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.

Found Poem

Ask me how old this box is next time we speak

In a twist of serendipitous fortune, I found this post-it lying face-up on the street while moving out of San Francisco yesterday. I'd like to say that it came from one of my boxes--some lost note or thought that lay forgotten for three years, until it came time to move again. But I think it is more likely that the handwriting belongs to some other person, living a parallel life on this, the beautiful and hilly street that has been my base while I worked my first real job, started grad school, fell in love, made friends, saw presidents and politics change in America. Someone else who likely has traveled far and expects to travel again. Someone who hopes, just as I do, that they do speak again, and when they do, they'll remember the day they packed the box.

I found this poem

I had a legitimate moment of literary amnesia just now, when cherrypicking old work for potential submissions. I found these words and I know they held special meaning at the time, but the idea of titling something like this a "Bloodletting for Scarlet O'Hara" -- the Julia who wrote this poem is someone I no longer resemble.

Blood Letting for Scarlet O’Hara

You laughed when I said,
It’s been far too long since I’ve had a good scab.
It was true;
My body was tired of stories
Knee high fence posts
And narrow doorways.
We were at Whiskeytown lake
And it felt appropriate to be somewhere
Named after alcohol
Because my legs got drunk around you
Skidding down the boat ramp
It was 104 degrees
And the dirt was scarlet

O’Hara would’ve never done that
In a black bikini
Run down moss while you were still in the car
By the time you had your trunks on
My knees were the color of the dirt
Even lines of oxygen trailing into whiskey

Town lake and when you put me on your shoulders
I’d never been happier
To acquire a scab


I wonder at what point creative work simply overrides memory.


A brief follow-up to the Monday night Quiet Lightning event: Evan Karp, the San Francisco Literary Culture Examiner, wrote up a great summary of the reading at Gestalt.

And while I'm at it, I'd like a pony

I can't believe it. I've begun craving domesticity. And not in the ways I would expect. I don't want children. I don't anticipate marriage. I don't want to spend the day cooking. I just -- well, I find myself coveting houses. Apartments with beautiful windows. Big, sprawling gardens. Even those perky little studios atop corner stores.

I can't pinpoint exactly when or how it started, but at some point I realized that I spent as much time staring at the buildings I was passing as I was the road ahead. Every street in San Francisco has at least one interesting facade, whether it is a three-story Victorian with purple trim or a canary yellow apartment complex with neatly trimmed flower boxes. I'd like to attribute this newfound admiration to Kurt Andersen's influence--the host of PRI's Studio 360 focuses a lot on design and architecture, and often curates these amazing radio pieces that somehow capture the sound of buildings.

A more likely explanation is my own (rented) apartment's current mess; the entire building has been covered in green scaffolding since January 1, and the contractors finally started stripping the dry rot off the exterior this week. At any given time of day, there are about 30 Chinese construction workers hammering, stripping wood, and clamoring around (and sometimes in) our apartment. I know this will all benefit me and my housemates in the long run, but that's not my first thought when they begin hammering about bed-level at nine a.m. on a Saturday.

Between that, and the dawning realization that the chances of me ever having enough money to ever own any kind of property in San Francisco are close to nil, this mounting desire for my own place is almost dizzying. It's the weirdest, strongest material want that I've ever had. I don't usually want things. I'd rather get books from the library or movies from a rental store than buy either. I hate shopping. I don't like handbags and almost all of my jewelry I've received as gifts. When it comes to gifts, I'd much rather have an experience; that is, a concert, performance, trip, nice dinner, bike ride, thoughtful card.

And now, seemingly out of nowhere, I want a house. Although I'd settle for a tiny little studio, if it was all my own and I was my own landlady.

Maybe this is what happens when your friends start marrying off, when people your age are managing mortgages and your cousins start having kids. Maybe there's some symbol for adulthood that we are constantly seeking to measure; a yardstick for our own success that is easy to categorize. I recently saw a friend I hadn't seen in four years; in the time that I had used to work abroad, get a job, apply to and get into grad school, he had traveled the world over performing as a musician, met his fiancee, and discovered new career paths. Now he is contemplating how to best marry said fiancee, who is from another country, and he said that many of his friends are buying houses and settling down.

After we had lunch, I came home just as the construction workers were removing my bedroom window. Dust settled on my bedroom floor and I thought longingly of my own place, that hypothetical little corner somewhere in the world where all my passions and desires and ambitions would be, at long last, contained.

On Indulgence

Today I went to my first public bath house. Or, perhaps it's better to say I went to my first public hot tub. When I think of public bath houses, I'm inclined to remember Mr. Kanna's cryptic lectures on Japanese history back in seventh grade, or the archeological remains of public baths in the tiny town of Ronda in southern Spain. So I guess I was expecting a slightly medieval experience.

We took the 49 bus all the way down Van Ness, which is one of those epic public transit journeys when you pass from neighborhood to neighborhood as if you were in a plane jumping continents. First the taquerias, then the huge Goodwill thrift mart, then the Civic Center and the Opera House and the hotels and, way off in the distance, that surprising blue-green of the bay. Ryan and I have both been harboring a cold--me for the better part of two weeks, him just for the last few days. We almost walked by the Hot Tubs, its neon sign obscured by an elm tree in front of the bus stop.

Inside it felt like we were walking into a classy by-the-hour hotel. We got a pretty good deal, considering that we'd printed a one-time coupon off their website, and the attendant walked us down the hall past a series of open doors.

"Do you ever go in the baths when nobody's here?" I asked.

"I try to at least twice a week," she said, her ponytail swinging.

She lead us to a small room at the end of the hall. I blinked. It was so clean and sharp. A jacuzzi in the corner, a small boxy sauna, a shower, a radio, even a massage table. All ours for an hour and a half--for thirty bucks.

What followed was one of those stunningly indulgent experiences, much like German chocolate cake or a really swanky restaurant. My whole body seemed suspended in time, and I kept stopping myself to wonder, "Is it okay to do this and not be actively accomplishing anything?" No homework, no exercise, no chores, no work. No--could it be?--worrying. Just floating. Breathing.

There was certainly nothing medieval about it. On the contrary, it was a little private world just outside one of the busiest streets in San Francisco. A reminder that health and health care don't have to be two different things, and there are lots of ways to treat both.

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

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.

Rosh Hashana

I got lost on the K MUNI tonight. I was on my way to meet Shauna for a Rosh Hashana service at the San Francisco County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park, and the sun was just a wink on the horizon. A number of synapses were misfiring in my brain like fireworks. I was listening to Joan the Policewoman sing about failed relationships and thinking about a Brooklyn boy for whom I've developed an uncanny affection. Then a telemarketer called just as I was arriving at West Portal station, and for the irony of it was I actually wanted to answer her questions, but there was no reception in the tunnel. And then suddenly I was at Forest Hill station, by the Laguna Hospital, and it was dark, and I was late, and I wondered again why I had left the house.

I was thirty minutes late for the service, which we had found on Craigslist, and were drawn primarily because we didn't have to register for it ahead of time (as is the case for most High Holy Day services), and was advertised as "experimental and friendly." Those two adjectives can be quite the wild cards in this city. And yet it was a relief to know that the New Year was entirely capable of starting without me. Religion, particularly Judaism, has always left an almost backward impression on me--that is, the less I technically practice, or the less orthodox my prayer, the more I am struck by the sheer grandiosity of the universe.

And there's nowhere more unorthodox than a half-full room at the San Francisco County Fair Building in late September, sliding glass door open just enough to muffle the sounds of cars whipping by on Lincoln Avenue. The man on my right had a full beard, fuller than Moses', and he repeated every gesture the rabbi made, gesture for gesture. As with many Reform and/or post-Reform services, most of the songs were a series of voices competing for rhythm and pitch. And then something really spectacular happened: we sang the Sh'ma.

The Sh'ma is the most important prayer in Judaism because it carries its most basic truth: that there is one god. The prayer must be sung while standing, and most Jews bend their heads and bow at regular intervals. It is easy to remember, even for us non-Hebrew-speakers who grew up reading the transliterations, because it is only about four or five words. Now, I consider myself an agnostic at best, and even then, I'm not the best agnostic. The very fact that I don't believe 100% in one god cancels out my identification as a Jew in many circles, but that's another story. What happened tonight had less to do with my belief (or lack thereof) in any kind of god, and more to do with the sheer will to believe that filled that crappy little room.

What was different was the way the congregation sang the prayer. Instead of singing it as a whole phrase, or singing each word quietly in a full breath, we all sang each word fully, loudly, in a bizarre kind of harmony that wasn't melodic so much as absolutely willed.







Each note was so full, it was if an entire season was blossoming within it.

The curtains whipped at the open slider doors, and the man next to me bobbed his head on his full belly. And I was glad to be there, glad to have gotten lost on the K line, glad to be an experimental and friendly Jew.