Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales


The Kelso girls were my good friends in high school. They had a great big house and the best parties in Seattle. I remember going over there on a Saturday night, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs, The Police and Grandmaster Flash while helping Jenny stir up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. These were the parties you dream of: really fun, really wholesome, where sometimes one of the cute boys actually asks you to dance (which, in the 80s meant jumping up and down like a pogo stick in his vicinity).

Megan was younger and smart and mysterious, with a very cool bulletin board covered with gnomic Dylan quotations.

Now, she’s all grown up and coming back out to New York (there were some Brooklyn years in there) from Seattle to celebrate her new graphic novel, Artichoke Tales. I loved her girlhero comic books so much! The ‘zines were sized just like comics and came with paperdolls to cut out on the back. They were masterpieces of 90s girlpower. Then, I gave them to a newly out dyke friend of mine and never saw them again: they are just the kind of books that a feminist covets and wants to keep. Megan writes about strong, independent women, gay and straight, navigating the landmines of war and family strife. It’s deep, powerful, political, and beautiful. Don’t look away. Run toward it.

She is giving a slideshow & booktalk at the Strand this Thursday, June 24, at 7:00 with Kim Deitch. She will also be speaking at Desert Island on Friday at 7:00. I so wish I could go. You should!!!




Mishna Wolff’s I’m Down


Ooh! Dang, she just capped on you!
Ooh! Cap!
Man, that was cappish!

There was no surer way to irritate my parents in high school than a few slang words. Dog, doggish, cap, and cappish were prime offenders; mention them during dinner and you could see my parents squirm. It brought me great joy to demonstrate, on a nightly basis, to my parents, how very uncool, how very white, they were. This, of course, was not news to them.

I never was good at capping, but it was a big part of my life, especially in high school.

Out of the blue, my sister sent me a copy of Mishna Wolff’s very funny new memoir of growing up in Seattle, I’m Down. I read it with great pleasure in about a minute. It’s about a white girl who, among other things, learned how to cap.

It’s not really like reading a book—it’s so slight and fun and lively—but it is a really fun and interesting memoir about race in America, one that reminds us that behind the big narratives of race are a million idiosyncratic stories and that some of them, like Wolff’s, are touching and very funny.


The gap between the glamorous brunette in the author photo and the gangly, awkward teen with the biggest Afro I’ve ever seen on a white person signals the journey Wolff made, from her father’s house to the New York she lives in now. When Wolff’s parents divorced, she and her sister remained with their dad (in the house he’d grown up in), a man who, in her telling, really thought of himself as black (all evidence to the contrary). The neighborhood was now almost entirely black, as were his girlfriends and the guy friends with whom he played hoop and dominoes and to whom he sold dope. While Mishna’s little sister embraced her surroundings, accepting her father’s half-baked home remodeling projects, happily joining informal dance troupes and dressing up, Mishna was nerdy and nervous, worrying about grades, and struggling with her parents’ divorce and her father’s happy embrace of neighborhood life.

Eventually, her mother gets her enrolled in the IPP program (a souped-up honors program that Seattle Public Schools started after I graduated) and Mishna has to bridge the divide between the unhappy affluent children of divorce (no skiing this weekend! Mommy’s depressed!) and the mouthy poor children of divorce (hang on to your step-brother, the back door of the van opens when we hit a pothole). I particularly loved a poignant scene where Mishna, the absolute worst player on her amazing basketball team, runs into a white friend from school. Neither girl knows quite what to do, but Mishna snubs her school friend, with her upper-middle class "it's just a game" attitude and actually tries to score. It's not a kind choice, but it's the right one and it feels true to the conflicting loyalties of adolescence.

In more serious hands, this wouldn’t be as funny a book. There is a lot under the surface that I would like to know more about: How serious was that pot farm in the basement? What happened to the little black girl with glasses, the other smart nerdy kid in Mishna’s neighborhood? As a Seattleite, I wished for neighborhoods—it seems like this was Rainier Valley-ish, somewhere south of the Central District where I went to high school—but I was always wanting to know the name of the high school, the street. As a writer, I wanted to hear more about class, happiness, ambitions, and low expectations. Somewhere in this book is an insight about race and class privilege. Moving between worlds as she did, Wolff saw how easy it is for the affluent white daughter of an alcoholic mother to make it, debt-free to the liberal arts college of her choice where she will, of course, be free to mess up her own life or not. At the same time, the poor black daughter (or the black-identified white daughter) of a pothead will have to claw her way to that same spot. There are no middle class black people in this book, though one of her father’s girlfriends is nearly middle class—and a source of great (if temporary) hope for Mishna.

In all, this is a really wonderful light read about an ordinarily heavy topic. And besides, she gives a shout-out to Ezell’s Fried Chicken! Right across the street from my beloved Garfield High.

A review here. A clip of her reading about capping here. Her very funny website here.





Happy Birthday, Dr. King

In honor of the Martin Luther King Holiday, I wanted to remind you of Charles Johnson’s wonderful short story, “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” from the collection of the same name. Here’s how Z. Z. Packer summarized it in her 2005 review of the collection:
In this story King stays up working on an overdue sermon, and when he looks into the refrigerator for a late-night snack he finds ''bright yellow slices of pineapple from Hawaii, truffles from England . . . a half-eaten Mexican tortilla . . . German sauerkraut and schnitzel right beside Tibetan rice . . . macaroni, spaghetti and ravioli favored by Italians.'' Struck by how something as basic and elemental as food can represent the interconnectivity of life, King basks in this revelation only to be brought to earth by his loving wife.
My husband and I had the privilege of hearing Johnson read this story at a conference in Seattle a few years back. It was fantastic.


Enjoy the day and honor the legacy of Dr. King.

West Coast Hornby/McSweeney's Event!

A former student writes from her internship at 826 Valencia/McSweeney's to say that I should tell all my readers about this event: a special screening with Q&A by Nick Hornby of his new film. I think I should:
a special advance screening of
an education
a new film written and produced by nick hornby with an in-person Q&a with the author
wednesday, october 7, 2009 O 8:30 p.m.
$30 for tickets + a free book

The screening will be held at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas, Promenade Level, located at One Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.
purchase tickets online here:
Directions and theater information are here:
Further questions? Email letters@believermag.com or call (415) 642-5684
$30 is a lot, but when you throw in a book, it's a great deal. I don't really know if I have a lot of readers in San Francisco, but if I do, here's a great-sounding fun event for next week.

Multicultural in Seattle

Nguyen’s novel showed me a lot about what it might have been like to be on the other side of some of those fleeting friendships I had with Vietnamese kids growing up in Seattle. It got me remembering the first wave of Southeast Asian immigration to our city.

At the far end of our block in Seattle, on our side of the street, there was a modern ranch house, high atop an ivy-covered hill. Two gay men lived there, with a pool and a solarium full of birdcages with mechanical birds. My parents were proud to be square, but they were—and are—kind, tolerant people. Where others might, in those days, have kept their children away from the queeny gay men down the block, we went there from time to time and thought of them as friends. My sister and I sat in the solarium during their drunken Christmas parties, sipping spiked eggnog and listening to the songs of the mechanical birds.

Across the street from them was a beautiful brick Tudor house, usually vacant, and owned by the Episcopal Church. Next to that, a vacant lot. The vacant lot—really, a very meticulously tended lawn with a cluster of trees in the center and a short hill, perfect for rolling down--belonged to the third house in, but we called it “Green Grass Grows” and it was our favorite place to play. Sometimes, the caretaker would come and yell at us, but as long as we didn’t wreck the grass too badly, he tolerated us.

This was Capitol Hill in the 70s: houses from 1905 up against modern ranches, all rendered affordable because of a Boeing bust and white flight.

In 1975, I was 8, and the church (or someone in the church) sponsored a Vietnamese family: the family’s mom had worked in the American Embassy, spoke fluent French and English, and was, naturally, among the first to have to leave. (In my mind, I picture them on the top of the embassy roof, fleeing by helicopter, but that’s just dimly remembered news footage. Still, there was an intense sense of emergency to their story.) They had four children, our age and younger. Those children, living next door to our play spot, the vacant lot, became our friends. We taught them tag and learned not to play t.v. tag with them till they’d learned some t.v. shows.

We went to their house sometimes, and sometimes—though rarely—they came to ours. This was a fragile neighborhood friendship, made harder by the Do’s pride and dislocation, by language and cultural barriers, but the gay men across the street were shocked. They took my mother aside: “Why don’t you send your children to the private school? I can’t believe you send them to that public school with all those C---ks, N----s, and J---s.”

My mom told me what he’d said because she had to explain why we were not friends any more: it wasn’t homophobia that kept us from the gay men’s house, it was her rejection of their extreme racism.

That was a mind-blowing lesson of girlhood.

War and Fate

All the work I do on Mrs. Dalloway has had me thinking a lot about war, soldiers, and war writing. I have become convinced that the very minor character in that novel, Miss Isabel Pole, is a character of bad faith, urging Septimus to read Antony and Cleopatra and comparing him to Keats. No wonder he volunteered to fight; no wonder he returns traumatized.

I have been thinking a lot about returning soldiers. Worrying about them and listening intently whenever Paul Rieckoff is on t.v. talking about IAVA and veteran’s issues. He was the guest on one of the WNYC podcasts on my iPhone, so I listened on the plane out to San Francisco. I also checked my email, and there was a message from the academic vice president announcing the creation of a task force on welcoming returning veteran’s back to Fordham.

Then, just to continue the theme, once at the conference, I saw that San Franciscan Dave Eggers was speaking on a panel on war writing. I loved Heartbreaking Work, advised a thesis on McSweeneys. Though I know it’s fashionable to turn up my nose at Eggers, I actually think he’s amazingly cool. I’d love to be the one to have founded 826 Valencia, to have resisted all that rampant snark. At the panel, the moderator interviewed Eggers about What is the What and then six veterans read from the work they had done in Maxine Hong Kingston’s writing group. They spoke about their book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. It was deeply moving.

They spoke about listening to difficult stories, telling them, and not asking stories to turn out to be inspirational or moving or redemptive. They read a wonderful Tim O’Brien quote to the effect that if you feel redeemed at the end of a war story, you have been lied to.

At the book exhibit, then, I bought A Soldier’s Heart, Elizabeth Samet’s account of teaching at West Point. So far, I find that she capitulates too much to the military perspective for my taste. But she is smart and I’m learning about military culture from it.

All of which to say that I think I’ve found my way in. Maybe nothing will come of it; maybe something will. But I’m going to write to my university’s committee and see if they will think about writing and reading as a piece of the veteran’s program. I don’t know what will come of this, but perhaps this can be a way for me to contribute… We’ll see.

Inauguration Celebration

I must admit, the Rick Warren debacle took the wind out of my sails. I tried to view it pragmatically, but the anger and pain in the voice of a good friend washed all those excuses away. Her sense of having been betrayed--just as she (a Hillary supporter) always knew she would be--, that same sense of defeat and betrayal among many of my friends, added to my own disappointment, were too hard to overcome for much of Christmas.

That flatness has faded. I am excited again. I read on Jezebel that Obama’s letter to his daughters in Parade magazine was unbelievably adorable; Girls Write Now’s Twitter feed confessed to tearing up. On the strength of that, I decided to read it. But it didn’t come up on my iPhone before the train drifted out of range. I read it aloud to my 6 y.o. daughter as part of her bedtime reading, tears streaming down my face. She thought it was nice, but beloved children are used to hearing our outsized hopes for them and their future. It’s the grown-ups, parents or not, who understand the odds against those dreams coming true and the faith it takes to commit yourself to working toward dreams in spite of those odds.

The next day, I asked her to write a letter to the President. She came up with a sweet, noir note that makes Jersey City sound like Dodge:
"Dear Presudint Obama I am vere happy that you are going to be our
Presudint love Olivia age 6
In a town wer crims are arownd evre cornr ples make those crims stop."
That is, in conventional spelling:
Dear President Obama, I am very happy that you are going to be our President….In a town where crimes are around every corner, please make theose crimes stop.”
I find this both odd and dear: not a letter for the ages, not really about a top pressing issue for the nation or even for our lives here. Still, I’ll stick it in an envelope with our fervent prayers for some of the promises of this election to be fulfilled.

I have been thinking since November about what this Obama victory means. Those thoughts are on two tracks: one is about race and identity, one is about competence and ideas. As for competence and ideas, I am moved and humbled and also angered to feel the tremendous relief of knowing that Obama’s election brings some grown-ups back to Washington. On the one hand, he calls us to be more engaged in our country. On the other, I can relax in the assurance that my President is not actively seeking ways to begin wars, to circumvent the Constitution, to ignore the entrenched problems of poverty.

As for race and identity, I am so relieved to move a new generation into the White House. It’s moving and meaningful to me, as the working mother of two little girls, to think that my concerns are not far at all from their concerns. For all that is incredible, outsized, and amazing about the Obamas, I have more in common with them than with any other First Family in U.S. history. Selfishly, this makes me hopeful that issues that matter to me will also naturally occur to him to work on. But I have not failed to notice race, of course. And that matters more than I can say with any great intelligence or insight.

I do however, think about two crucial facts of my elementary school days and how different they will be from now on: Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. Both celebrations, central to my schooling forever, were always accompanied by some grouchy, skeptical racist mumbling from somewhere in the back of the room. Now, think how that curriculum can change to shut up the doubters. Even in the most conservative corner of the most conservative state, the narrative has a happy and victorious chapter. This is not the whole story, by any means, but it’s a useful piece, especially for those children under ten: to be able to say, “….and then, 40 years after 1968, Barack Obama was elected President.”

I keep thinking about the shoebox diorama I lovingly made in my 4th grade class. Toilet paper rolls for tree trunks, moss growing on the north side of the tree, Harriet Tubman running sure-footedly through the forest. What is Mrs. Goings thinking this week? What would Harriet Tubman make of this? I was raised on hope. I’m a sentimental West Coast girl. I can’t say this moment surprises me, but it moves me deeply and I do think it changes the world for the good in profound ways.

What will my daughters’ dioramas look like?

Celebrating a quarter century of procrastination

It's early December. Finals are around the corner, but so is Christmas. And when I should be grading papers and finishing up loose ends, I find myself researching the pros and cons of various Christmas presents on the web and trying to figure out when it would be best to go visit Santa.

I remember this feeling so vividly from my freshman year of college--in 1984! My college had an honors code that allowed you to take exams at any time during exam period. We all pledged not to discuss exams after we'd done them. It sounds implausible, but it actually worked: there was very little cheating--I never saw any. While most of my fellow students mapped out reasonable schedules wherein they'd take a morning exam, rest in the afternoon, study for a day, and take a second exam, I planned to take my exams one on top of the other: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, until I was done. I hopped in a taxi, headed to Logan, and flew home to Seattle. I wanted to make cookies with my Mama.

I find it a little amazing--sad, funny, and strange--that now, a quarter century later, I remain just as stubbornly poor at finishing up what I've begun.

I just want to make cookies with my girls.

Memes

Remember the old meme about going to page 56 (or whatever) of the nearest book & typing in the 5th sentence (or what have you). It always seemed dull to me. But I am "facebook friends" with a boy (man, now, for sure) that I went to high school with. I had a huge crush on him but he was way out of my league AND younger than me. No dice.

He is a glass-blower now.

He posted the meme and got these results:
  • The color of joy.
  • Feeds on fish, small mammals, and other prey.
  • Our balance, the horizontals we want to achieve, come out of the interaction of movement in three planes: the knee moving forward, the elbow moving sideward, and the head moving upward.
  • In fact, several psychologists argue that the tendency to respond to items on the basis of characteristics other than content may be minimal.
  • It is the attachment to the results and the assumption of the existence of an actual responsible individual that cause the problems.
  • Brush border enzyme (embedded in the plasma membranes of microvilli).
  • More vigorous varieties of gourds can get quite heavy and are likely to need more substantial canes.
  • Although he is not actually discouraging interest in the flat, he likes the status quo.
  • My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed.

My mother is no doubt laughing now.

Back to Junot Diaz....

Yes we can! Nothing naive about that.

So, Obama is up in the polls. My fingers and toes are all crossed. But I’m missing a little of that joy that occasionally flooded over me in the primaries. I can see it from here, but I’m too deep in the muck of the bailout and my plummeting 401K (not to mention my daughters’ 527 plans—why did I look?), I needed a jolt of joy.

Luckily for me, a friend passed along this link to an essay in The Brooklyn Rail. The author, Alex Gallo-Brown, writes about his continuing optimism and admiration for Obama. It’s a stirring testimony from a young writer eager to move into a new era of race relations, one that keeps its main focus more on the promise of the future, that seeks to emerge from what Obama calls a 40-year stalemate, not by forgetting, but by looking to the hope and power of youth, of the future.

In a week when the Republican ticket has been so despicable in its invocation of past hatred and fear, it’s quite stirring to remind ourselves that we can know about racism, current and past, without succumbing to it. We might, maybe, even be able to push ourselves forward into a future that looked brighter for all.

He writes about the effect of his time at Garfield High School on his perceptions of race, too. I’m a lot older, but I’m a Garfield alum, too. I’ve written about Garfield a couple of times here, but I’ve never captured the feeling of a Garfield assembly as well as he did in these paragraphs:
In February of my freshman year, we had an assembly to honor Martin Luther King Day. It wasn’t very much different from previous assemblies held at my middle school: A black girl performed a soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner; a white boy gave a platitudinous speech about leadership or hard work, I can’t remember which. (There was one novelty, a troupe of Ethiopian girls who shook their asses so fast they managed to titillate the audience and inspire a sense of cultural appreciation all at once.) Then there was more singing, more dancing, more speeches.

I don’t remember exactly what it was about that day; but I do remember the feeling as I stood in the bleachers of the Garfield gym, this surge of emotion. It said—and we said back!—we are here, and we are different than what came before.

It said that we weren’t like our parents, or our parents’ parents—we weren’t subject to their prejudices or preconceptions. We weren’t connected to the America that practiced slavery and put people in internment camps, slaughtered Native Americans and tolerated the laws of Jim Crow.

It said that we have this power—awesome power—to make something new.

Such were my feelings in high school. Then I went to college, the first of three I would attend, and quickly received a remedial education in small-mindedness and unconscious bigotry.
I don’t quite know how to explain it any better. I am amazed and moved to think that the ethos of my Garfield persists. But he is utterly right: Barack’s Yes We Can! seems deeply, deeply familiar to me, and I think it comes out of those assemblies in that old gym. A willful, intense sense of power: aggressive, occasionally even a little angry, a little naive, but full of hope. And that, for me, is the best argument I know for strong, diverse public schools: they help a diverse world full of difference feel like home. They can show young people that their job is to know our history and change our world for the better.

I'm so glad

Win or lose, rain or shine, we'd sway in the stands after every football game:
I'm so glad I go to Garfield High... (x3)
Singing glory hallelujah, I go to Garfield High.
The last line's a little histrionic, for sure, but we did feel it. Garfield was a great, great high school and we were super proud to be part of it. Imagine, then what it would feel like to go to this Garfield!

My old Seattle high school has reopened after a multi-million dollar renovation. Wow!

When I was there, the window frames were painted bright yellow, cracked, chipped and fading, with purple accents. The renovation is grand and positively Microsoftian. Wow.

Charles Johnson at the Seattle Public Library

The other conference (besides Woolf in Denver), from a month ago now, was the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Seattle. That was lovely, too.

Its highlight was a reading by Charles Johnson, the National Book Award Winner (for The Middle Passage distinguished professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Washington.

I have only read a couple of his stories before—one based on Aesop and “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” which he read to us--but I had the strong sense that he was my kind of writer. His reading was enchanting. He read two stories that he wrote for an annual literacy benefit in Seattle. Every year, local writers are given a small prompt and asked to write a story to read at the annual benefit. “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” about the young Martin Luther King staying up late and looking with wonder at the contents of his fridge, noting how interconnected we all are and having an epiphany about social justice and globalism, was written in response to the prompt “midnight snack.”

But the other story, an amazing tale of a sullen and arrogant Plato, grieving the death of Socrates and mocked by Diogenes, was written in response to the prompt “night light.”

Someone asked him something about his inspiration and he said, well, when he got the prompt “night light” he knew that it had to be Diogenes wandering the streets of Athens with a lantern in the daytime in search of an honest man. The clarity of that, the open natural way in which he just assumed that, like himself, we, too, would naturally associate the phrase “night light” with the great philosophers of the height of Athenian democracy amazed and humbled me. A real lesson in the value of writers continuing to read and read and read, in continuing the practice of returning to the past and dwelling there with patience.

I love Lynda Barry

Oh, she makes me so happy! She was the main reason to read The Rocket back in the day before The Stranger overtook it as Seattle's best free weekly.

Once, I was visiting a friend. I was 20; my friend, 30ish. A woman came across the street and they started an urgent chat about husbands, babies, pregnancy--all very intimate and fascinating and beyond me. The woman, the neighbor, apologized for interrupting our tea, and left.

It was Lynda Barry.

I still rue my shyness, my uncertainty that it really was her.

Anyway, the NYT slideshow, showcasing her new writing book is very exciting: just the kind of writing workbook to inspire. And she sounds very kind.

Other news from Seattle...

Since March, I've been on five airplane trips. Shall we review the horrors of post-9/11 airline travel?
  1. Trip 1: Newark-Ft. Myers: the return was cancelled due to snow. We drove home with the girls. A VERY L-O-N-G drive.
  2. Trip 2: JFK to IND: a mechanical delay
  3. Trip 3: Newark to LAX: a lost bag, returned 8 hours later.
  4. Trip 4: JFK to Dayton: a suspicious package had the Dayton airport in lockdown for 2 hours after my arrival there. Fortunately, I found a seat in the bar...
  5. Trip 5: Syracuse to Seattle via O'Hare, without spouse, with children (do not try this at home): thunderstorms in the midwest grounded the flight into O'Hare, leaving me and my daughters (4 1/2 & 15 months for those of you keeping track at home) stuck at the gate for seven hours. Upon landing in Seattle at midnight, we waited an hour for my bag (the teddy bears, onesies, and jeans arrived) before learning that the bag had decided to go to Houston. It arrived 24 hours later.
So, needless to say, this journey, compounded by jet lag, meant that it took us a few days to acclimatize to the glorious (if, then, heat-wave stricken) Pacific Northwest.

Nonetheless, early bedtimes (aided, again, by jet lag), champagne and other delights from my father's cellar, and a really amazing video collection and projection t.v. all soothed the rough edges. Evenings in Seattle are pretty unbeatable--sitting out on the patio, listening to the fountain, munching red pepper and goat cheese, and deciding whether to watch another episode of "Prime Suspect" or maybe "The Bourne Identity" or perhaps old English thriller. (We watched them all eventually, and more.)

My sister, brother-in-law and their two boys (7 and 4) treated us to many of the delights of the city: Matthews Beach, a beaver dam in the city (!), the wonderfully amazing Woodland Park Zoo, the Experience Music Project and Monorail. And two delicious dinners at her place! The older girl was wide-eyed with delight at her time with her beloved cousins.

And, though I found myself reeling under the weight of mothering without my husband or daycare, I also reveled in the ministrations of my mom. She spelled me readily and handily and the girls adore spending time with her.

In the past, a week in Seattle was like a week at a spa. Now, it's a little more like the Italian house that Byron found so congenial--"The place is very well and quiet and the children only scream in a low voice..."

Intelligence and Navel-Gazing

I really want to feel, when I’m reading a book, that I’m in the company of an intelligent person. I do get a kick out of books with literary allusions in them. But it’s so very, very dull to read books about self-conscious English majors who are fond of making literary allusions. The occasional tumble into some postmodern rabbit hole is fine, but I like my novels to inhabit a more diverse world.

All of which is a preamble to praise for Gayle Brandeis’ compulsively readable, moving, and intelligent book, Self Storage. She gives her main character a genuine love of Walt Whitman--a love inherited from her beloved and dead mother--and not much else. We believe in her love of Whitman in spite of everything because she’s a smart young woman who still hungers for more education; we believe in her love of Whitman because the Whitman she quotes is always just exactly right for the moment. She doesn’t just quote the high points, the old chestnuts, the anthology pieces. She gets deep into Leaves of Grass and pulls out tiny little nuggets.

This is the first time I’ve really regretted not spending more time with Whitman. I loved the Whitman she led me to.

I grabbed the book off my shelf for some light reading on the plane to L.A. a couple weeks back. It’s got a picture of a red bra in a jar on the cover. Lauren sent it to me. I expected to be diverted. I was not entirely prepared for such a happy, happy read: it’s just a great combination of a fun, fun, happy book and a smart one that makes you think and care. It goes down easy--which is nice--but it doesn’t disappear.

So. Self Storage is about a young mother, trapped in a depressing faculty housing ghetto in Riverside. She has two grimy, sweet, demanding little kids and her husband is depressed and is so stalled on his dissertation that the topic has become off limits. To relieve all of this, she begins going to the auctions of abandoned self-storage units and selling the junk on eBay and at garage sales. At the same time, she becomes obsessed with (and then, entangled with) the Afghani woman down the block (who doesn’t speak to her and wears a full burkha). Scenes of her in a hospital when a child is ailing cut me to the quick: like the protagonist I, too, failed my daughter in her hour of need (a broken arm only) and it’s a humbling feeling.

It’s a fun premise. She manages the plot--which is compelling and apt--really well and the ending is redemptive and cool. I really liked this book: it seemed to me to solve that problem with which I began. Brandeis is book-smart in ways her characters are not, but some literature matters to some of them and she is never condescending to any of her characters, even that lout of a husband!

A Riot of Color: Flowers at the Getty

It’s little wonder Los Angeles became such a city of glamour. The flowers here call out for their close-ups. In the taxi from LAX to UCLA, a little poem ran through my head,
bougainvillea, jacaranda, Clytemnestra, penicillin
. Somehow, these double spondees (BOUgainVILLea) with their lovely assertive melodies seem right for the plump, fleshy, swollen flowers that create little pops of color in the beige and sage coastal desert landscape. The flowers are loud here. The purples are neon bright; the yellows are canaries; the oranges scream danger. Everything is either prickly or tuberous. This is not a subtle seduction. It’s a sexy and glamourous floralscape.

My plane landed at noon and by 1:30 I was at the Getty Museum. It was more breathtaking than I’d expected. I was pleasantly surprised to see Tim Hawkinson’s crazy giant organ, an odd, silly, and happy piece that I’d seen at MassMoCA last year. There was a lovely small exhibit of paintings of animals by Oudry, including a haunting life-sized portrait of Clara the rhinoceros and an even more glorious and smaller show of illuminated manuscripts depicting animals. The decorative arts collection was incredible but, when I got there, fatigue and jetlag had set in. And, finally, for all that was moving about the art, it was, as I had been told to expect, the architecture, the garden, and the views that really dazzled. What a lovely, grand welcome! Hurrah!

Back Home Again

I’m in Los Angeles for the first time in my life, but it feels like coming home again. Here I am in a gray coastal city, misty and a little cold for the time of year, going on a hilly jog through a lovely neighborhood full of gorgeous homes with even prettier gardens. Rhododendrons and roses are in bloom everywhere and the trees, even on the planting strips of the neighborhood across Hilgard from the UCLA campus, seem primeval in their height and girth.

How is this not the Seattle of my girlhood?

True, I don’t ever remember seeing Variety lying in the driveways of the upper middle class. But I’m surprised at how much is familiar. And, after years of feeling intimidated to visit this other great city, all that anxiety about how I probably wouldn’t like L.A., how I was not pretty enough to be in L.A., how L.A. was not for me, seems pretty silly.

Strangest of all is this: the art in my hotel (the lovely and affordable UCLA Guest House), was done by a family friend. It may have even been done, in part by me!

That’s right. In college I worked in the art studio of our neighbor hand-coloring silk-screened prints with chalk. The artist, Susan Singleton, sold these prints in bulk to a gallery in a Design Center. The large editions were often purchased by hotels. The UCLA Guest House clearly purchased some and the lithograph outside my door is by Sue. Further down the hall is a triptych from her Clouds series, a series I vividly remember coloring. I would sit at a drafting table in her loft South of Pioneer Square, and color with pastels alongside 3 or 4 other artists. We listened to the Talking Heads, took breaks to dance, and practiced chalking and smearing. Only Sue and Nani, her best assistant, were allowed to make the trademark red squiggle at the end.

Uncanny. And very welcoming.