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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Inside and Outside

Every once in a while I look at myself in the mirror in the morning as I brush my teeth or comb my hair and wish with an irrational and depressing kind of intensity that I was better-looking. So in the afternoon I make a trip to the drug store and besides getting necessities like shampoo and toilet paper I guiltily add to my basket an expensive jar of face cream, a little container of eye shadow, a tube of lip gloss. If I feel really ambitious about my appearance I go to the mall to get a new pair of jeans and some nice tops (I usually buy t-shirts from Target).

Last weekend I was seized again by this fashion-and-beauty fit and spend fifty dollars on a pair of jeans at Macy's, the most I've ever shelled out for one piece of clothing. (Well, to be fair, I bought one pair of shoes that cost one hundred dollars and a formal dress that cost one fifty. But those were special-occasion purchases). This didn't happen out of the blue, as it usually does. I'd been watching "What Not To Wear" on TLC for a couple of weeks. (This is the curse of having TiVo, which makes sly and almost irresistible suggestions shows you'd never stumble on by yourself and that you thought you despised.) Against myself, though not against my better judgment, "What Not To Wear" persuaded that physical appearance -- and by this how you dress and groom yourself -- is a reflection of the self, that it reveals things about oneself that are not trivial, superficial.

I watched woman after woman being transformed on that show -- and not only outwardly. They admit that being nicely put together -- wearing decent clothes, a bit of make-up, and having a good haircut -- makes them feel better in their own skin and more confident about their abilities. Some of these women have not spent any money or attention on themselves -- one bought her clothes second-hand store for a dollar a pound, and another, a single mother, hadn't had decent haircut in years -- but lavished it on their families. It's touching, even for someone as fiercely unsentimental as I am, to observe them as they learn to place value on themselves -- and not only the monetary kind, although because of what this show is it begins with that, but as mothers and wives and friends, and simply as women. They begin to see themselves as persons of worth.

True, there's a tendency toward uniformization in that show, toward overspending ($300 for a jacket, no matter how wonderfully it fits you, seems unconscionably extravagant to me), and toward a certain kind of white and upper-middle class mentality (I've watched about five shows and have seen only one minority woman being "made over"). And like any other make-over show, "What Not To Wear" leans perilously close to the melodramatic, though I'd argue that it doesn't fall into it nearly as often as it could.

Despite all of this, though, I think it has something valuable to say about how we perceive and how we create value. I wish I could watch this show with my aunt, my father's older sister, whose appearance is a statement she makes consciously, and not with a little masochism, about herself. She wears tattered clothing, scuffed shoes, and does her hair twice a year for Easter and Christmas. She has sacrificed herself all her life for her children and her husband. And she looks it, and wants to look it. The sad and inevitable thing is that her sons and her husband treat her accordingly. I wish I could convince her to go on "What Not to Wear." I've very seldom seen her wearing beautiful clothes, and she is a beautiful woman, with a sharp and strange kind of beauty. She has the finest, clearest skin of anyone I know, blue eyes, a long slightly hooked nose, cheeks flushed just slightly with pink. She has one picture of herself when she was young -- she is alone in it, near a body of water, I don't remember if a lake or the sea; the person who took the picture was a young man she was in love with but didn't marry because it was socially unacceptable -- and she is stunning in it.

When I was little my mom used to take me with her to the salon when she had her facials done and waxed her legs and did her hair up for a New Year's Eve party or a wedding. The salon was very warm, and everyone gossiped, and the smells of cosmetics were intoxicating. This is the kind of experience of being a woman that men like to make fun of and use as proof of women's superficiality. But I sensed power buzzing in the overheated air of that salon, the power of stories and of secrets shared, some reluctantly, some extravagantly, of the closeness of clean, sweet-smelling bodies of mothers and daughters, grandmothers and aunts, best enemies and best friends.

Friday, November 17, 2006

One of Those Days

Today is one of those days. I've spent five minutes staring at the blank Blogger window, unable to put two coherent sentences together. There's a rift in the world, it feels like, and I can see the gaps in the fabric of what is, the holes in the logic of my own existence. The Buddhists say this -- this sense of being off balance, of confusion and uncertainty -- is the fundamental ground of being. So they tell you to sit still inside of it, to learn to stay with it, and then it gets -- not better, but familiar. You get to know it. You get to see it differently once you know it, and notice a spaciousness about it, an openness, freedom. It sounds beautiful. And right. But the practice of it -- oh, it sucks. It chafes and itches and constricts your throat and makes your stomach churn with anxiety. A headache starts circling your head, smelling blood. And then you come back again to that question -- the circle completes itself again, snake mouth d swallowing snake tail -- of whether or not life is worth living. All the marvelous books you were planning to read, whose marvelousness and wisdom used to comfort you, seem jokes played on you by more intelligent minds than yours; how can they possibly imagine that they can cover up this gaping mouth of darkness that stands just in front of you, the meaninglessness of all that is? All the things that used to give you pleasure -- the morning light, a cold glass of water, the smell of a chimney fire -- have an ashy, crumbling feel to them. You wonder that you were ever blind and ignorant enough about what the world really is to have enjoyed them yesterday, and the day before, and the year before. So you sit on the couch, unable to do anything because nothing seems worthwhile doing, and you wait for this wound in the world to close and become scarred over, like all wounds do. You know that it will -- an hour or a day or a week later. And you're glad about that. Soon you'll be again on solid ground, going about your business without obsessively questioning its meaning, reading and doing laundry and making dinner and talking with your best friend as if they were the most natural things in the world, as if they made perfect sense. Unaccountably, though, you also feel sorry about it. For you have this nagging feeling that the Buddhists are right, that it would help to stay inside this groundlessness and poke around in its corners with good-natured curiosity. You know you'll come back to it, so you might as well have a good look around. It might not ever feel like home, but it might get to be a place where it's tolerable to say for a while, a room in the mansion of many apartments of your life.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


After the Revolution of December 1989, when the Communist government was overthrown in Romania, one immediate change in my city was that the streets became overrun with beggars. Young and old, aggressive and timid, crippled and whole, alone or with a cluster of small children with tear-stained faces swarming around them, they squatted at street corners, shuffled along the sidewalks, patroled parks and bridges over the river. Some had dogs with mangy coats of fur and servile barks. I was afraid of them. I was fascinated by their smells and clothes and the cunning bandaging of their lower legs against the upper to give the illusion of amputation. I didn't always give them money. I felt guilty when I didn't. And I felt guilty when I did. I was always able to spare some change; my life was good, my parents financially solvent and generous with my allowance, and my heart easily wounded by the suffering of other people. Why begrudge someone a loaf of bread, even a bottle of brandy if what they really wanted was to get drunk? Why not make a little happiness possible, if I could?

For a long time I belived passionately that the poor and needy and suffering are Christ disguised, and that charity towards them translated into love for God. That made giving charity very simple. Mindless, I want to say now. And it troubles me. I can no longer hand over money without thinking through the consequences of that act. And this has led me to paralysis. I don't want to contribute to the huge bureaucracies that are part of some charitable organizations. I don't want just to hand people money; I want to be part of a system that helps them get on their feet and be self-sufficient. I don't want to be a thoughtless hand that puts a tiny band-aid on a huge wound just to feel good about it, nor one that solves a little problem now and in the process creates a bigger problem for tomorrow. My heart aches. But my head doesn't let me act. It reminds me that I've done some stupid things on impulse, driven by good intentions. For me, that old saw about the road to hell being paved with good intentions doesn't refer to failure to act on the good intentions, but failure to act on them rationally. I've seen my mother make bad decisions many times out of a sincere and impatient desire to do good. I've made some bad decisions that way, too, and these mistakes haven't ceased eating at me.

I am a recipient of charity. I went to a private liberal arts college that costs thirty thousand dollars a year to attend, and paid only a very small fraction of that amount out of pocket; the rest was provided by scholarships. My family lived on welfare for the first year we lived in America, and all the furniture and household appliances, even the car, that we used those first few years in America were given to us by family and friends. Except for the scholarships, I resented all the help others gave us; it came with so many strings attached. I promised myself not to do that to anyone else; better to abstain from giving, and from the self-righteous feeling it gives you, than to place that kind of burden of obligation and of feeling small on somebody else. That's, to me, the fundamental problem with charity: that nine times out of ten it is not truly charity, not truly an expression of caritas towards a fellow human being. And I think that shows in the results that charity has. All the "charity" money that has been poured into Africa, just to take the most blatant example, has accomplished little in terms of long-term economic improvement, of bettering the quality of life and health and ability to become self-reliant of the average family. People see fly-studded faces of starving black children on television and write checks out of guilt. Their main motivation is to allay their troubled consciences more than it is to feed starving children. Much more is required to feed starving children than a fifty- or hundred- or thousand-dollar check. But writing and mailing it is much simpler than rethinking how our world economy works, than stopping to consider how our habits halfway across the world affect what's going on in the countries with starving children, than changing those habits.

My most pressing problem is that I don't know enough. I feel that I have to study as hard and thoroughly as I can a whole slew of subjects -- economics and political economy and ecology and psychology and philosophy -- before I understand what charity can do, good and bad, in the world, and what the best, or at least the least bad, thing to do is to help those who need help. And I'm daunted. I don't have enough time and enough mental energy for that. But where is it going to begin, if it doesn't begin with me?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Jury Duty Poetry

The most delicious moment for me when I crack open a new volume of Billy Collins's poetry is when I read the first lines of the first poem, which is usually addressed to the reader. In The Trouble with Poetry, the first poem, "You, Reader," starts: "I wonder how you are going to feel/when you find out/that I wrote this instead of you/that it was I who got up early/to sit in the kitchen/and mention with a pen/the rain-soaked windows..." A poet who understands that poetry is a communication, who writes poetry as if it were the only common language that strangers have, is my kind of poet. A friend said that Billy Collins's poetry makes everyone happy. That's true, and slightly dismissive. I'm one of those people who distrusts writing that makes me happy, writing that seems easy and light, a daydream on an autumn afternoon. But I don't distrust Billy Collins. His manner is light, and he has a sense of humor that tickles me pink, but his heart is in all the right, difficult places: death, isolation and loneliness, sorrow, political and personal foolishness -- as well as joy and the ephemeral but powerful moments of connection people have with each other, and with themselves.

I read Collins for the first time last year, in about November I think, while I was on jury duty. Two of his poetry collections, The Art of Drowning and Picnic, Lightning, were the reading I took with me to pass the long hours of waiting at the Santa Ana courthouse. I sat in a huge room with many windows at a long table crowded with strangers who wanted even more than I did not to be there, and I read one poem after another, paying attention only half the time to the meaning of the words, lulling myself into patience and calm with simply their rhythm. Poetry has a way of distancing you from the ordinary, but not to hide from it, to ignore it, but to examine it and see it in the context of an entire life -- your own and that of the world around you. It forces you to think of people as individuals, not masses you get lost in or oppressed by. It's a very uncomfortable and very necessary feeling this, of really seeing other people. It's uncomfortable for me in particular because at core I'm a misanthrope -- to me, indeed, l'enfer, c'est les autres -- and one cannot sustain being a misanthrope without lumping people together into a more or less homogenous crowd that resembles violent mobs or the audience for which really, really bad reality shows are created. More than once I've fantasized about waking up one morning to a world empty of people, a world of perfect silence. But that, I suspect, is more of a hell that I am able to imagine.

I'm going to offer up another bit from "You, Reader" because it's only right to give poets the last word: "...and I was only thinking/about the shakers of salt and pepper/that were standing side by side on a place mat./I wondered if they had become friends/after all these years/or if they were still strangers to one another/like you and I/who manage to be known and unknown/to each other at the same time..."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Beautiful Garbage

I found this list written in red marker on a damp sheet of paper under the hedges in front of my living room window:
any orange candy; 2 sheets of toilet paper; 1 stick of gum; 1 tea bag; 1 coffee filter; 2 carrots; 1 plastic fork; 1 pen; 1 safety pin; 1 sandwhich [sic] baggie

I find myself fascinated more with the person who wrote it down -- a mother, a nanny, an older sibling? -- than with what the list is for. I'm tempted to put together in my head a certain life for her, to imagine conversations she has with her kids and her mother-in-law, arguments about money and sex with her husband, delicious gossip she gives into with a girlfriend over the phone. I wonder if she cooks dinner every night, if she watches CSI or Masterpiece Theater, if she's on a diet or thinks she's beautiful just as she is at size 12 or 14 or 16; I wonder if she's happy. What book is on her nightstand for reading before sleep? And do her kids jump into her and her husband's bed at six on Sunday morning, laughing, wanting to be tickled and read, for the thousandth time, their tattered Olivia the Pig book?

I can't resist picking up stray pieces of paper fluttering against curbs and clinging to fences, and reading what people write to themselves and to each other and to the teacher they must please in school. If it wasn't so smelly I would dig up in garbage bins to see just what kinds of things people throw out. Once, on top of a recycling bin, I found a rain-soaked copy of Lauren Bacall's autobiography. Another time I got my hands on a stack of notes for math class and handwritten drafts of an essay about ethics. I love getting these peeks into people's lives, examining what they don't value and believe they can do without. If I had enough room I would keep everything I find. There's as much history, I think, in what we throw away as in what we keep; our garbage says as much about us as our valued possessions. The parts of our lives that we wash our hands of, that we can't stand looking at and holding on to -- they turn me on, intellectually and aesthetically.

They drive me crazy, too. Toilet paper and plastic bags in trees, gum melted into asphalt, fast food wrappers in the middle of the street, make me want to go around kicking ass and taking names. But even this is all us, all human. The stories we put ourselves in the middle of by hanging toilet paper on the branches of a linden tree, by getting fries at two in the morning -- I want to know them. I'm curious about the people who live them, especially if they're nothing like me, especially if they can take me out of myself and force me to find my bearings in a place entirely new.

To give credit to whom credit is due: The picture above was taken by Steve Bridger of Mexicanwave.