Whip Cracker

I’m sitting in a co-working space in downtown Santa Cruz. I’m here because the business I started in December now has an employee, and this employee needs to see me and speak to me frequently (mostly to show me something hilarious he found on the internet, but who says that startups shouldn’t be like larger companies, wasting enormous amounts of time on the internet looking up fart jokes featuring cats?). And I’ve noticed that for the past couple of days, I’ve been feeling really down.

Could it be the weather? It’s unseasonably warm, although it’s still below freezing at my house in the morning, so I have twelve layers on as I leave, and progressively peel them off as the day wears on. I’m acutely aware that we’re in the worst drought I’ve ever seen. It’s bad enough that my husband has cleared room for a second cistern so that, when it does rain, we can capture it and have slightly less dependence on city water. I’m freaking out that, come summer, we’re going to have to clear-cut a sizable portion of the land around our house and spend the summer in the city, because the entirety of the Santa Cruz mountains will be aflame. This is the first time since we’ve lived in the mountains that the fire danger has remained high into the winter months.

But it’s not the weather.

I’m in the period of time when there’s not a lot of outward evidence of progress in my business. It’s not that things aren’t happening, it’s just that when people ask me how things are going, they don’t want to hear about things like market research or developing pitches. They want to hear about meetings with famous people and big, wealthy companies. They want to hear about helicopter rides and high-powered meetings in expensive restaurants where everyone’s speaking in some kind of code.

And in the meantime, I’m not at home where I can pet my dogs whenever I want, the fridge is full of whatever I bought the last time I was at the store, and I can be doing other things to support my household while I’m doing this boring market research.

But the truth is, I can’t do other things and be as productive as I need to be. The truth is that I can really only do one thing at a time, and it makes me feel like I’m letting myself down. Holy shit – what? I’m not superwoman? Since when? But it’s true. If I don’t want to feel like I’ve thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain and wasted months of my own time and several other peoples’, I have to take this seriously, which looks like sitting my ass in an office, doing stupid research, and writing things down on little scraps of paper that I will later assemble into cogent arguments for people to use my product.

But it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel sad about missing my friends, my husband, my kid, and my doggies.

Yes to Everything

When I was 17, my boyfriend and I were at his brother’s house. The brother was 10-ish years older than us, and my boyfriend idolized him: everything he did was cool, everything he liked was cool, everything he was was cool. He had long hair and the biggest nose I’d ever seen, and I thought he seemed a nice guy. As we left his house, he said to me “You don’t like anything, do you? You haven’t said one nice thing about anything all day. It makes me sad that you don’t feel pleasure at anything.”

It stung because, while it wasn’t true, I didn’t know how to correct that perception. When I was a kid I didn’t admit to liking anything or anyone, because that knowledge was power my family routinely used against me. My best friends were mocked as dorks for wearing the wrong sneakers or having the wrong haircuts. The boys I liked were not only told that I liked them (which I, of course, could never do myself), but that telling came with laughter at what a joke it was for me to like someone who would never like me back because I was ugly, I was fat, I was a loser. My defense was to deny liking anything.

After I graduated college, I got a job in an accounting department. My boss was a woman about my mother’s age, and I don’t think I ever saw her sad. Even when she pulled out her wallet and showed me the clipping she always carried of her 2-year-old daughter’s obituary, she never seemed sad about it. And she liked everything. She liked lutefisk and country music, and she was willing to be friends with anyone, no matter how grouchy or antisocial (my main evidence being her friendship with me).

I’ve met other people along the way who were shameless about loving whatever they loved. If I denigrated it, rather than shrink away from it, they took it upon themselves to educate me about what I’m missing. I was so excited to see that, rather than being made weak by revealing the things they liked, they drew people to them. It was fun to be around someone enthusiastic about things, and who was willing to give anything a try. The love was infectious.

I’ve tried hard to be that person. The one who loves everything unapologetically and encourages others to do the same. I feel like I’ve finally arrived. When checking into my hotel at the beginning of this residency, I spent a good 15 minutes talking to the staff behind the desk about writing and the kinds of stuff we did in getting our MFA. As I checked out, the woman behind the desk told me that she was thinking about me this week, and studied extra hard, and got her first A on an English paper.

That was it – a little chat about how great it was to learn to write well. A little encouragement. And now someone else is happy because they’ve done well. Why did I waste so much time with “no”?

My Dip in Bambi Lake

I haven’t posted in quite a while, partly because I’ve been superbly busy, and partly because I just haven’t been doing anything interesting to anyone but me. You all know about my software project in process, and it’s still in process. *yawn* You’ll want to hear about it when it’s closer to done, but right now? Probably not.

But tonight, I had a brush with greatness. I wonder why more people don’t go to public readings. It really is the very best entertainment one can get for free. Mostly, you get to sit in a nice bookstore that doesn’t smell weird and have someone read you a story. Sometimes there are snacks. And sometimes, things happen that rival the very best live theater in the world.

My friend S. G. Browne’s book Big Egos came out recently, and he was having a launch and signing at The Booksmith in the Haight. The Pirate and I got there a little early and had seated ourselves, when someone came in and said, in a very deep voice “You know who wrote the introduction to my book ?” And gave the name of a fairly famous music-related person whose name I have now forgotten, but at the time, I thought “I didn’t know that Scott knew anyone that connected.”

What sat down in front of me was a painfully skinny person with big, pouty lips, long brown hair and and a well-filled pink tank top. She turned to me and said “I like fat girls and blondes. What’s your favorite poem?”

This picture does not contain the lipliner, which appeared to be eyeliner around the lips, applied without benefit of a mirror.

In addition to being a fat girl and a blonde, I happen to have the penultimate two lines of my favorite poem tattooed on the inside of my right forearm: “I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep.”  She squinted at them for a few seconds.

“It’s from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.'” I said, and she heartily approved.

She said several times that she stole (“But they know I steal,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the staff. “So I guess it serves them right,” I said.) and that she lied. She asked me to guess whether she was lying when she said that her grandmother was Betty Grable and I thought it might be possible. Then she asked me to guess whether she was lying when she said that her grandmother was Joan Crawford. I have to say, that face had some very nice bones going on, and good skin, too (“Burt’s Fucking Bees,” she said at least five times during the conversation “Get it at Walgreen’s”) but I told her that she couldn’t be the grandchild of both of them. She maintains that she’s Joan Crawford’s grandchild.

She asked me my favorite color, my favorite song, and when she asked the Pirate his favorite punk band and he said he liked X, she lit up. We talked about Exene Cervenka, and she claimed that Exene wrote the intro to her book. But she had come in claiming that someone else had written it, so I filed that in the same bin as Betty Grable and Joan Crawford grannies.

“I’m drunk, sorry.” Visuals travel faster than either sound or smell, but all three had already told us that.

She complimented my shoes and told me that she knew a guy who did custom-made shoes and Marilyn Monroe dresses. She told me that she’s a submissive. That whenever she has trouble coming, all the man has to do is snap his fingers and she comes instantly because she’s so submissive. That Marilyn Monroe was so submissive, she’s dead. I laughed so hard that she got up and said it again into the microphone at the front of the room. And it was funny then too. She approved of my dress and my shoes and my tattoos and my hair, and told me, when I sang a bit of my current favorite song (Regina Spektor’s Samson) that Adele had nothing on me. Nothing, I pointed out, but a few Grammys.

She turned her chair to face us and kept leaning forward and taking my hands. She said that she likes women, but she loves men, and who can blame her? At one point, she said something about Bambi, then said “I’m Bambi, by the way.” But I had figured that out already.

She insisted that I closely inspect her art deco earrings, telling me to put out my hands so that she could cup them in hers and place the earrings in them. I wouldn’t have called them art deco. They looked more 50s vintage, but they were fun, no doubt. Although, I have to say, not as fun as the amazing pearl starbursts I got the little kid as part of her Audrey Hepburn costume.

Meanwhile, every time she got up to get more of the wine and cheese on offer, the Pirate and I looked at each other and started cracking up. This is not the first time that someone with an alternative take on reality has zeroed in on me as a kindred spirit, and, for the life of me, I do not understand why.

She had put her jacket on the back of the chair next to me, but was still sitting in the chair in front of me when three of my friends arrived. One took a seat behind me, but I practically had to beg the other two to sit next to me, moving Bambi’s jacket back to her chair. We made introductions all around because it would seem rude not to, and everyone’s comments were surprisingly tame. This is a pretty snarky crowd.

Bambi went back into the bookstore proper and returned with a large softcover coffee table book with the world “men” in the title. Inside were various pictures of men next to pictures of likely places of manly pursuits. There might be a closeup of a 20-year-old with a deep tan and a 3-day beard next to a picture of a pristine beach with a Jet-Ski sitting on it. That sort of thing. The Pirate looked at it and said “Oh, look. You brought us a catalogue.” We paged through it and said things like “I could use one of these in the kitchen” while Bambi cackled and promised to get a lady catalogue for me. I was fine, though. I’d like one of those for the kitchen as well.

Then Scott got up to read, and things started to go south.

The opening scene of Big Egos takes place at a party full of dead celebrities. As Scott read, Bambi stage-whispered in that way drunken people do, “Name dropper.” One of the staff came over and asked her to be quiet. Bambi got up and made her drunken way back into the bookstore, returning with some paperback and accidentally knocking some cups off the table that held the wine and cheese. By now everyone in the room was very determinedly watching Scott’s reading and Not Looking at Bambi, and something became clear to me.

Bambi knew that everyone was looking away. She counted on it.

As she came back to her seat at the front, she stood up for a few moments, blocking the audience’s view of Scott, who never stopped reading. She pouted her lips and tucked her hair behind her ears and posed, and I drew my eyebrows together and shook my head just a little, trying to communicate “I was feeling kindly disposed toward you earlier, but don’t blow it by behaving badly toward a friend that I like better than I like you.”

She sat down and, without trying to be subtle in any way, proceeded to put the book into the depths of her backpack. Scott finished his reading and asked if there were any questions. Bambi demanded to know if Scott actually knew any of the people he wrote about. Of course he doesn’t. “Well I knew all of them,” Bambi said, and then proceeded to tell Scott that his writing was shallow and affected and terrible. At this point, a male staffer came over and told her she needed to leave. “Call the cops” she growled. “Okay,” he said, and went off to make the call.

She was fidding in her backpack, getting her self together when one of Scott’s burlier friends yelled from the back “Come on, honey, it’s time to go.” At this point she was standing up, and she yelled “Who are you, fat boy?”

“Nobody, but it’s time for you to go. Let’s take it outside.”

“I have to go,” she growled at the crowd. “The cops are coming.” The she looked at the bookstore staffers, who were handling the whole thing with the aplomb that I assume comes of working at a bookstore in the Haight and said “Fine, you want me to leave, I’ll leave.” And with that, she threw some chairs around and walked out.

The room was silent for a few more seconds before Scott said “Are there any other questions?”

After the reading, which couldn’t help but be a bit anticlimactic, my friends told me that they assumed that Bambi and I were old friends by the way we were interacting, and I admitted to only having just met her when she attached herself to me upon arriving. A man told us that he’d known Bambi since he was 18 (he looked to be in his mid-30s) and that Bambi was “a character.”

But nobody seemed to have noticed what happened. The book went into the backpack, in full view of everyone, but when she was ejected, everyone was so relieved to have her gone that I’m sure nobody bothered to remove it, which, I realized, was the entire point. What better way to create a distraction from one misdeed than with another, larger misdeed? If this had been a movie, everyone would have been cheering for Bambi.

As it was, I was the only one in that crowd, and my cheering was all internal. Go, Bambi. You’re brilliant.

And, for the record, Exene Cervenka did write the intro to Bambi’s book.

Film #8: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete follows two boys who, after the older boy’s mother is taken by the police, are left to fend for themselves in the projects for an entire summer.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

When the Pirate and I first looked at the catalog copy for this film, it looked a lot like Tekkonkinkreet, a manga we both loved about two orphan boys who fend for themselves in a weird futuristic fictional city Treasure Town. We were very, very wrong.

First of all, I’ve heard this story before. In December of 2007, This American Life aired a segment called Boy Interrupted about a boy who, at the age of 15, was left alone for five months while his mother was in the hospital. “Defeat” took his story, and amped it up considerably, first making the mother a heroin addicted prostitute, then adding a 9-year-old Korean boy with a mother who was not only a junkie prostitute, but an abuser as well.

There are certain things I can’t watch: torture, abuse, privation, humiliation. I especially can’t watch innocents undergo sustained abuse. By halfway through this film, I was crying and mouthing the words “I want to go home now” over and over.

To spend two full hours watching two boys undergo disappointment, humiliation, neglect, assault, starvation and abandonment is more than I can take, but I’m shocked at the review given it by Salt Lake Magazine’s Dan Nailen, who ended his review with “By the time The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete started answering those questions, I had stopped caring.” I guess that’s the problem that makes me weep. Yes, this is a movie. But as the TAL episode shows, it’s also real. And there are millions of other people in similarly harsh, desperate circumstances that don’t just have to sweat them out for a few months, but have to live them for YEARS. I’m willing to bet that Dan Nailen never even started caring about any of them.

I’m fortunate in that I have enough money to do pretty much whatever I want, including coming out to spend a week at Sundance. The problem is that I don’t have quite enough money to solve anyone’s large-scale problems, and the people that do have that kind of cash don’t feel any pressing need to help anyone else. But just because I’m no longer poor (and I say “no longer” because I grew up government-cheese-and-horsemeat poor) doesn’t mean that I don’t remember what desperation, shame and hopelessness feel like.

I’m happy for Dan Nailen that he never experienced that kind of life, but I’m sad for him and anyone like him who look at “Defeat” and see nothing more than a movie they didn’t like.

Film #4: Upstream Color

In Upstream Color, a man and woman whose lives have been destroyed by some blue stuff attempt to regain control of their lives by defeating the foley artist who keeps pigs.

Overall rating: 1 out of 4

Here’s the catalog copy for this film:

Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being – a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.

What’s supported by the film itself: the woman’s name is Kris. She meets a guy whose name we never know. The rest of the catalog synopsis came from the director’s mind and went onto the catalog page without ever touching the film itself. The catalog also says “With its muscular cinematic language rooted in the powerful yearnings felt before words can be formed, Upstream Color is entirely original, mythic, romantic…” well, there’s more, but it’s equally bullshit.

The director did get up before the film, but all he said was that he would be back up at the end of the film to apologize for it. The audience laughed, but the joke was entirely on us. I left before the Q&A after the film, so I didn’t get to hear any of his justification for a film that had both the Pirate and I asking “What just happened?” as we walked out of the theater.

It made me think about a couple of lectures I attended at the last grad school residency where we talked about the rules of writing that we have all heard, and when it’s right to break them. The thing I kept thinking is that this film was 100% show with 0% tell, which meant that there were a whole lot of places where something was happening, but the audience couldn’t figure out what the hell it was. If the filmmaker (who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, edited and did cinematography and music) had deigned to just TELL us what he was thinking, the way he did in the catalog blurb, it would have been a much better film.

Film #3: 99%–The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

99% took footage shot by four directors and five co-directors all over the country, interspersed with commentary that highlighted the footage.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

Before the main feature, we watched a great short – 30% (Women and Politics in Sierra Leone). In about 10 minutes, it highlighted three women in Sierra Leone who, despite threats and the resistance of the current power structure, are fighting to get the percentage of women in government. The thing that stood out to me was the woman who talked about the need to educate women about how to organize, raise funds, prepare their families for the character assassination common in politics, create actionable agendas, etc. I wanted her to go to Egypt and to Wall Street and talk to the organizers of those movements, since she had a much more clear understanding than they did of how one is effective in politics.

As for the feature – before seeing the film, I had read a blurb in Variety that called it shapeless, but I didn’t feel that in the film. Given that there were four directors and five co-directors, the film showed more narrative cohesion than yesterday’s offering “The Square.”

The film started with the occupation of Zuccotti Park, and talked about how the protesters organized themselves, but early in the film it still wasn’t clear what the protesters wanted. Several times, people talked about their individual circumstances, but “remedy my plight” does not necessarily translate to actionable policies. There was one woman whose house was being foreclosed, but nobody talked about amending foreclosure laws.

The separate pieces filmed all over the country, stitched together by thoughtful, coherent commentary by Naomi Wolf, Matt Taibbi,  and Richard Wilkinson, who talked about the organization of the movement, its aims and its victories and defeats. At the end, as a sort of ray of hope, the film offered statistics citing the number of political entities that have enacted legislation to repeal the Citizens United decision, the main cause of the current political atmosphere.

But the film didn’t change my mind about the Occupy movement as a whole, which was nicely summed up about halfway through the film by Naomi Wolf who pointed out that movements without a central leader have never succeeded.

It also brought to mind for me the number of people who, after 9/11, thought that passing the Patriot Act was the right thing to do. They were too happy to give away their civil rights in exchange for protection from terrorists. Except now that same Patriot Act is being used to justify the police actions that put down many of the Occupy demonstrations. And people are all too happy to shop at Target, Walmart, etc., but don’t understand why their jobs have dried up and their local economies have gone under. I’m hoping that more attention to the sickness of whole economic ecosystem will get people to change the behaviors that feed the corporations.