sierra Nevada mountains. It's turned in on itself, forced to confront itself in wet streaks from Sacramento clear to Redding, even as far as Bakersfield. Often the air above the low-lying fog is warmer and clearer. The sky cheats, I think. Maybe it does this to remind all of us how blind we actually are. To make us turn inwards as well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lemony Snicket: how to make things happen

Tonight Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Misfortune Events fame) spoke on campus. This man is irreverent, brilliant, strange, and opinionated on the topics of story, plot, and honesty in literature. My understanding of him as a writer comes less from his popular children's books, and more from his novel Adverbs, which many argue is actually a collection of love stories. His prose is familiar both with itself and (it claims) with you as a reader. He often acknowledges his narrators, perhaps to beat us all to the punch, or to further the story in a way he finds interesting, or to add a finer, more textured experimental layer to the story.

I realized as he was speaking that he's exactly the inverse of the writer that often pops out of me, and maybe that's why I find him so easy to admire. He drew a diagram of the way he often imagines his characters intersecting, focusing less on their individual characteristics than the incidences that make them collide. His prose is often fast, funny, and furious; although it is clear that writing so clean can only be the product of laborious effort (he said that his first draft of Adverbs was 1000 pages long), he made it clear that developing full characters is only interesting when they operate in a plot- and problem-studded universe. Often when I try to write fiction, I get so absorbed in the very concept of a person, and his or her psychology, and the place in which he or she resides, that I have to weed out and around the outline of who they are in order to see the story at hand. There comes a time when being so conscious of character, and how he or she would react in any given situation, actually inhibits the writer from furthering an invented universe.

Handler quoted a fan letter that complimented him by saying, "I enjoy your books. I am always curious when things happen." He underscored the simplicity of that statement, and how the more interesting parts of our own lives, the parts worth retelling, are not morality tales or formulaic episodes, but rather the honest, bizarre and unexpected moments that arise when stuff happens.

When stuff happens. His great magic trick as a writer is knowing instinctively what "stuff" is worth happening, and what is worth leaving behind. I hope one day to understand that maneuver myself.

one hundred word story # 11

Whatever you do, he says, don't think about the cliff. So we're up there and all I can think about is the cliff. And then he's all, you can think about the cliff, but don't think about the fall. I've got the rope around me tight, he says too tight, but is there such a thing? From above the world looks so nicely constructed. The order is clear. He's singing and then suddenly he's not. The wind is strong. I mess up; I remember the fall. The rope loosens. That world looks mean. Hang on, he yells. I hang on.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

White noise

Monterey, sunset. Plovers tuck in the sea. That rare quality of light when everything on this side of the world seems a bit longer, a bit wilier, than usual. The waves sound like the best white noise in the world, either letting all those loose little chirps and whirs in one huge respiration, or exhaling countless unnecessary evils as one, continuous crash against the sand.

Sometimes I worry about things that are important. Sometimes (many times) I worry about things that are important right now. Often I worry about things that are already worth less than the energy spent worrying. And then, there are nights like these, when it's all I can do to think, I'm the luckiest motherfucker in the world.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jack Gilbert on my mind

I have been rereading The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert and reminding myself of what it means to write unselfconsciously. There is so much to say about Jack Gilbert, an award-winning yet underrated American poet who studied and taught at San Francisco State University, as well as in numerous universities abroad, and yet as always it's better to let a writer's words do the work.
Here's one of my favorite Gilbert poems:


We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into this earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.


Off to unlearn the constellations.

Even January has its sun


Writing often saves the same purpose as photography. Recording in itself is a vital act. And knowing that, in the depths of winter, there are sunny afternoons out there to be found.

Monday, January 17, 2011

one hundred word story #10

The fog is oppressive. Jill and Jack decide to hike up above it. As they climb, they feel the yellowness of sunlight touching first their special hats, then their shoulders, then their lower backs. Spring is close. By the time they make it to the ridge, everything they know about the world has changed. They see lives moving to and fro from above, dismiss the fog as it snarls beneath. And when the wind threatens to knock them loose, they hold tight to each other and their crowns. No one tumbles. Instead, the sky gives in and offers the sun.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

a few words on faith

Tonight I was reminded that some people pray.

I ate dinner at the campus coffee house, where many of the tables are set high with clear partitions, so patrons have the option of tuning out their surroundings or communicating directly with those sitting opposite. I have developed the obnoxious habit of always plugging into my iPod. Today, however, it had run out of battery, and I found myself eavesdropping on the girls across from me.

It wasn't intentional. They did not speak loudly, but rather they enunciated very carefully. Their words sounded they were reciting lines from a nineteenth century novel. They both looked extremely troubled, their faces young and afraid. At first I thought maybe one was consoling the other on a particularly traumatic event, perhaps the loss of a family member or friend, or maybe the crisis was embedded more deeply within; a crisis of faith or loss of innocence. I tried very hard not to stare, and kept my eyes on the book I had in front of me. But I couldn't help but listen.

One of these girls was praying on behalf of her friend. Both of them closed their eyes, and one of them kept her eyes lowered. At this point I swore she was reading from some religious text, and when I peeked below the table I was surprised to see nothing there. She either knew the words by heart, or was improvising them on the fly. Words I hadn't heard or seen in a long time. and we will pray in the Lord's name, to give (and here she said her friend's name in such a quiet whisper I couldn't make it out) the strength within herself to shoulder her was like hearing a foreign language. As she spoke, I saw tears form behind her friend's closed eyelids. Something was going on back there. I felt like a voyeur. How is it that these two young girls can do this for each other?

It was hard to hear them over the loud pop of the coffeehouse radio, not to mention the clamor of hungry students, the ringing of cash registers and the random shouts of passing friends. Watching them discuss God in the crowded cafeteria reminded me of overhearing philosophical conversations in the locker room; when it does happen, it seems out of place.

When she was done, her friend looked visibly shaken. She put one hand to her chest and seemed to take it all in, whatever that it might have been. They spoke quietly for a few more moments, and then they switched roles, and the second girl said a prayer for the first. I was transfixed. It was like watching a performance with method actors.

I finally tore myself away and walked to class, thinking of Emily Dickinson and how she refused to be baptized, and how that decision was so monumental in her community's eyes, although it seems so comparatively trivial today. I tried very hard to think of the last time I asked someone, anyone, to pray for me, or the last time someone, anyone, asked me to pray for them. Nothing came to mind.

I wonder, does the lack of intention indicate some sort of skewed moral compass? Do I rely too heavily on evidence-based reality, or worse, fictional, invented stories, to give me strength?

I couldn't bring myself to put my headphones back on when I left the building, and was amazed at how lovely and engaged the world was without the soundtrack.

Bathroom Stall Series, #9

To Do Today:
*write about roses
*watch Yo Gabba Gabba

Found on the bathroom stall wall.
These are directives a girl can really use.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

one hundred word story #9

There's this feeling you get when discrete parts of your body fail to communicate with your mind. Or maybe that's not it. Maybe discrete parts of your body communicate with your mind, but your body speaks only Portuguese and your mind, Spanish. Maybe it is that your mind never gets around to checking its messages. Sometimes your body finds other ways to talk back. Maybe your hand casually slaps your face. Maybe your feet seek out and find every last crack in the sidewalk. It’s a passive aggressive exercise, but then you think, maybe that’s what keeps you alive. Portuguese.

Monday, January 10, 2011

one hundred word story #8

Peter’s people were counting on him to deliver them to safety. From his distant perch he could see them straining through the bars of their invisible jail. The threats were dangerous and persistent: it was not without sacrifice that he crossed behind enemy lines, hurtled through unsafe territory, dodging vicious attacks. Even as Peter was savoring the delicious taste of victory, of liberation just beyond his reach, his compatriots were getting tagged mercilessly. Yet he emerged victorious, not only with his flag, but with his teammates, holding hands on the walk back across the grass, all before recess was over.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

two hundred word story (!)

You make me love you love you baby. Jamiroquai is lost in the sea of giddy seniors. It is Junior’s first deejay gig, and he hasn’t quite mastered the skill of pairing music to the audience. Mee-Maw got him the job—her new boyfriend is the Events Manager at Rosemont Retirement Center. He doesn’t even get a real booth. They’ve loaned him the podium from the chapel’s pulpit, decorated in pink Valentine’s Day doilies. Mee-Maw is demonstrating the Charleston to a happy lady in a walker.

“Sonny, you got any Sinatra?” A little woman in a wheelchair is peeking up at him. She appears to only have one nostril, but is pretty anyway.

“Sure, somewhere,” he lies, scrolling through his iPod. He figures he’ll find a slow Earth Wind and Fire song and try to pass it off; she won’t hear the difference. He changes the song. She remains, staring expectantly up.

“I’m old, not deaf,” she says.

“No ma’am.”

“Gimme that thing.” She reaches for the iPod. Junior panics, looks for Mee-Maw. The woman presses a button. Rosemont transforms.

Who…let the dogs out!

The woman rolls away. The dance floor bustles. Junior blinks. Mee-Maw approaches.

“Senioritis,” she says knowingly.

one hundred word story #7

You’re not officially a grad student until you use the word operationalize, a teacher told me once. You’ve got to operationalize the vibrato of staccato piano, and then juxtapose its imperialistic theory of absolute insanity, and you must do it in twenty pages. Just when you think you’re done, you must stand before a jury of people whose job it is to judge you. Because masochism is a requirement for this degree, along with an innate desire to reinvent the aesthetic we will perpetually quiz you on. Good luck, pawn, he said. And then he patted me on the back.

Friday, January 7, 2011

one hundred word story #6

"You give me homework," he said, "and I give you homework. And that's how we do school." She dreamed big and assigned him the moon. "Too far, silly," he said. Fine, then: she assigned him the coral reef. "Too deep." All right, she said. Catch a Bengal tiger. “Too dangerous. Here, let me show you.” He gave her a notebook and a pencil and a seat under a willow tree. “Write what you want to learn,” he said. She mapped the night sky with imaginary constellations. “Write something real,” he growled. “Something real,” she wrote. He disappeared. She continued writing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

one hundred word story #5

Sam fed his reptiles on a rotating schedule. Every week, he bought bags of frozen mice from Savannah, the cute manager at the pet store. Norman, the ball python, ate on Fridays, and Hans, the tegu lizard, ate on Tuesdays, unless he was hibernating. Sam wanted desperately to ask Savannah out. Instead, he brought Norman and Hans into the shop. Savannah was feeding the gerbils and didn’t see them come in. It was Friday. Norman leaped. Savannah dodged. The gerbil disappeared. Sam never did get the courage. Norman, however, was happy. That winter, Sam hibernated; hoping to shed his skin.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

one hundred word story #4

The last time Esther saw Frank was high school graduation. He had a ponytail and wore overzealous earrings. She was neither attractive nor ugly. One had a crush on the other and was quietly rejected. Twelve years later, she runs into him at the Post Office. He's wearing combat boots, camouflage from ankle to chin. She’s in a smart business suit. He doesn’t recognize her, cuts her place in line. “Frank?” She leans on her hip; a trick. He looks. Looks again. “Wow,” he says. “Hello, …?” “Hello indeed,” she murmurs, soaks that gaze in. Frank leaves without his package.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

one hundred word story #3

Once upon a time there lived a critter named Pegasus who lived in Angelica's attic. Pegasus was actually a roof rat who tended to sneak through the tiles of Angelica's roof late at night and practice flying through the crawlspace between floors. Pegasus thought he had wings. Angelica went months believing she had a poltergeist in the house. She banged doors and lit candles, held a séance and tried to rid the house of spirits. Her energies only succeeded in further encouraging Pegasus, who flew through an open window and off the roof. Angelica was right: Poltergeists don’t like Ouija.

one hundred word story #2

Girl and Boy are driving home from somewhere sunny. The year is still new, their eyes tired. Girl at the wheel. The highway ascends steeply, trucks forging through the mountains like charging steer. The sun evaporates behind the horizon. And then the car is swirling through a tumbling mist of snow. Not flakes, not clumps, but tiny little ice crystals zoom in and around the hood, create little eddies on the road. The temperature gauge reads 31 degrees. Boy digs around under his seat, unearths a scarf and wraps it lovingly around her neck. The temperature in the car rises.