Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Despite all that I had heard about it, I was completely unprepared for the experience of watching Brokeback Mountain. For one thing, it is a breathtakingly beautiful movie. Even a truck with headlights on driving down the highway before dawn moved me. But what I liked best about the movie, what perturbed me -- in that strangely pleasant way that precedes a moment of understanding, of learning something new -- was how it rejected any labels, any simple answers about human sexuality. What happens between the two male protagonists is "this thing" -- not love, not lust, not any words that we fall back on when we experience a full and intense connection with another person. The two men are simply two men living their lives, and I found that immensely compelling.

Homosexuality is a very difficult concept for me to understand. It's not that I find it unnatural -- not since I learned, in my first physical anthropology class, about a species of primates who use sex in all its forms as currency -- but that I'm not sure what range of behavior or psychological characteristics the meaning of the word covers. The dictionary says that a homosexual is someone sexually attracted to a person of the same sex. But what people fall clearly into (and out of, for that matter) such a clean-cut category? What lives are lived exclusively on this or that side of the line you draw in the sand?

I had great trouble at first with the idea of homosexuality. I was religious for a while and instictively agreed with the church's decision that homosexuality was a sin. But then I met people who called themselves homosexuals, and became friends with them. I grew to care for them very deeply and forgot about that label that the world or themselves had put on their sexual lives. It simply didn't matter any more who they preferred to have sex with. My indifference to their homosexuality shocked me; how could I disregard such a fundamental part of who they were? But I have come to believe that sexuality isn't such a fundamental part of oneself after all. It is because people believe that it is fundamental that they get so worked up about it and they are unable to see the rest of what a person called "homosexual" is: a human being like any other, doing the best they can to live a good life.

Husband, however, shined a little light on another reason people get so worked up about sexual orientation. Sex, Husband said, is the stuff of life; it's because of sex that we exist, that we have life. So it's important not to be obsessed with sex, but equally important not to be dismissive.

A word about the picture at the top of this entry: I chose it because it is beautiful and creepy at the same time and gives me the feeling of good discomfort that Brokeback Mountain did. The picture is by Bev Hodson and titled "Continuum." The title reminds me of something else that I find essential in thinking about sexuality: like all things, sex is not black or white, straight or gay; it's a continuum with a very large grey area along which, whether we like to admit it or not, most of us are strung like beads on a necklace.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Grateful Friday

I learned very young, from my father, the habit of always looking unknown words up in the dictionary. In Romania I had a very large and heavy dictionary with lime-green cloth covers. I loved it and I am sorry to this day that I didn't bring it with me when we moved here. (It's an awful thing to have to decide which parts of your life to take with you when you move to a different country, and which to leave behind -- especially when you are allowed only a certain number of pounds per person. One thing that I did bring and I think now was simply absurd, was my first Barbie doll. I've refused for years to think about the implications of that choice.) I bought many dictionaries when I made some money of my own here in America: English ones, and Latin-English and Greek-English (both languages that I wanted to learn and didn't). I spent long blissful minutes in front of those giant dictionaries on pedestals they have at libraries here. I mooned over the twenty-something volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary and marvelled that such a thing should even exist.

When I worked an assistant for a teacher of English as a second language I discovered electronic dictionaries. Almost all Asian students in the class owned one. I disliked the device; it seemed too modern, too cold, too mechanical. But I loved the way that a voice pronounced a word at the push of a button. And I liked that you could carry it in your bag wherever you went, a treasure deceptively light.

A few years ago I invested in one of my own. I didn't like the way it looked, but I was sold on all the things it could do. It even had games -- word games! (I can't count how many times I played Hangman on it.) I paid for it what for me, at the time, was a small fortune: one hundred dollars. But I never regretted it. My electronic Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Mr. E.) has become one of the best extravagant purchases I've made, up there with my Wusthoff knife and the Josef Seibel clogs that are the most comfortable shoes I've ever owned. What I'm grateful today is for the courage to pay a lot of money for a thing that was worth it, for being able to give up the virtuous feeling that being stingy still gives me in order to enjoy a useful thing that has made my life easier and better.

So here is to you, Mr. E.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


I'm slightly embarrased to write about this: my book infatuation of the moment. But I have to, if for no other reason than to unburden myself, like a old sinner in the confessional. I am madly (and I mean it in the slightly pathological sense) with Paul Scott's Raj Quartet.

I have felt this before: with Jane Eyre when I was in my early teens, Jane Austen in college, Alice Munro's stories after college. I read these books and authors obsessively. My copy of Jane Eyre has chocolate smudges on the pages from the time my mom made fudge for the first time and it didn't harden properly and I ate it straight out of the pan with a spoon while reading the book for the fifth or sixth time.

And now I'm smitten with Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown, the first volume of the Raj Quartet. The passion I have for this book is almost physical, and it mortifies me a little. As usual with me, it began with the beautiful thick paper and the glossy cover of the book. And then I opened it and read the first sentence. I was in my India phase then, trying to get my hands on all books about the British occupation of India. In college I took a class on the literature (written in English) of the subcontinent and that's when the spark was lit -- with E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. And then I found, quite by accident, Paul Scott's quartet. I've read all four books last year. I'm re-reading the first volume now. And I see myself coming back to these books again and again, over the course of my entire life.

I don't understand how a work such as this could be written. It is so broad and rich -- what poor adjectives these are to describe it -- that one human mind seems too limited to have been able to conceive it. Although it is full of pathos, it never strays into sentimentality. (It strays into other problems, but even my overly critical mind cannot linger too long on them; they are compensated by so many other wonderful things). It weaves the personal with the political with an assurance and fluidity that give me goosebumps. How can such skill be honed? It seems a miracle, not the product of years of ordinary, everyday practice.

Here, I have gushed enough. My soul doesn't feel lighter, as it should after a confession. And I know why. This excessive love of books bespeaks a fallacy in my thinking: I believe that living through books, living other characters' lives, is more interesting and valuable and exciting than living one's own life. Well. I've come out of the closet. The air is a little too bright and too sharp out here. But I'll live.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

(Self) Portrait Tuesday

Today in drawing class I sat for a portrait for the first time in my life. It was one of the most daunting and disturbing experiences I've had. I had to partner up with a classmate, and we sat for each other in sessions of fifteen minutes. By the accident of proximity, I also sat for my teacher, who happened to be sitting right next to my partner.

As I sat, two pairs of eyes fixed on me, I became aware of a whole other dimension of time: it went excruciatingly slowly, but not the same as when I'm impatient or in pain. I felt as if I were being interrogated, just without words, as if someone were digging into my soul, rummaging for something valuable. The physical difficulty of sitting still for half an hour was insignificant compared to this psychological violation. Something is taken from you when you model. I'm convinced of that now. But if the person who is taking this ineffable thing away from you manages to put it onto the paper, it's a strange and great reward. I have trouble looking at this portrait of myself; it feels very much like me -- but a part of myself that I'm not used to seeing from the outside.

I'm adding here the drawing that I made of my classmate, Mary Jo. It is a kind of self-portrait, a record of what my drawing abilities are now. I will refrain from saying all the negative things I want to say about it. No disclaimers! It is what it is. I have to learn to be at peace with that.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Giant Chocolate Bunny

I know this is silly, and extravagant, and frivolous. But here it is: the largest chocolate bunny I have ever seen: five pounds of glossy gorgeous deliciousness. This Sunday was the Orthodox Easter, and I bought the bunny as an Easter gift for Husband. He has a terrible sweet tooth and complained one day about how small the chocolate Easter bunnies at the grocery store were (and hollow on the inside, to boot). So I started looking for the hugest chocolate rabbit that was for sale out there in this strange wide world. I found it at the Ultimate Candy Co. It's solid dark chocolate and gives off a heady smell. It's already missing a bit of its ear because Husband had just bit into it before I took the picture. It's now sitting, completely earless, on a shelf in the kitchen. I can't help smiling like a fool every time I look at it.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Less and More

I don't understand it: in the U.S., graduate programs in writing are thriving at the same time that the number of readers of literary fiction is plummeting. I read this in Poets & Writers magazine. I got my first issue in the mail this week. I had never read the magazine before and never thought seriously about the business of creative writing, which takes up a great portion of Poets & Writers.

The expression "the business of art" utterly baffles me. I use it but I don't know what it means. Who are the people involved in the business of art? Not the artists, surely; I hope it's not the artists, because that would mean that their art is driven into being by pecuniary reasons, and that, to me, is a troubling thought. And yet artists too have to earn a living; they need that room of their own, that good dinner that nourishes the body and the soul, and the certainty that the room and the dinner will be there no matter which way the winds of the market economy blow. Art cannot thrive in a market economy, cannot be produced or judged on the principles of supply and demand. It is so incredibly hard to produce something -- book or painting or song -- whose beauty will endure. It is even harder, I think, to recognize that kind of beauty, to see it when you come face to face with it, because to see in that way it's often necessary to step out of your habits of thinking. The market economy relies on habits of thinking and buying; it can't teach you to appreciate the ineffable.

Sometimes I glance around at the people in my drawing class and wonder that we are here, struggling so hard to teach our fingers to make marks that are not only accurate representations of the human body but that are also emotionally moving. I glanced around at the people in the writing classes I took and wondered the same thing. What drives them? They are young and old (a man in my drawing class is 85 and rides his bike to class), holding full-time jobs and retired, confident and full of doubts about what they're doing. And yet they keep doing it. That seems like a small miracle to me -- and also a necessary one. Beauty is such a rare and difficult thing to obtain that we need great numbers of people working earnestly to create it in order to squeeze out of our collective mind and soul the few precious beads that get passed on from one century to another. So there must be more writers than readers, more painters than art buyers, more musicians than listeners.

Perhaps all this is no more than an attempt to justify my decision to go on writing even though my chances of being read are statistically insignificant. At the same time, I have stumbled now more than once on the work of an obscure writer and have been thrilled and moved beyond my wildest expectations. My life is better for having read that obscure writer's work. I felt, no matter how arrogant that might sound, that that specific writer's book was written especially for me. Literally, of course, I'm wrong. But in a broader sense I think I'm right. One law of "the business of art" may be that there is one writer for every reader, one composer for every listener, and so on -- the perfect match. So maybe, in fact, there aren't more writers than there are readers; it appears so because they have not found one another yet.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday


This month's self portrait theme seems to gravitate, for me, toward documenting things that I've never done before. So here's another first: claiming a pejorative expression as my own in order to make it less threatening and hurtful. Well, I guess that's not entirely accurate: I liked "thunder thighs" immediately the first time I heard it spoken -- the "th" sound at the beginning of each word, the image of power that it evokes. The insult part of it doesn't feel very strong at all, in part because English is not my first language (I cringe when I hear swearing in Romanian, but in English very few obscenities really get to me viscerally), and in part because what the words ignite in my mind is the picture of a Kali-like goddess walking the earth, her bare feet thumping, her necklace of skulls rattling around her neck, her face fierce but nevertheless beautiful. (I know Kali is traditionally depicted as hideous.) This photo is my attempt to be unafraid of my body, of its bulk and its strength. It is frailty that is fashionable today, but I cast my vote with ropes of muscle folded inside gorgeous white nourishing fat.

Monday, April 17, 2006

No Words

I have had a quarrel with the written word. We're staying in separate rooms, sulking, trying hard not to look at one another when we pass each other in the hallway. So I'm keeping quiet for now. I've found this Pollock to look at, to pass the time and fill the absence of words. There's nothing and everything to see. This canvas is called "Number 8." I like this title. It's as quiet as I'm trying to be today.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Grateful Friday

This is a particularly difficult Friday to be grateful on. I had a bad week. There was that troublesome time of the month, when the mature, rational me gets locked up in a closet, and my emotional, irritable, snappish self takes over. There was a rejection letter I got for a story I submitted to a magazine. And there was the realization, which hit me like a bolt out of the blue, that it's April -- April! -- when to me it doesn't feel as if even February has passed. I felt so resentful about how quickly time flies, how it slips through my fingers like water, that all I could do was just to sit there and stare at my empty hands.

I wasn't able to read any of the three books I have going (War and Peace, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, and my book club novel). I'd open them and this feeling of nausea would rise in my throat. I couldn't write anything, not the simplest of sentences. I sat in front of the empty screen of my computer wringing my hands and shouting expletives at myself in my head. I lay in bed during hot afternoons and stared at the ceiling. At night I lay awake and listened to the creaking and banging in the walls of the bedroom. I had no idea what to do with myself. I felt sick, just sick with this whole ridiculous endeavor of being human.

It gets pretty bad for me when I can't even read; many times reading has got me out of desperate times. And then, last night, it occurred to me: "I should read The Hobbit." I pulled out from my bookshelf the crumbling torn copy I read for the first time many years ago, and that I bought for fifty cents at a City of Anaheim library sale. I had never heard of the book when I first saw it. Blocking the traffic at the front of the library, I opened the book and read the first sentence and hurried to pay two quarters to the librarian. This book hasn't failed me once. It's not failing me this time around. It makes me laugh when nothing else can; it restores my faith and pleasure in the simple things of life, like a good breakfast or a sunny morning; it gives me a little bit of courage to go back to the too hard adventure that is my life, not to give up on it quite yet.

I know that it's an unoriginal thing to be grateful for, but here it is: The Hobbit by Tolkien.

I'm not sure I'm on the mend yet, but there has been another good sign this morning: rain. The sound and smell of it revived me a little. There is nothing to do at times like this other than wait as quietly as you can for the darkness to pass. And it passes so slowly; times stops when you least want it to. But here I am, waiting.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday


After three years of practicing yoga, headstands still scare me. There's a completely different sense of balance to get used to when you're upside down. And there are so many ways to fall. (Not all painful, as I've found out. Sometimes you just collapse gently, fold into yourself and towards the ground. I wouldn't have believed it possible if I hadn't experienced it.) But every once in a while your bones align and your muscles know what they have to do without the brain having to yell it at them, and for a fraction of a second standing on your head feels as stable and as natural as standing on your feet. I've felt that, maybe, once. And it wasn't in the photograph above. I never did a headstand outdoors before this, and the ground and the air and Husband's face very close to mine as he was trying to take the picture all distracted me. But I didn't fall!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Spider, Spider Burning Bright

I am terrified of spiders. Once on a walk in a park I saw a tarantula just off the park path. It was standing still in a pool of light. It had a kind of beauty that gets under your skin and makes it crawl. For the past few days the spider in the photo has been showing up on the ceiling of my kitchen and living room. I caught it walking across one of the M.C. Escher prints in our living room. Then Husband carried it outside on a bit of paper towel. (We have a no-violence-against-insects policy in our house. He calls me an ant-murderess because I unremorsefully kill ants that crawl too close to my sugar and flower bins. The strange thing is, I like ants very much.) In the sunlight the little tufts of hair around the spider's eyes glowed turquoise. There it was again, that uncomfortable beauty. I don't know if you can see the thin strips of white on its legs; they look painted there by a caligrapher with a very delicate brush. So she is out there now, the beautiful spider, scuttling in the grass, looking for its dinner (ants...?) and a place to sleep tonight, guarding its own little life with the same fierceness the rest of us do. What a world.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Book Club

I dreamed of being in a book club for years. I toyed with the idea of starting one, but I know so few people, and of those few even fewer who are interested in reading one book every month, then spending an hour or two talking about it. And then two months ago the miracle happened: the community association where I live started a book club. But to my surprise, to my dismay -- I didn't imagine it possible -- I'm disappointed in it.

The first book we read was Runaway: Stories, by Alice Munro. I'm mad about Alice Munro. I love Munro's writing; I was so excited to have the chance to talk about her stories with other people that I volunteered to be discussion leader. I took notes as I read and re-read the stories. I day-dreamed about the fascinating, intriguing things I was going to find out about her writing when I talked about it with others. I hoped there would be people in the book club who didn't like Alice Munro. What great spirited conversations we could have then! I got goosebumps thinking about it. I wrote long discussion questions and e-mailed them to everyone a week in advance. I dug myself deeper and deeper into my fantasy, like a wagon into mud.

For, you see, most people in the book club were so irritated and bored with the Munro's book they couldn't finish it. (Bored? That made my heart sink. People who are bored by good writing scare me a little bit.) A woman with sharp blue eyes and a gold watch that, as she talked, kept slipping up and down her wrist said, "The people in these stories drove me crazy. They made so many stupid choices. I wanted to yell at them to go buy themselves a self-help book already and pull themselves together." Another woman jumped in, nodding vigorously, "You know what? I don't want to read unhappy stories about people who don't know what they're doing. I have enough problems in my life. When I read I want to escape." I couldn't get the discussion out of this rut of complaint and frustration. A lone voice chirped in from time to time to say that Munro's writing was, nevertheless, quite good. But still, the stories were too depressing. And the purpose of reading is not to get depressed but to have fun.

I sat there, mortified, trying very hard not to let my smile slip off my face. I had to be a moderator, after all; I had to accept that these reactions to Munro's stories were valid. And besides, a little voice, very weak and very deep inside my head, told me that hearing all this was useful. I had there all around me the typical American reader. I didn't think such a person existed. But there she was (yes, she, there are no men in the bookclub, a fact that I can't figure out an explanation for), in front of me, demanding to be entertained.

We read Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, the second month. The book didn't move me; I resented that the writer used tricks and shocking turns of plot to keep the story going. My feelings towards the book were lukewarm. I wasn't surprised when at the next meeting I found out that most people loved it. When I brought up the problem of the implausible ending, someone said, "Well, it's a book after all. It doesn't have to make sense." My face flushed. "No," I said, "a book has to make sense. It has to make sense more than real life does." A woman from across the room asked another question. And the difficult moment passed. I have to be fair, though, and say that there were good moments too. A woman who wore a beautiful green silk sweater gave me a new way to think about the ending that made a little bit more sense of it. And a few women shared life stories -- and I'm a sucker for stories, especially when they are told by older women.

And another good thing is that the book club has forced me to think hard about the reasons why I read -- to be transported into different places and different people; to be moved and shaken up and troubled, pushed to think and feel past my comfort zone. But it's never, never solely in order to be entertained. I hunt around for what Harold Bloom calls "difficult pleasure." I find that I have too many opportunities in my everyday life to be complacent, to stagnate. And I read because I want to grow and to learn and to change. I thought, very naively, very stupidly, that other readers were the same. I didn't ask myself why Danielle Steele or John Grisham sold so many millions of books, what that said about most readers. It's hard to believe, but I didn't. Talk about being complacent.

We're reading The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant next month, a historical novel set in the Renaissance about a girl who wants to become an artist but is not allowed to. I dread it a little bit; writing, bad or good, has an uncanny power over me. But I think of this as a baptism of fire. I will have found what it's like to read "light" books, how my system reacts to it. And when I have had enough, there's always the option of running away.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

This month's challenge is to catch yourself doing something silly, crazy, out of the box. I started today's project with this idea in mind, but I'm afraid I ended up with exactly the opposite effect. Seriousness is a pitfall for me.

I'm frustrated sometimes with the way I speak. I'm not articulate enough; I'm still afraid of making grammatical and pronunciation mistakes even though I've spoken English for more than ten years. More times than I can remember I fantasized, as I waited, so nervous my whole body shook, to give a presentation in a college class -- I fantasized about a world in which I could communicate telepathically.

I went back to this fantasy for today's self portrait. What if I were able to keep quiet for the rest of my life? What if I clamped my hand over my mouth in order not to let any words out? What if I never had to speak again? Unfortunately, I love words too much. They would come out in the end, slip through my fingers like a liquid. They would inscribe themselves on my hands. My body would become covered with the shapes of the words I'd be refusing to speak.

Now that is wild: a world full of people carrying their words on their skin. We would be more careful, I think, about words if they could become part of ourselves in this way. And we need to be more careful. We waste words too often. We abuse them. We take them for granted.

Monday, April 03, 2006


As part of my new one-poem-a-day resolution, I'm now reading the poetry of Robert Bly. I started with poems by Mary Oliver, needed a change of pace and so picked up from the bookstore Morning Poems by Bly -- rather blindly, because I didn't know anything about Bly's poetry. But this volume is slim, bound in good paper, and has a cover that caught my eye. I'm ashamed to admit that that's how I choose new books, but there it is. Surfaces are important sometimes.

It's very intriguing to read Bly after Oliver. Oliver's poems are like a patch of sunny grass you can lie on with your hands under your head and watch clouds scud across the sky. Sometimes a bird flies over and throws a shadow on your face and you feel the chill of sorrow and death, but only for a moment. Bly's poems are like cold mountain lakes bracing to swim in. They catch you unprepared sometimes; and they leave you puzzled, unsettled, hungry for answers that cannot be had. His language is so simple, and yet every word pierces the skin. I couldn't figure out why that was until I read a poem out loud to Husband and he said, "His syntax is kind of strange." Well, that is it, that's one of Bly's secrets, if I can call them that, in Morning Poems.

I found out from the book's back cover that Bly was part of the men's movement; his poetry is described as full of masculine energy -- and immediately my oversensitive misogyny-detecting antennae started twitching uncomfortably. I'm really suspicious of this masculine/feminine categorization ofwriting syles; I see it as a value judgment more than simply a description. And the values that I'm sure are meant are masculine equals good, solid, truth-telling writing, and feminine equals soppy, sentimental, weak writing. The strange thing is, though, that in trying to make sense of the difference between Oliver's and Bly's poems I could think of no better way to distinguish them than seeing them as examples of the feminine versus the masculine approach. Yes, I plead guilty. But that leads me to think about how we use these words, masculine and feminine, and how difficult it is to separate them from the associations that have accumulated on them, like barnacles on the hull of a ship, over these many years of male-centered history- and literature- and myth-making.

And now I have come, inevitably, to the feminist movement, which I know so little about. And what I know is probably incorrect. But this is what I've always thought: that the goal of the feminist movement was to make women more like men. Not to argue that being a woman is as good and valid and important as being a man, but that the only way to make being a woman as good as being a man is to become more like a man -- to vote like a man, to work like a man, to think like a man. I've internalized this idea -- drank it in as if it were a pitcher of water after a long trek through the desert. But I'm beginning to question it.

But the thing is that Bly's poetry isn't masculine or feminine. It's just awfully good. I'll settle for that right now.

The Glimpse of Something in the Oven
by Robert Bly

Childhood is like a kitchen. It is dangerous
To the mice, but the husband gets fed; he's
An old giant, grumbling and smelling children.
The kitchen is a place where you get smaller

And smaller, or you lose track. In general
You become preoccupied with this old lady
In the kitchen.... She putters about, opens oven doors.
The thing is the old woman won't discuss anything.

The giant will. He's always been a fan of Aristotle,
Knew him at school. It is no surprise to him
That the Trojan War lasted ten years, or how it
Ended. He knows something you don't.

Your sister says, "Say, what's that in the oven?"