october 27, 2011

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Whooooa. How is it already the 27th of October? I am bad at this blogging thing but extremely good at replying to emails, as I’ve spent the last four hours bailing water from my flooded inbox. What’s been going on? Well, I:

  • Went to Chicago and came back. Accomplished zero writing but did whip up an enormous amount of food, from recipes that may or may not have called for pounds of bacon, cups of cheese, and butter by the half stick. I regret nothing.
  • Stayed up until five a.m. transfixed by Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22, which is a great read (see preceding post), and gearing up to be my favorite non-fiction discovery since Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. It’s full of evil regimes, intrepid journalists, salacious literary scenes, raging commies and gay camp. Seriously.
  • Saw my first hockey game with Em and Susan and Bobby. Was happy that S. could make it out, but emotional distances are harder to bridge, even if one hugs hard and hopes that performing the iron armband maneuver is adequate to convey genuine affection.
  • Watched Manchester United lose by an astounding 6-1 margin to Manchester City, a defeat in which the wondrous David Silva figured prominently. Then had to talk shit about how Silva had aged and turned haggard and grown bags under his eyes in order to placate B., who was getting grumpy about the gusty sighs I was emitting over the beauty of Silva’s passing.
  • Attended another show at Second City. TOO MANY CHING-CHONG JOKES.

This pretty much tore my heart out and ate it raw.


hitch-22, by christopher hitchens

October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

This man’s life. I would like to make it into a novel. No, a biopic. No, a hysterical bullet-strewn manga, serialized over an extended period of time to ramp up anticipation for the next breathless installment. What will the Hitch be doing next? Exposing corrupt electioneering practices in India? Vivisecting Kim-Jong-il during an interview on worldwide TV? Caning Noam Chomsky over his knee? « Read the rest of this entry »

schmaltz and tea

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Honestly, I was much better at this when I was sixteen years old. (Comic from here.)


Other miscellaneous observations:

  • Living back home means getting hit on by high schoolers who think you’re their age. Seriously not cool.
  • Colima Burgers: zucchini fries? Must check out.
  • I spoke to my next-door neighborhood for the first time in years and years and years. It was one of those chance encounters at the mailbox where she’s approaching and you’re approaching and you both look at the sidewalk and pretend not to have seen each other and then suddenly whump, there she is, and there you are, reaching for the mailbox for the same time. And then cries of surprise and delight are exchanged, hugs are dispensed, and the obligatory questions about boyfriends and jobs and future plans are ventured. Maybe an awkward joke is hazarded, and then she’s telling you to visit her fiancee’s Pakistani restaurant in Chino Hills (“What’s good there?” “Oh, everything“), and all the while her big black dog is going back and forth across the road, galloping the wobbles of fat on his haunches and underbelly. Suburbia is so strange. Enclosed, like its own temperate zone. I used to lie on my stomach in this woman’s living room, my chin in a big bowl of junk food, watching Grease reruns with her daughter. Then I’d spray down her backyard because it had all these ants loving on the bowls of dog chow the family set out on a place-mat. She’s gotten shorter, of course. Her make-up is much more evident about her eyes. She says her dog’s been depressed since his friend, the other dog, died.

mortality milestones

October 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

1. You guys! I made the first ever donations in my life as a working class adult!

2. Interview with Northwestern law lady is set for November 7th. Puking with nervousness already. As I was saying to a friend, how am I supposed to talk about my passion for PI and my outrage at the appalling income inequality in this country to a partner at the sixth largest corporate law firm in the country? Sheeeee-yit.

3. Now that all us fannish folk are moving on and up, it’s very odd to think that we still have this common background. “Hey, remember when we spent our youths writing fanfic about soccer players and effeminate Korean popstars? And now we’re doctors, lawyers, epidemiologists, professors, and nationally-famous journalists with four-digit twitter followings?” I mean really. It’s delightful and also jarring.

4. Recipes: Slow roasted Turkish lamb stew was unexpectedly delicious. Am excited to try this pasta carbonara recipe and this slow-cooked bolognese sauce.

5. Notes on various books I’ve been reading: Barbara Demmick’s Nothing to Envy robbed me of an entire night’s sleep. After reading the first parts of it I laid in bed for about six hours, feeling aghast that such a regime still exists in the world today. Grim, grim, grim. This book affirms my fervent belief in capitalism and the right of man to free enterprise — tempered by the understanding, of course, that government still has the responsibility of regulating industry and minimizing the costs of capitalism (cf. Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation). Particularly horrific details: “Kim Jong-il and his father are men too,” a classmate tells one of Demmick’s protagonists, after she (the protagonist) has her looks and grades evaluated by visiting party officials, and was judged unfit to be taken away to live in compounds around the country, where the government was rumored to keep other young girls to whom Kim Jong-il presumably dispensed his favors. Teachers exhorting six, seven year old students to “be grateful for the patronage of their great leader” while the students were starving to death. People picking individual rice grains out of mud to cook and eat.

I also reread Dillard’s The Writing Life and was both encouraged and discouraged to find that all of her neuroses can quite correctly be diagnosed as identical to mine. Now I’m working through the Portable Dorothy Parker and feeling wowed. Parker writes this incredible, stinging dialogue — I imagine sparring with her in real time was like being whipped, incessantly, with a willow switch — and there’s all this other great stuff too, astute commentary, world-enlivening detail, horrible snivelling characters, devastating irony. She is, however, something that I constantly have to take a break from, because the density of the writing and the personality traits that typify her characters tire me out. Unfortunately, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is much less compelling.

6. Three-year anniversary! D’awwwwww.

The itinerary in Chicago, which I’m leaving for this Saturday: Second City showing on Saturday night, a belated birthday dinner somewhere or other, a Blackhawks game on Tuesday evening with E., and a showing of 50/50 during one of the in-between time slots.

A creature of distinguished cuteness made itself known to me yesterday night.

“I’m always pretty warm because I’m a sock” — Mr. Sock, 11:36PM, 10/17/11

To the best person I know.

7. Additional reading: How Friends Ruin Memory: the Social Conformity Effect (Wired). A Dirty Business: New York City’s top prosecutor takes on Wall Street crime (the New Yorker on the Galleon Case–thrilling reading). Massachusetts Tries to Reign in its Health Care Costs (New York Times).

most days i feel like this

October 18, 2011 § Leave a comment


after a death

October 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.

— Tomas Transtromer

the writing life, by annie dillard

October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is a reread from a few years ago. (June 11 2008 – wow! More than three years!) You know, back in undergrad, I didn’t do prose writing on any kind of regular basis. This, despite the fact that I a) wrote for the university paper, b) interned for a Bay Area weekly, c) was in and out of fiction workshops for several years, d) co-taught a writing class in the English department, e) was briefly an editor with a campus literary review, f) wrote a bi-monthly newsletter for my job, and g) developed close relationships with crazy writer people (and imagine me saying this in the most affectionate way possible). These people were hardcore. They had penned fantasy trilogies as adolescents. Every November they stockpiled white bread and nutella, shoved a chair under the doorknob, and ran through a few relaxing yoga poses, such as standing on their heads, to keep their bodies limber and their minds prepared. Then they got right down to it. By this I mean they put ass to chair and banged away at their keyboards, every day for the next thirty days.

Anyway, that’s all to say that my friends were amazing, strong-willed, and driven. They were Possessed by their Art. I wasn’t. I was just pretending to be so that I could hang out with them.

Three years later, I’m trying to do it every day, and for the most part succeeding. While working full-time can be draining, it also allows me to clear away the brainspace for what’s important. I’ve been doing this for coming on three and a half months now, and while there’s still not a respectable story in all the rubbish that’s accumulated in the dragnet, and certainly nothing to rival the efforts of some of my former peers, I have gotten a little bit better. So I decided to read this book again, thinking it might have something new to offer me. You know, like scintillating insights, or horribly embittered jokes.

When I read Dillard’s The Writing Life the first time around, I found it okay. It didn’t really “speak” to me. Oh, there was much to like. It was the same things that distinguished Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim Creek from shelves of other books. That style that seems both economical and wildly luxurious. Her wisdom and piercing insight. Those sentences.

“They seemed too well to be altogether good for them.”

But now that I’ve made this a habit, I understand everything. Everything. I understand the story at the end about the airpilot executing rolls and curls and pirouettes and mid-air twirls. I understand the comparisons to surgery, painting, alligator wrestling, confronting a lion with a chair for a buckler, rowing a boat against the tide. I understand, despite all those flashy images, her assertion about the reality of writing: it is unromantic, insufferably lonely and very often miserable work. I understand her slightly manic, self-berating humor (“I had written a complex and long-winded narrative essay about a moth flying into a candle flame. No one understood it except for a Yale critic and he understood it perfectly. What was I doing with my life?”). I understand how difficult it is to work yourself up to the task, how much cajoling, self-bribing, email-checking, diversionary reading, guilt-tripping, and last-ditch dish-washing needs to happen before I take a final uneasy look at the clock and click to open that cursed text document; how, if you let a WIP lapse mid-tell for more than a few days, it grows and grows and becomes this gross, struggling, unmanagably large thing. I constantly point at things on the page in stunned recognition–this! this is me!

Possibly this conveys something alarming to you about my current mental state? Well, yes. Don’t do it if you can help it. GO! LIVE! STOP BLOGGING*! SAVE A CHILD FROM A BURNING BUILDING.

(*Actually, don’t. I enjoy reading your blogs very much. Please don’t stop.)

Dillard on facing down the blank page (The Nothing, the abyss, the ravening pit of despair and futility, etc, etc):

“Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What! No further? Its back pair of nubby feet claps the grass stem; its front three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a footing. What! No further? What? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles its green inch, and places its hind legs just behind its front legs. Its body makes a loop, a bight. All it has to do now is slide its front legs up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. It throws up its head and front legs, flings its upper body out into the void, and panics again. What! No further? End of world? And so forth, until it actually reaches the grasshead’s tip. By then its wee weight may be bending the grass toward some other grass plant. Its davening, apocalyptic prayers sway the grasshead and bump it into something. I have see it many times. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim. And now—What! No further? End of world? Ah, here’s ground. What! No further? Yike!”

On the fear that your story/book/poem/screenplay/nonfictional research project on the phenomenology of hermeneutics in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy is stupid and trivial and what are you doing you should be a fire woman or a special ed teacher or a pro-bono lawyer (can I do this last thing while still writing a book? What do you mean, I will need to toil away all the waking hours of my next ten years of living to pay off $200K of debt?):

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

The wonder and suspension!

“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

The contemplative vs. the active life:

“The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses–the imagination’s vision, and the imagination’s hearing–and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks you and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from the loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its up and downs and louds and softs.”

And most of all:

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hopes for literary forms? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. If we are reading for these things, why would anyone read books with advertising slogans and brand names in them? Why would anyone write such books? We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”

I know I have a few writer people from uni friended on this account. Keep at it, you guys. And read this book if you need encouragement.

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