Thursday, April 28, 2011

A voice from Jerusalem

A few weeks ago, I met Tomer, a 28-year-old Israeli parliamentary journalist living in Jerusalem, at a OneVoice event at Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis. Tomer was presenting alongside Bashar, a businessman who lives in the Palestinian city Hebron. I was really taken by their parallel pursuits for peace, which in part have been fueled by a nonprofit peace organization called OneVoice. Tomer and Bashar were in the United States as cultural ambassadors, in part to spread a message of peace and advocacy, and also, I think, to give us a real, human understanding of what it means to live in Israel and Palestine in 2011.

Tomer has been an active member of OneVoice since being recruited as a freshmen in college. I introduced myself to him and Bashar after the presentation, and within seconds we discovered that we had both studied abroad in Spain. Tomer was kind enough to answer some questions I had about his experience with OneVoice, and agreed to let me post these answers on my blog. Why? Well, there was something about hearing him and Bashar talk that ignited something in me I had long buried: a desire to understand just what happens in places like Jerusalem and Ramallah, and a feeling that maybe, someday, things could be different.

What is your personal approach toward organizing youth in Israel in a movement for peace? What campaigns (OneVoice or otherwise) have you seen that didn't really seem to have an impact in Israel, and what campaigns do you think really work?

TA: Most of my friends are indifferent. They became used to living in ongoing conflict. The only Campaign that works, I believe, is a positive one that shows the benefits of peace. Other methods that try to frighten people with worrisome data (e.g that in 20 years we will be the minority, and Israel will become totally isolated) don't work.

Tomer and Bashar at a OneVoice event at San Francisco State University
Photo Credit: OneVoice

What, if any, role should Americans or other non-Israelis/non-Palestinians play in promoting peace in the Middle East? What is the best way for us to educate ourselves?

TA: Creating "Pro-peace" initiatives are very helpful. We are inspired when we see people outside the region sympathize with us, not by taking sides, but by calling to our leaders to negotiate. Now we mainly see events full of hatred that urge others to boycott Israel among other things. That only fuels our extremists.

What kind of responses have you gotten in your travels to promote OneVoice? Were there any discussions or reactions that surprised you?

TA: We met mainly confused people that wanted to learn more. That was good because Bashar and I could approach them to show several points of view. We also met other peace activists - we strengthen each other. We conversed with many other activists that were surprised to see that we could get along.

What would your ideal Israel look like?

TA: We should have a Middle East Union. Ideally, Israel and its neighbors could bond and build economic, touristic and cultural bridges. Israel itself can gain a lot from peace. Our children would not have to spend 3 years in the army, and we could use the security budget to improve our education, infrastructure and so forth. Besides that, I believe that the conflict damages us and dulls our morals. Israel today, I believe, lives half of its potential.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Indoors, I love to write fiction and watch "How I Met Your Mother" with my friends. Outside I enjoy hiking, and riding my bicycles. I live just across the street from the Knesset and I walk to my work place. That is a dream come true.

Many thanks to Tomer for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope to interview a OneVoice ambassador from Palestine in the coming weeks. Who knows, maybe someday these ambassadors can lead a unified action toward peace in the Middle East.

Next year in Jerusalem - or Ramallah - or, even better, both.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Villager

Cool thing about the internet #1,783,067: stumbling across a music video you really like and then realizing that you once dated one of the musicians. Yes. Either the world is that small, or someone's getting older.

My new favorite song: Rich Doors, by New Villager. Apparently, not only are they great songwriters and performers, but they also direct and produce really brilliant, colorful music videos (see their song "Light House", which reminds me of the BBC production of Alice in Wonderland, the version with Ringo Starr).

Small, beautiful little world we've got.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Free association

Things on my mind:

Flannery O'Connor
San Jose Sharks
health insurance
Scott Heinig
weddings, royal and local
credit card bills
Marilyn Monrobot
the places I'll go with all my miles
T.S. Eliot
the best sandwich in the world
weight lifting
Merril Garbus and the tUneYaRdS
the border collie I will get one day, who I've already named Pingu

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bathroom Stall Series #10: J Pride

I spotted this chalk drawing inside one of the bathrooms at SF State last year, and it is what inspired me to begin photographing potty drawings. Call me crude, but this shit is entertaining, so to speak.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On animals and fire

Rarely can you see the moment the sun breaks through. This morning we were out on my boyfriend's family ranch south San Jose for their annual cattle branding. Ryan's father and uncle lease raise 40 head of cattle. 40 head of cattle - that's a phrase I didn't know or hear until I met him. And those are just words. My visual vocabulary has since expanded to include immunization, branding (not particular to just marketing and social networking!), and, yes, castration. It's all healthy and it's all important. It just takes a year or two to get used to it.

Though I grew up in a relatively rural place, I'd never spent any personal time with cows, bulls or horses. My fear of horses stems from a childhood memory: my first day of horseback riding camp, 8 years old, and I was thrown from an Arabian that felt like it was six stories tall. Even before the fall, I was as spooked as those beautiful giants. I liked reading about them well enough, and there will always be that part of me that wished I had that extra sense that so many ranchers and farmers do - that special understanding of how to communicate with work animals. How many times I wished I could simply slip them a note through the fence, instead of perfecting that click-click through the teeth, or watching them flash their tails or ripple their manes. Some people know animals like they know the wind. I know border collies. I don't know horses or cows.

How do you describe that feeling, then, of walking into the bullpen? The soft crunch of old hay underfoot, the uneasy hustle of calves as they shimmy from one side of the fence to the other, anticipating, as they rightly should, some important and unwanted rite of passage. There is a change in temperature when you walk into the middle, and I'm not referring to the heat of the branding fire. You stand there and you are surrounded: by men and women on horseback, by calves and their brothers and sisters, some of them tied by the hooves and neck, others cornered and braying. It's like the heartbeat of all of those animals thump together, right there in the center. There are veterinarians and nurses and people who just know animals, deeply know them the way I know the Sacramento River or Sands Beach. This is another kind of knowledge, one you can't download or learn overnight.

And that's what makes it elegant: this is an earned trade, one that requires not only passion, but an ingrained respect for the land and the things that live on it. I respect it all too, enough to take pictures from across the fence. How else would I have been able to capture the sun breaking through the clouds?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jesus may not be my magic

photo credit: Largo at the Coronet

I saw Sarah Silverman perform last weekend at the UC Davis Mondavi Center. I admire her because she is a woman writer, a comic, a musician, a force of nature, and yet I realized something Sunday night: I don't really get her. It's not that I don't think she's funny, or that she's not talented. The woman sings songs about death and rape and incest and jokes about adopting terminally ill children with mental disabilities. She's a complete individual.

She spent the first half of the evening directing her attention to the front row, responding to obnoxious questions and bringing some fool's cell phone on stage to read his text messages aloud. She has the capacity to be funny, and when she tells jokes, they leave a twisted, ironic aftertaste, albeit a thoughtful, intentional one.

What I realized, though, was not so much that I find her offensive, but rather that her aesthetic doesn't work for me. I was first introduced to stand-up comedy in college, when my first boyfriend introduced me to Bill Hicks and Mitch Hedberg. My freshman roommate and I used to fall asleep every night to Eddie Izzard's Dress to Kill. My brother would give me mix tapes of Jim Gaffigan or Katt Williams. I never really respected or understood how much chutzpah it takes to get in front of a crowd and tell short, succinct little stories that provoke a visceral reaction. But I only recently realized that good comics are good writers, and to be good at either is a lot of invisible hard work.

Comedy can be emotional, political or satirical--what comic wasn't between the years of 2000-2008, when greats like Janeane Garafalo and Marc Maron tuned their funny to Air America in response to Bush cultural crisis. And more recently, I was introduced to a lot of comics through Jesse Thorn's interviews on The Sound of Young America. Maron himself hosts a fabulous podcast called What the Fuck, in which he simultaneously critiques and cross-examines prominent comics and public figures. It was his interview with Silverman that made me most excited to hear her speak; there was some shred of me that hoped she'd get onstage and not do stand-up, but that she'd tell stories about what it's like to be a woman writer and comic, about how she developed her funny and why she thinks it happened. But, as fans of hers rightfully guess, she had no intention of doing any such thing. She walked into a beautiful, 3000-seat auditorium and did her bit. That's what comedians are typically paid to do.

What's great about comedy in 2011 is that there are as many "bits" as there are audiences. Which is just another way of saying that although I wasn't crazy about Silverman's deadpan breakdown of rape and incest, other people are, and at the root of her jokes she is chiseling down American taboos, one by one. And you kind of have to admire that.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jenny and the Sea

This vignette is part of a longer piece I'm writing about the year I spent working in southern Spain. It is dedicated to my friend Jenny, an American teacher who fell in love (and later married) her language partner Juan. She now lives and teaches in Spain. I read this at the Mina Dresden Gallery this week as part of Quiet Lightning.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Skateboard nostalgia

Sunset Sliders!

Meet the Sunset Sliders: the self-described "funkiest skate crew this side of the solar system." Last weekend I was introduced to the world of downhill skateboarding, a sport I'd heard of only in passing at our friends Dave and Liz's house in the Sunset District of San Francisco. Dave is the amazing designer and creator of Somos Skates. Plus he knows a lot about reptiles and has a wicked record collection. He and his lovely lady Liz, a talented dancer and teacher, often let Ryan and me crash when we visit San Francisco. Last weekend, it finally dawned on me why he calls his skate crew the Sunset Sliders: there really isn't a more graceful way to take a 15% grade than to slide, in a way that appears effortless but is far too loud to be so.

I grew up around skateboarders. My brother and all of his friends spent hours every afternoon after school at the end of the block, the sounds of their boards scraping the street until dusk. When I was too young to stay home alone, Josh would "babysit" by sitting us both down to watch skateboarding videos. There was a nuanced drama to it all: the way the young guys (and sometimes girls) would spin the boards between their feet, through the air, seemingly unaware of the rawness of the asphalt underneath. There were always boys missing teeth. There was always an outtakes reel. But more than anything, there was an innate understanding of how gravity works, and how thrilling it was whenever anyone defied it. Though the sport itself scared me, when Josh and his friends graduated and went off to college, the afternoons felt hollowed somehow, deprived of the sounds of wheels bouncing off concrete. All the old surfaces that they used to climb - the curbs, the driveways, the planks and the makeshift jumps - seemed forlorn in their lack of use. Creative use anyway.

I had long forgotten my nostalgia for skateboards by the time Ryan and I were atop a steep park in the Sunset last weekend. Dave had organized about 30 different competitors, many of them teenagers, some of them girls, all of them in helmets and knee pads. We helped the best we could by brushing the sidewalks of twigs and dirt, sweeping the "tears" from the morning sprinklers (Dave's words) back to the grass. Dave and his crew started the day with a complementary tour of the park by shovel, picking up stray dog litter and gaining good park karma in return. And then, as soon as the course was ready and the requisite safety teams were set up at the top and bottom of the hill, the races began.

What a thrill, to perch above the course and watch the skaters as they shimmied their way around narrow curves and dodged small puddles. Here was a love not just for the sport, but for those fleeting moments when the force of the wind billowed their hair out, when the ground gleamed so ferociously back up at them with a menace that only the right kind of threat can offer. It is both a threat and an allure, one that doesn't beckon me the way that it does Dave, or my brother, but one that I can certainly hear and understand. It's the acknowledgment that there are things out in the world that we can harness and exercise, if only we have the desire and the skill.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Struck by lightning

artwork by Michael Capozzola

I'm reading tonight as part of Quiet Lightning, a literary reading series started by Evan Karp and Rajshree Chauhan in January 2010. This will be my fifth reading with them in the past year. See the April 2010 reading here , May 2010 here, September 2010 here, and special LitQuake edition (October 2010) here. Quiet Lightning publishes a magazine, sPARKLE n' bLINK, and has forged a real sense of literary community in the Bay Area. I know that it has pushed me to explore short works, and also challenged me to see what happens when I read aloud. I can't help it; I always get nervous. More than anything I am inspired by how generative the act of reading becomes. How by knowing there's a monthly deadline, and that somewhere out there people will show up to hear a few words spilled across a page, there's a reason to sit down and write.

Quiet Lightning, which has been linked to KQED's To Do List, FunCheapSF, San Francisco Magazine, SF Weekly, SFist, The Rumpus, and, the New York Times, is on its way to becoming a nonprofit organization. For more information on how to support QL, visit the website.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On patience

Maybe graduate school is a time for people to tell you a single universal truth, and maybe you only get that truth once, and maybe if you don’t listen hard enough, you miss it entirely. Maybe you spend years defining yourself as a writer, or a painter, or a scientist, or a doctor, but when it comes time to write, paint, experiment, or operate, you want it so bad that you kill it before it has a chance to breathe.

And maybe, on nights such as these, you learn that the single universal truth reveals exactly what you don’t want to hear.

I wonder, really, if in the end, it isn't a huge favor.