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, May 15, 2007

Mind Map

A man and a woman have built a library meant to help you find what you're not looking for. It's the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, thirteen thousand volumes strong and organized in the half-logical, half-chaotic way of the human brain, so that in one aisle the "Suburbia" section flows into "Domestic Environments," which in turn becomes "Architecture"; and in another aisle "Typography" blends into "Visual Arts," which branches into "Fine Arts" and ends in "Advertising" and "Sales." It feels to me like the map of a mind, a labyrinth that I wouldn't mind being lost in. Because this is what a library is for, even more than to help you find, say, the authoritative book on manatees or the life of Matisse: to expose side roads, unexpected mental paths from endangered species to orchids or urban development, from Matisse to the printing press or ancient pottery (these are the wildest and most tenuous and blood-quickening connections I can make on the spur of the moment), to challenge you to see the strange ways everything is linked to everything else -- a fruitful sort of disorganization.

I know people who disagree. (In my more disciplinarian moments, I am one of them.) But I don't imagine these eccentric little private libraries replacing the enormous Dewey decimal system ones. Rather, I think of them of a refuge from the predictable, and I'm one who needs such refuge.

Strangely, though, as much as it excites me, Prelinger Library's unusual way of shelving books also makes me deeply uncomfortable. There's the question of time. Who can afford hours and hours of blissfully being lost? And there's the difficulty of finding your way back to the idea that you started with, of being overwhelmed by how, indeed, everything is connected to everything else. Finally, there's the problem of someone else doing your thinking for you. A private library like this is like being inside someone else's head, prey to her limitations and prejudices, trapped in the way she looks at the world. But no matter how risky, I have to confess that, for me, this is the most tempting aspect of the whole endeavor: to explore what it's like to be someone else, being myself while being other.

Perhaps I'm making this library sound more dangerous than it is. I like the couple who started the Prelinger library; their love of books is excessive enough that I instinctively trust them. It's the best way to be a little insane: to start buying thousands and thousands of books and build a library that's a reflection of who you are in the most accurate and defiant way possible. We all do it on our bookshelves, as little and as much as we find the courage and the time to. But I at least still group my philosophy books together and don't let them spill into poetry or science or history. Maybe I will, from now on. And then Godel, Escher, Bach will lean into my Latin-English dictionary, which will be flanked by How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, and the row will be capped by Carl Sagan and his billions and billions of stars.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Political, Though Not Enough

In a conversation a few days ago, someone mistook me for a supporter of President Bush. Before I had a chance to correct him, he walked away. The idea that someone out there in the world thinks that I'm a Republican, let alone one of George W. Bush's stripe, appalls me. What's even more unbearable, there's nothing I can do now to change that man's belief.

I relish the discomfort of taking a stand on the "wrong" side of a position, such as for animal rights, which still provokes mockery and condescension, or women's rights or gay rights -- ditto about the mockery and condescension, except pity runs into the mix too because a stand like this ensures you a cozy place in hell. (Last Monday I listened on the radio to the debate among the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination, and one of them said that he thinks it's wrong to interfere with the right of a company not to hire homosexuals. Another said he's against stem cell research because it's wrong to create life in order to destroy life. From the next room my husband quipped in his usual quiet and straight-to-the-point way, "How come they never talk like this when the subject is industrial animal farming?" Conservative politics makes me doubt that the century I live in is the twenty-first.) But in this case, the "wrong" side of the position was also the wrong one. It's simply not okay to be a supporter of President Bush. Tolerance would be misguided. I very seldom find myself in a moral and political position so easy to decide. There are no ambiguities here. I wish there were; I'm usually suspicious of black and white issues. But here is one: you simply cannot be on the side of a president who has started two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), who has few qualms about starting another (with Iran), and who insists that doing what he thinks is right when the world around him screams (though not loud enough) that it isn't, is heroic rather than just crazy.

My political inactivity -- I haven't participated in a march since my elementary school days when Ceausescu visited my home town and I had to walk in a carefully orchestrated demonstration, wave the Romanian flag and shout at the top of my lungs, "Ceausescu and the children!" -- rankles me; it's a shortcoming that I can fix but hesitate to. I see only problems with becoming politically active. For one, politics gets dirty no matter that the cause you fight for is morally justified. And I'm afraid of crowds and how easily they degenerate into mobs, how a march for peace can explode in the blink of an eye into violence. I don't know how to decide what party to give money to, or what town meetings it's useful for me to attend. And how do I reconcile myself to the fact that no matter what I do, a change will not happen where it matters?

I tell myself: look at the anti-slavery movement; think of Gandhi and Marin Luther King, Jr. Things can get done. But then I look out the window into my affluent and fiercely Republican Orange County neighborhood of Southern California, and I lose hope. Where do I begin here, and how?

But maybe I've already made a beginning and just don't know it. I'm vegan, after all, and not only for health reasons. And I drive a hybrid car. And I vote. That ought to count for something. So let me not lose heart. From wherever I find myself, I can start moving forward.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sunday Morning Devotion

Why Regret?
Galway Kinnell

Didn't you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating off the glue?
Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn't it a revelation to waggle from the estuary
all the way up the river, the pirle,
the kill, the run, the brook, the beck,
the sike gone dry, to the shock of a spring?
Didn't you almost shiver, hearing the book lice
clicking their sexual syncopation inside the old
Webster's New International -- perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, thalassacon?
What did you imagine lay in store anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance is
ooze, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Don't worry about becoming emaciated -- think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn't it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back split open
and the imago, the true adult, somersaulted
out backwards and took flight
toward the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal unfit to digest food,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova threw the linguine in squid ink
out the window, telling his startled companion,
"The perfected lover does not eat."
As a child didn't you find it calming to think
of the pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn't you once glimpse what seemed your
own inner blazonry in the monarchs, wobbling
and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren't you reassured at the thought that these flimsy,
hinged beings might navigate their way to Mexico
by the flair of the dead bodies of ancestors
who fell in the same migration a year ago?
Isn't it worth missing whatever joy
you might have dreamed, to wake in the night and find
you and your beloved are holding hands in your sleep?

Reading and re-reading, writing down and again re-reading this poem is my act of devotion for this morning. This is my church, right here, my sacred and safe space. I can allow myself to feel exalted and overwhelmed by doubt, hopeful and despairing, because I know words like these are strong enough to hold me up. When a day can start like this, why regret indeed?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


On a cloudy Sunday morning in the Dickinson Plaza on the UCLA campus I shook hands with a blue-eyed woman in a black leather skirt -- a friend was introducing her to me -- and then I heard her name. I heard and understood with a lag of a few seconds what it meant that her name was Janet Fitch. This was the Janet Fitch, who wrote White Oleander and Paint It Black, whose interviews I'd listened to on the radio, whom for a while everyone was talking about, who has a movie made after one of her novels. And there I had stood looking at her tear-shaped eyes and pale pink mouth, at her blond hair with whitish strands in it, only half-listening to her words while my friend was talking to her, and thinking her an ordinary mortal.

Well, she is. But not to me, not at least for those few minutes after I found out who she was. I felt and must have looked slightly ridiculous: my eyes wide, my mouth half-open, my face glazed over with exhilaration and disbelief. And this was not just a reaction to her fame but to something simpler but all the more admirable in my eyes: here was someone who had completed a novel -- no, two novels! -- and had had them published and read. Here was someone whose work was outside herself and lived its own life in the world, changing the world even if it was only in infinitesimal ways. Because my sister, who was with me, was unmoved by this encounter with Ms. Fitch. She is one of many who have never heard of her novels. And she stared at me half-frowning, half-laughing at the peculiar things her older sister gets excited about.

It took me a while to get my bearings after this. I might as well not have bothered, because several hours later I got knocked off my feet again. This time it was Jane Smiley who did it. I was half in love with her before she even opened her mouth. She walked on the stage for her panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and all I saw was legs -- thin and slender and horse-like. She looked enormously tall but at perfect ease with her body. I wonder now how long it took her to become comfortable inside it. Throughout the talk she moved in small, subtle ways: turned her torso, leaned towards the microphone then away, spread her palms wide so that her fingers look spidery, took swigs from her bottle of Diet Coke and burped quietly, and then, when she wanted to emphasize something, suddenly snapped her fingers. It was like a familiar dance -- no awkwardness, no extravagance, just a sense that this was where she was supposed to be.

Oh, but the things she said. (Yes, I took notes. I scribbled feverishly in my pocket notebook with yellow cloth covers, hanging on her words like an infatuated disciple on every syllable that falls out of his teacher's mouth.) She said that it was more courageous, to her, to write a book without a plot than to write a book full of explicit sex. That novels are being written and will continue to be written because the complexity and richness of the worlds they create cannot be held anywhere else but in the mind. That "chick lit" is often intelligent despite the frothy, frivolous pastel-colored book covers you find it ensconced between. That novelists have always said, and will go on saying, "Oh shit, I'm getting out of date." That as a young writer she created her characters by reasoning out who they were, but now they just come to her. That the novelist, unlike the poet, does not work in solitude; her characters are always thronging around her, arguing with themselves and each other, living their lives, making the noises of living things inside and outside and all around the novelist's mind.

When she finished speaking I found myself unable to leave. I lingered and watched her gather her things, chat with a girl who wanted to know if this time Jane Smiley's clothes were real. (Presumably the girl had seen Jane Smiley some place else dressed in unreal clothes.) I had butterflies not only in my stomach but under the skin on my arms and in the back of my throat and fluttering against the insides of my skull. I felt utterly silly. And utterly happy.

How strange to find out, then, that Jane Smiley is an ordinary mortal too. She has a web site called The Real Jane Smiley, where she's attempting to create an atlas of the novel, and where she keeps, among other things, a food blog. So I found out that Jane Smiley eats scones and Eggs Neptune and golden potato soup! More even than the pictures of her next to her horses, more even than her voice during the interview -- clear and sharp and rising slightly in pitch at the end of some sentences -- more than all these things it was these recipes that turned Jane Smiley into an ordinary person for me. This work in the kitchen -- the peeling of potatoes and boiling of eggs and mixing of cookie dough -- to feed the unescapable body humanized her more than anything else. She doesn't live on words alone. Just like me, and you, and everyone we know, she breaks literal and figurative bread.

I've come away from the Festival of Books not wanting to be a writer any more. It's paradoxical, I know. Perhaps what I mean is that I don't want to be the writer I've thought for so long that I had to be. Although I don't believe in God, I waited for a dispensation from him, for a sign, a mark on my forehead, an anointing. I knew I did not have it, and I kept waiting for it, taking its absence and this inexistent God's silence as a sign in itself. Perhaps the time has come to stop waiting, to pack up my things and walk the road alone. No angel at my side. Just the road, the sky, and one foot in front of the other.