Saturday, September 30, 2006

La Muneca

Last night I dreamt that I was at a party at Barnes and Noble. I talked with the supervisor there about how I used to be a supervisor. The technology of how they made those clear stickers they put on the shelves to divide the subsections had changed. I was there with Morgan, but all these boys I went to church with when I was a teenager (Seth Allen, Jacob Thomas, Micah and Logan Fagree) were there and they were trying to get me to come hang out with them. Morgan had pissed off this black woman who ran the store and she was associating me with him. I told her she was beautiful. People kept offering me a cake called "muneca" (there should be a tilde over the "n"), which means "doll" in Spanish. The cake was colorful, and each piece had another piece on top of it that was smaller and self-contained like a little debbie cake. A woman pulled off the top of a white piece of cake and handed me a chocolate piece.

I woke up and I wanted to listen Vic Chestnutt's song "Sad Peter Pan" from the album Is The Actor Happy? Here are the lyrics:

it's the plan of most
to discover that magnificent ghost
when did I get perverted
and my innocent eyes diverted
from the view so grand
imbued with distractions

I'm greedy like Senior Babbitt
I'm just chasing that electic rabbit
I'm a reluctant rebel
I just want to be Aaron Neville
with a crown on my head
and my denim shirt all dark with sweat

I'm just pushing the paint around
on advice from your lying mouth
you touched me and then you ran
and left some sad Peter Pan
all alone and awkward
but a transformation, I swear it will occur

A few months ago, I hung this poem by Mary Oliver above my bed:


All night
the dark buds of dreams

In the center
of every petal
is a letter,
and you imagine

if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,

and not an easy one--
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions--
birds that come and go,

the black fox that lies down
to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring
with her bone-white eye.

Finally you have spent
all the energy you can
and you drag from the ground
the muddy skirt of your roots

and leap awake
with two or three syllables
like water in your mouth
and a sense

of loss--a memory
not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer--
only how it feels

when deep in the tree
all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

You Must Go To Church

So last night I decided to go see this rehersal jazz band that has apparently been practicing since 1939. They don't play out, but they did have a gig back in the 1970s. I'd tell you more, but I found out about it from this guy in my writing class who made us promise that if we came to see it, we wouldn't write about it. It was that interesting.

They rehearse at 6th and Brannan, which is about 5-6 blocks south of Market street. For those of you who don't live in San Francisco, Market street is the main street in downtown San Francisco. The area known as South of Market or SOMA is part super-classy corporate and art museums, part leather daddy bars and sex shops, part spacious lofts marketed to young gay, (rich) foxy boys, and of course, 6th street.

Supposedly, the term "skid row" came from 6th street. Sixth street is alcoholics, crack addicts, and homeless people. It's all liquor stores and SROs and closed store fronts. The street is crowded, though, and well-lit. Maybe its because I used to work at 6th and Howard and I know the area that I decided to walk to the show last night from Civic Center. Maybe it's because most of these folks aren't desperate and violent, but down and out. Or maybe places just aren't scary until something messed up happens to you.

Sixth street is also the home of one of the best deals in San Francisco: Cancun Taqueria. There's one at 18th and Mission, but the 6th and Market one is my favorite. There are fewer hipsters (I'd rather someone ogle my chest than my band pins). Plus, there's a super fucked up Mermaid mural on the wall (they are all deformed and have skin diseases). A veggie taco is $1.89 and it's two tortillas, pinto beans, cheese, a big ole scoop of pico de gallo, sour cream, and half a sliced avocado on top. The filling doesn't fit inside the tortilla, you have to cut it with a knife and fork. There were at least two phases of my life where I ate this almost everyday.

I've started giving money to panhandlers again. Part of it is Walt Whitman's advice to "give alms to everyone that asks." Part of it is this hippy idea that if you give things away instead of judging people that your life will be more full (shaky and irrational, yes, but god bless hippies). Mainly, though, I just think it's the right thing to do.

So there I am sitting in the taqueria, and the only other woman is this homeless woman who is yelling in Spanish to the guys behind the counter about how nobody gives her food. I'm surprised they let her stay. She keeps asking around to everyone for help. She finally says to me, all like mumbling and futile:

"Hey m'am can you help me get something to eat?"

She looked extremely suprised when I said "What do you want?"

She's all "A Burrito!"

I told her to order what she wanted and that I would pay for it. I felt like a rich man on a date, but I was hoping in my heart of hearts that I could just pay for the damn thing and wouldn't have to talk to her (essentially, I'm a bastard). Now, I'm used to the men at Cancun staring at me while I eat, but last night they were looking at me like I was insane. I just nodded when he asked me if a "super" ($1.50 more) was okay.

I liked that she ordered a super.

While she's waiting for it, she went back and forth between shouting "No chiles!" over and over again and talking to me.

"Thank you so much Ma'am. . .you must go to church"
"No, I don't"

I started wondering if she said that because my hair was pinned back on either side of my head and I was wearing a cardigan.

"You must know what it's like to be hungry."
"I don't." I looked down at my food. "Not in that way." I'm was trying to be reserved but I felt like Goody Williams.

"I haven't eaten anything today. I'm so hungry."

"Would you like something to drink?"

"I only drink alcohol." Then I decided to look her in the face. I liked that she was honest. I really liked that she was honest. Her eyes were crazy and flat like someone who is seriously fucked up. "I'm an alcoholic." For a moment, I considered offering her a Negro Modelo. "My liver is all messed up."

"I'm sorry. That's terrible." I ate my food too quickly because I wanted out of this conversation.

When I stood up she said: "Are you pregnant?"

God bless her: she upped her burrito order, yelled at the counter guys, told me she was an alcoholic, and then told me I was fat.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Day We Are Awaiting

I'm applying to graduate school. Thank God. And it'll be a miracle if I get in, because the schools I'm applying to aren't just difficult, they are impossible. I've considered renewing my faith in God just so I can pray for help.

I have to submit a 15-20 page writing sample. I managed to get through my undergraduate English degree with several 5-7 page papers, and not one (decent) long one. Thus, I'm going to expand one of my existing papers, one of my papers on James Joyce's Ulysses.

In order to do this, I had to invoke the help of not only God, but my Mother.

My Mother, or Mama, or Laura Ellen, whose Daddy was an orphan raised on a peanut farm and whose Mama was a tall, ascetic, skinny, farmer's daughter named Mattie Mozelle (say it out loud like Mademoiselle). Mozelle gave an audible puff of air wherever she walked and once pushed a 10 year old me out of her way in the kitchen when I was trying not to step on the cracks in the linoleum (they would have broken my mama's back).

My Mama's eyes are like some mystical shade of 1970s eyeshadow: creamy, opaque, and lustrous (forgive me, it's true).

My Ulysses papers were hidden in my grandpa's storage unit and I asked Mama to search through boxes and boxes of china and crumbling Christmas decorations and porcelain miniature pitchers and Baptist bible pamphlets and outdated property titles. She told me to pray, and I did, and I swear to god it was sincere.

She called me on her cell phone when she'd found a box with some of my old homework in it.

"Is this one? 'O Rocks! Passion and Sensuality in Joyce's Ulysses?'"
"Yes! That's it!"
"What about 'Guilty of Killing Quilty and Being Dirty with Gerty?'"
"Yes! That one too!"
"And what's this?. . .Oh. . .those are just Grandpa's tax returns from 1968."

I left the church primarily because my prayers were not answered. But look at that, I don't even believe anymore and he's helping me out! Thank you Lord!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Neutral Milk Hotel Quote

"This is music from an impossible alternate history of zeppelins instead of packet switching, woodcuts instead of airbrushes, brick skyscrapers and soccer played in waistcoats and endless drizzle that nobody ever thinks to resent."

--The War Against Silence (

Saturday, September 16, 2006

My friend Stephanie calls these "Lolita" glasses

My very good friend Megan gave me that ring. She used to wear it when she worked at a t-shirt shop in some harbor town. She told all the creepy sailors she was married (I love creepy sailors!).

I wore it at BYU and told people my fiancee had designed it for me, that his love was a passionate burning heart.

Clara Rockmore's Theremin and Yao

Last night I watched a documentary about Lev Sergeivitch (Leon) Theremin, inventor of the theremin. The Theremin is an electronic musical instrument that makes sound whenever something with a magnetic charge (i.e. a human hand) is in its range. It looks like a box on a stand with a vertical pole on the right (which controls the pitch) and a loop coming off the left (which controls the volume).

The documentary focuses on the life of both Mr. Theremin and his friend, companion, and Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore (nice last name). After he immigrated to the US in 1920, he invented the Theremin, as well as other crazy electronic instruments and mad scientist devices like a crib that protects against kidnapping by emitting an invisible shield. Theremin courted Clara Rockmore on her 18th birthday by designing a cake whose candle was a theremin-like rod. As she approached her cake, it made music.

There is film of her 18th birthday, probably around 1930. Her hair is slicked back and she's in her evening dress. Her face is thick and unripe. As she dances with her cake, her body language is shy and deferent, her eyelashes flutter. She is relaxed and drugged with attention and being desired.

That's her around 1991, there on the right. Now, don't go getting any ideas. This isn't a post about how sad it is that old people get ugly. I actually don't feel that way. For the past three years, I have worked with senior citizens from Russia, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mexico and all over Central America, Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay, and France. And Cambodia. Sometimes they speak English and sometimes they don't. I speak enough Spanish to have the old ladies tell me "if I could do it again, I wouldn't get married."

I spend a lot of time looking at their faces and trying to see how they looked when they were young. Just like you might look at a baby picture of your lover to see his or her face (and you can see it), I like to look the other way. And people do look like themselves no matter how old they are. What was different about Clara Rockmore was that her image was caught on video.

In general, women who are seniors are tough bitches who don't put up with shit from anyone. My grandmother, Nanny, once used her cane to tease some teenage boys at Shoney's for taking too long in the buffet line. Old women have outgrown the collective habits that most women possess: they aren't trying to be nice.

I was reading yesterday in Bitch magazine (which is a feminist analysis of pop culture) that women are generally socialized to act clueless and silly. It's true, and I'm not making a judgement here (can I stress that twice? Do you understand?), but we do giggle, and smile, and look down, and act nervous. And we're beautiful and put flowers in our hair. Middle aged women do this too, but most seniors don't do this. They tell you what to do, or tell you their opinion, or remind you of what they have done. They look you straight in the eye, or they look over your shoulder and talk. It's different. It's not like another exception to typical female mannerisms: the East Coast power lawyer in a navy suit; it's keen and sharp and relaxed. They aren't trying to prove anything; when they talk, they provide information. I'm sure I'll grow into it, and if you're a lady, I'm sure you will too.

Thich Nhat Hahn says that youth is like a trickle of water at the top of the mountain whereas old age is like a broad river. God bless him.

Clara Rockmore's countenance had changed in the way that most old women must change. I only see them when they're already old, and I'm too young to have watched anyone really move into old age. As a senior, Rockmore told the film crew to step back when they were too near her theremin. She didn't say, "sorry but you'll interfere," she said "you can't stand that close. Get back." At one point she even told them to "cut" when she thought that they had what they wanted.

I always thought that the dopey bunny syndrome that so many of us young ladies posses was indigenous to our generation, that older women were raised to be direct and austere, but there she was in 1920 something walking around in her evening dress like some girl named Clarice at your semi-formal, being kissed by Leon Theremin.


I have been teaching a class at a senior center in East Oakland. The Center for Elders Independence (surely the name was chosen by a grant writer) is located in a mall in what used to be a Meryvn's. East Oakland is the Oakland that most people are scared of, and the mall that once served happy suburbanites in the 1980s has been changed into a social services/payless shoe store mall. IT'S SO BIZARRE! The police station, the social security administration, and the "Self-sufficiency Center" occupy the department store storefronts. The interior "shops" are things like the Black Chamber of Commerce and an afterschool tutoring facility. However, there are still some clothing stores and candy shops thrown in. The fountains are all dried up and the tile is chipped, and the parking lot has been reworked so that the spaces slant the wrong way and you have to back out of some of the rows to leave.

CEI is depressing because none of these seniors are independent at all. They get picked up and they come to this place where they get medical care, physical therapy, two meals, and activities. It sounds great, and it could be great, but the staff talk to the clients like they're in kindergarten. That, and I sniff that same old "office" mentality where everyone acts like they're working so much harder than other people while slyly hinting that their coworkers aren't doing their jobs. I hate both of those things so intensely; it was hard for me to go there.

I was hired to teach an ESL class, but they rolled in Gwen and Lola, who were native English speakers, along with Mary, a woman from Hong Kong who points to me and purses her lips and says "inspiration!" Frecia, a sweet gentle Peruvian lady, Mrs. Alizaga, a Nicaraguan woman with a tight perm and plucked eyebrows she raises instead of saying "I don't understand," Amadeo, a Cuban man who I delight carnally, Mrs. Figaro, a partially deaf Mexican woman who speaks English very well but says she can't, and Yao, a very quiet Cambodian man who revealed after two months that he can in fact read and speak English. I didn't know Lola spoke English perfectly and was from New Orleans. When I asked Lola what she liked to do with her family, she said, "Oh we have a good ole time!" I commented on her mastery of regional dialect.

After a week, I decided to turn the class into a poetry class. We would read a few poems written by children or people who were learning English and then we would write poems ourselves. The biggest challenge wasn't their English, it was that they felt like they didn't know how to be creative. I basically gave them a fill-in-the-blank kind of format, like "My home sounds like..., My home smells like..., My home feels like..." I taught them about metaphor and haiku and we even read William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just To Say."

Yao, the man from Cambodia, had tattoos on his hands. He surely fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge ( He didn't speak for a long time, but I kept looking him in his eyes and smiling and waiting way too long for him to answer when I called on him. Finally one day during writing time I sat down next to him and said "What do you see when you think of Cambodia?" This was his poem:

My hometown is Kampong Chhang, Cambodia

I see people working on a farm

I smell romchate flowers

I hear the song of small, white birds.

I loved Yao. They cancelled my class yesterday and I said goodbye to him in Cambodian (which I've already forgotten) underneath his denim baseball cap. His walker had those tennis ball things at the bottom. I thought to myself, "what else does he have before he dies?"


So last night as I was watching the documentary, and Clara Rockmore and Leon Theremin were reunited at age 94 (at least for Theremin), and she was walking this collapsed figure around her dramatic and formal apartment, I thought about how far away her youth had receded into her body, how the flirty, laughing, probably somewhat insecure girl was replaced by someone with keen eyes and a strong voice. And if Leon looked at her, he wouldn't see the girl he had loved.

And I sat there beside my boyfriend. We are always fighting and breaking up and getting back together and in between all of those things there is a heavy, intense, familial-like, passionate connection and respect and love. And I thought about saying goodbye to Yao and how Clara looked when Theremin put his arm around her and how this is my life, sitting here, beginning, being Susanna and knowing part of what will come.