Jeanne Carr and John Muir

We spent a few days this winter in Yosemite. I hadn’t been there since I was a child. On the school trip there in 5th grade, I remember seeing a family of six quail walking beak to tail in descending order of size. I remember a Quonset hut. I remember heroic narratives about John Muir. I remember 5th grade romantic drama, holding hands in the backseat of a car. But mostly, I remember seeing waterfalls, ribbons of water falling from granite cliffs, cliffs that shifted something inside me and primed me for a later appreciation of Kant’s dangerous ideas about the sublime and for the proper despair about drought and climate change.

P drove up the treacherous switchbacks into the park and we tried to get our kids to look at the clouds trailing in the pine trees and they refused. They sang the same four-note song over and over and over. Then my 3-year old became frightened of the mountains. I felt despair. My Los Angeles children can not understand weather and are afraid of landscapes. But then the road crested and we dropped into the valley. I drove the switchbacks down into the snow and mist. When Half Dome and Yosemite Falls came into view, I pulled over and we all stepped out of the car into the sharp cold air.

Yosemite does not disappoint. A break in the clouds poured sun over it all, and it was sublime, Nature, awe, the Ice Age ghosts of the glaciers that the Park Service says “gouged yosemite-4and quarried” the valley “into a U-shaped trough” somewhere around a million years ago. Back then, the tip of Half Dome was only 900 feet above the ice. A bunch of cars were parked near us, drivers stopped in their tracks, snapping futile pictures. We were just one hybrid vehicle in a long line of Victorian pilgrimages by station wagon. 95% of visitors to the park never get off the beaten path, say the signs in the Yosemite shuttle. We are the 95%. But it’s a great path. I was almost moved to tears. This world, where had it been? I wanted to stay there staring until the sun left. But my kids were cold and one more turn to the hotel and also I realized I needed shoes.

I was up working until 3am the night before we left. I had packed in a fog. When I stepped out of the car to see the falls for the first time in decades, I was wearing socks and Saltwater sandals. That first evening, just after we saw the falls, we had to drive to the village store so I could buy some duck boots. My kids now know that it is not important to be prepared because the village store sells everything except decent bourbon.

The sublime and the ridiculous continued and merged. The next day an El Niño year storm dropped a foot and half of snow, we had sublime snowball fights. I taught H. to stockpile and aim and we made snow angels and P targeted the branches so the trees would dump snow on everyone at once. We walked out by the river and threw snow into the river and never wanted to leave. H named her snowmen Titu and Silver. On our last day, my three year-old stood up on skis.

At the base of the falls, at least two plaques commemorate John Muir’s tree house cabin, an idyllic place to live. The park service built a lodge next door, because location, location, location. Muir, when he lived there, was running a sawmill. Just after, Muir was a shepherd, which also sounds idyllic. But it turns out he wasn’t really the shepherd, he was hired to supervise the shepherd so that Muir would have more time for writing and botany. He called the sheep “hoofed locusts” because they ate the natural plants. He was among the first white tourists in Yosemite, who began to arrive only ten years after the southern Miwok were driven out.

Of course, the plaque near the falls lauds Muir as the father of the park, as if he discovered the place, as if he were one of a tiny handful of innocent loggers who stumbled into the plaqueonrockJohnMuircabinsiforest, with Muir the only one who happened to look up and see God. I don’t know enough Muir to know his complete relationship to the Native Americans. But like so many historical plaques in the U.S., this plaque uses a myth to look away from what came before, another small square of metal nailed over our bloody history.

Muir himself was both the bearded rugged and visionary individualist of his myths and also, he was a sensitive, gentle, and social soul who let somebody else deal with the sheep. He was almost blinded in a factory accident. He wrote sheafs of letters to Jeanne Carr, an amateur botanist and his “spiritual mother.” She shared his passion for nature and did the emotional labor of listening to John Muir complain. He was often lonely. She was married to a professor, herself an amateur naturalist, amateur because she was a 19th century wife primarily devoted to the care of other humans. Muir thought it was Jeanne who understood him and his love of Nature best. She and Muir planned her visit to Yosemite for months, but somehow got the date tangled. When she showed up at the Black Hotel, he was not there. She wrote a letter of muted disappointment that he was, instead, “entangled with sheep.”

While we were there, I couldn’t help but think about all of the people hidden behind the myth of Muir—the tragic violence against the Miwok that preceded him, but also Jeanne Carr and her love of ferns. The other loggers at the sawmill. Some poor shepherd suddenly being supervised by a dreamy half-blind botanist. By now, the fact of Thoreau’s mother doing his laundry in the background at Walden pond is a commonplace. Muir’s important mythic function, like so many other important myths in the U.S., relied on the people working, quietly, behind him.

Carr cared and listened, she did the woman’s work of putting her own botany last so that she could put other people first. But her own botany, her own work—without it, she would not have been the reader and the interlocutor who meant so much to John Muir. The Jeanne Ezra Carr (1)feminist answer to Carr’s role can’t be to criticize Muir for not doing his work truly alone. None of us does it alone, that’s a different myth, a neoliberal privatized myth. John Muir existed in a racist sexist morally compromised society much like ours. He wrote about places he loved and in doing so, he shaped a new audience with a slightly better compass for thinking about the natural world, a world that this still compromised society is slowly destroying. Myths are conceived, birthed, collectively raised. The shepherd kept track of the actual sheep so that John Muir could go on thinking profoundly about the lichens. They all, together, built a story. A representation. A thing called Yosemite National Park. Which by the way, the private hotel company that runs Yosemite Lodge has trademarked. While that company tries to profit off of the work done by others to protect a holy place, the National Park Service will go to court.

Hordes of visitors from around the world now use the myth of Muir to step into the romance of Yosemite. His identification with the park is a thumbnail sketch, a narrative blueprint, for how to engage with its super-human scale. He didn’t discover the Valley, nor did he throw his body down immediately on the loggers’ tracks. He ran that sawmill. He wasn’t an ascetic. He got super lonely when he was alone. He collected moss and liverwort and bracken and then swapped notes about them with Jeanne. He left a trace. His letters were not all masculine disquisitions of the dissolution of self into awe and majesty. Lots were quotidian talk, expressions of longing for companionship, questions about Jeanne’s kids, and nerdy comparisons of notes on ferns.

Muir was actually a family man who lived in Yosemite for only a brief period. He visited. He was a writer, a man of letters, who once took a thousand mile walk. I read Wild a few weeks before we came to Yosemite, a woman’s story of a thousand mile walk and an important entrée into the American romance with endurance off the grid. Wild is a paean to a different natural place, the Pacific Crest Trail. But even in Wild, which I loved, I thought about the friend who sent the author’s boxes of stuff to each ranger’s hut along the way. The friend who then showed up at the end, with a car, to take Cheryl Strayed back to Portland. This friend gets short shrift in the book. It’s as if she, like Jeanne Carr, is a bit of a threat to the heroic narrative. The sending of boxes and the doing of laundry and the tending of sheep and the planning of visits to the Black Hotel and the buying of proper shoes and mittens. This is women’s work, even in a woman’s heroic narrative.

I forget things, although usually not shoes. I somehow am always not doing enough and forgetting things—not enough laundry, not enough tending, not enough working, never enough writing. Like Jeanne, I show up, but I get the date wrong, and it must be my fault. I am sorry not to see the falls with the real John Muir. I saw Half Dome only from the window of the shuttle, this trip. But I was still glad to see it. It remains glorious. I will donate to the Sierra Club again, this year, while today’s ice melts. This is not enough, but it is better than nothing. I miss the glaciers I never knew.


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Are you free from sin?

Sitting in a café at the edge of downtown, I’m near the midpoint in my usual commute to work, at the edge of Los Angeles’s district of gentrified warehouses, the Arts District. A couple of generations of actual artists have lived around here. Some of them are now being edged out, by the successful marketing and sale of “artists’ lofts.” The café is a riff on postindustrial materials—concrete, steel and wood. The commodification of the aura of labor replaces actual factories. This, by now, is an old story.

It’s summer, so I can work at a café today. When I go in, I continue east on the 60, past the busted glass like missing teeth on the Pico Rivera High School scoreboard and the disconnected transmission tower and the old neon sign for Driving California School and Wendy’s and Paul’s Brakes and a billboard just as I merge onto the 605 dedicated to Jesus asking ARE YOU FREE FROM SIN?

I am not. And we use too much water. The world is ending, so all the post-apocalyptic settings on my screens… the genres that imagine a civilization in decay? Environmental catastrophe?  Stories at the world’s end? They look like home. They remind us the damage is done, the horrors we have wrought upon this lovely planet are unforgivable and irretrievable. Post-apocalyptic stylings bring us into focus, let us imagine what it will be like to survive ourselves, my grandkids are so screwed…

And yet. Here in the warehouse district, it’s post-industrial, postmodern pastiche and I know it’s gentrification and I know it’s probably a sign of civilization’s decadence and decay, part of the end of something I care about and… it’s so gorgeous. This café is the size of a city block. Outdoor: a polished cement floor on the patio, hedges in planters on the sidewalk. Indoors: tiny two-seaters along the banks of windows, three or four different areas, a long communal farmhouse wooden table, a shop selling candles and scarves. Stainless steel and unvarnished wood. Another patio with a fountain and olive trees and gravel. Behind that: A bar, full of cool air and shadows in the daytime, too tempting for just now.

Outside, a girl twenty years younger than I am has dyed her hair gray. Her roots are light brown, with a hint of purple. It looks beautiful on her, the gray against her flawless skin. This is a trend, young people dying their hair gray. Like the fading signs for Deal or No Deal Discount Clothing Show, this trend strikes me as a sign of the apocalypse, of something that has run its course. I do not believe that it’s a reclamation of aging for women, or that it will make natural gray hair suddenly meet the beauty standard by comparison. But it does look great on her.

Also, they’re fixing the Pico Rivera sign.

The olive trees and gravel, behind the girl with the gray hair, remind me of Paris. I wouldn’t trade that for this. I wouldn’t trade Europe’s beautiful imperial nostalgia for Los Angeles’s confused longing. I’d rather this strange city always in the future perfect. Speculative fiction is set in California because fiction about the end of the world is just realism now, the end has already begun. I’m ashamed and terrified. I’m going to buy a six-dollar cold-pressed juice and a coffee and think about it on the patio.

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I want to buy

I want to buy


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Future Spa

Future SPA

If I were skating and you were skating and other people were taking a shower in their own golden hair, with pulley systems, and six-pack abs, and splashing in the golden light of the future,  if everything were echo deco font and the sphinxlike spaceman  bodybuilder were being birthed from the back of a semi, if I had my winged gogo boots and my cut-out cleavage machine and my space punk Victorian collar in blue to match your Folsom Street harness in red, if we were running together under the awnings of tomorrow in the light of the blue planet, dreaming of tiny versions of ourselves who follow the golden jumprope… if all this, if Bally Future Spa were me, would you love me then?

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Lip gloss

If I’m being honest, I was upset starting last night, because of the silliest of professional slights. Silly, minor. Living this life means feeling invisible or attacked about half the time, and crazy the other half, and sometimes it is my fault. Sometimes I am being, as they say, too sensitive. So I decided to go to the mall.

Sometimes I am treated differently because just a girl not universal feminine unable to be neutral mixed race crazy just another mom. I know what it is to be punished for leaning in—which isn’t perceived as leaning in, but as entitled crazy demanding stepping out of line. I know, with absolute certainty, that sometimes, things happen because of race and gender. I also know with absolute certainty that most of the time I will never be quite sure, so I will feel crazy.  I know that the meritocratic myth is there, in part, to discipline my responses away from “this is systemic and wrong” and towards “I can do better” or “I can serve you better…” and I know that class often matters more than race and gender but that intersectionally speaking, these things recreate and reinforce each other.

I talk to my students about how being nonwhite and female in this world is complicated but also simple: it will sometimes boil down to feeling invisible and unheard and a little bit crazy. So I tell them, bring it to class and we will analyze it together. That is something we can do. But. Today. I’m unable to analyze my way out of it. I truly believe that my students and I, we mostly help each other. I tire quickly of grading but I almost always love seeing them, and I miss them today, because it is spring break. And I’m unable, just now, to teach myself not to feel crazy. So what do I do? I bring my work and I go to the mall. Why the mall? Because I feel invisible, and frustrated, and I want lip gloss.

At the mall,  I know sales people and only sales people will talk to me. I know they will be nice to me. I wear nice shoes and I carry a credit card. So they will be nice to me. In fact, the lovely young woman  of color in her black apron at the makeup counter is, at first, somewhat distant. She excuses herself to help a white woman holding a coupon and leaves me stranded near the Urban Decay for five minutes. But I am extra nice to her, in my nice shoes. I listen to her recommendations. I promise to buy the compact she brings me. And in the end, she is lovely. She mixes me a sample of primer and writes down extra information for me. Class privilege and affective labor, at the mall in America, trumps race. And the money spent will make me visible to myself. I may be invisible and without a voice but I can acquire this thing I need.  This lip gloss and eye shadow.

Boo hoo you feel sorry for yourself so you went to the mall. Dumb lady.

Sure. I am lucky to have this choice, to buy lip gloss on a bad day. But this is also about the options left open to me, when I feel silenced in the halls of true power. Makeup makes me feel stronger, that is its false promise. But makeup also feels no less optional to me than the pressures of the beauty standard itself.

I wear makeup every day to work. I don’t wear it just to drop my kid off at school, or to exercise, or even out to go out to dinner with my husband sometimes. I know he will have me without it. But I have never gotten up in front of a class, for more than ten years now, without makeup. It is part of the way I participate in the physical rhetoric of teaching on a college campus.  I am short. And conventionally feminine. And mixed race Asian. I don’t feel that I can stand among the towering young men in their cargo shorts and the young women in their yoga pants and their nicer shoes than mine without at least a couple of inches in heels and makeup.

I am automatically awarded less authority,  automatically judged on my appearance, too pretty to be serious, too serious to be pretty, laughable if ugly, dismissible if lovely, she’s a bitch/ he’s tough and there is no way around this bind. A colleague, my age and my build but ethnically white, was leaving her class the other day when an older white male professor said to her, apropos of basically nothing, “You’re so young and pretty I just assumed you were an adjunct.” He meant this as a compliment.

I dab on vanilla latte crème in the morning and wonder how makeup would be sold and understood if it were men who wore it as a first line of defense against the world. What if it were masculine to have smokey purple eyelids and a sharp black kohl hugging the lash line? Then there would be great, dark, smokey warehouses of makeup. Young men in black slacks and white shirts, perhaps with sleeve garters, would shuffle under mirrors hanging slanted from the ceiling reflecting male pattern baldness and five o’clock shadows from all angles. Men would sweep palettes of color out in front of other men like decks of cards. Bare mineral neutrals, today, sir? Or something more aggressive? A heather dusk? Women would be characterized as unable to understand color and line and not be allowed in. Perhaps they would pour a whiskey with your skin consultation. Clears the pores. Sawdust on the floor and a hushed silence, in the halls of paint and power, except for the clank of the trash cans receiving the used samplers.

I feel lost, and frustrated, so I bought war paint. In a few years, I won’t even be able to wear these colors. But you can say I treated myself if you want to. I got a Clinique Black Honey sampler.

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Sidewalk Art



Strategically spray-painted near things one might bump into.

Strategically spray-painted near things one might bump into.

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A Pandemonium of Parrots

The weather is angry, the heat comes down like a curtain within an hour of sunrise to suffocate the days, these storied Los Angeles days that put your teeth on edge. Los Angeles Is Burning goes through my head. Palm trees like candles in the murder wind. Except there’s no wind.

Yesterday, when I went outside to walk H. to school, the tree across the street was heavy with birds that I could not identify yelling at each other. The resonance and the range of their vocal registers had a furious, human quality. When they lifted off the branches, yelling and yelling, they made crosses in the air. Blue, or blue green. They didn’t caw, it was not a murder of crows.

From the Eastsider LA<br />

In my work life, this is also the season of rejection and abandonment and despair. Murder season all around. The birds seemed to be having a heated and terrible conference discussion.

H. has a picture book about collective nouns for magical beasts. A Dignity of Dragons. A Continent of Kraken. A Resurrection of Phoenix. I tried to think of the word I wanted to describe these birds. This is how I got stuck, in this morning, in this life. The blessing and the curse of my mind is its native tendency to disappear into a search for the right words. H. asked me what I was thinking about.

“A pandemonium of parrots,” I told her.

Later, I typed “parrots” and “Los Angeles” into the search box, and saw their picture online. I’m no naturalist, so I was so incredibly pleased that I had identified them correctly. They were described  as “feral.” Feral parrots. But that seems unfair. Parrots aren’t a domesticated species, they haven’t had their original angry voices and sizes and colors bred out of them by humans. They got free and are fighting it out, up there, about how to adapt to the haze and the murderous heat. They were born loud and wild. A blessing and a curse.

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Once upon a time, I sold everything I owned and moved to Brazil. This piece, over at Avidly at the LA Review of Books is mostly about that, and also, about soccer:

No one in Rio understood why I had come. I wasn’t married to an oil man. I didn’t have a Fulbright. A young woman alone, “freelance writing,” training capoeira—to most people, this signaled a pitiable and possibly dangerous solitude, making me a kind of charity case. The sister of a friend of a friend offered to take me to a movie as if she were offering to feed me a bowl of porridge. Before I could even order a pao de quejo at the local deli, I had been asked countless times: No really, who was the man you followed? What are you running from? Once people accepted that I was living in Rio just to live in Rio, then the next question was, so who’s your team? They didn’t really expect an answer, but these were the poles that defined the map: Love and futbol.



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How we know each other

At the end of 2013, I sat with S. while she smoked a cigarette out on the patio at a bar that we like. Two guys came over and bummed a smoke. They asked us how we knew each other. S. said, “Drinking and writing. ” This strikes me as the best possible way to know someone. It’s not how we met, which would be more like, “friends from college knew other friends from college.” But if you were to anatomize our friendship, to look at why and how we got to know each other within a standard big American city network of people from elsewhere, we know each other through drinking and writing. Sunset Junction

The two young men looked younger than we are. One of them sounded British, so I asked where they were from, and the other one, the not-British one, said, “Encino.” How did they know each other? “Smoking and rock and roll.” I asked for band names. Surely this is what young men who identify as as rocknroll and bum smokes in a bar want to be asked. Encino said: “Mini Mansions.”

I love this band name. I had never heard of it before, but I immediately effused that I am kind of obsessed in a weird way with real estate. And our British friend, the one sporting a pompadour fade and a leather jacket? He said, “The Arctic Monkeys.”

I almost pulled out my phone to prove that Do I Wanna Know? was at the top of my playlist!! I said something about the video. The Arctic Monkey looked confused. When S. and I went to the bathroom, she immediately pulled out her phone to see if he was lying. I had no idea. I listen to their music, had even watched that video, but it’s animated and I am no longer the kind of fan who looks up publicity stills, unless I meet the frontman in a bar. He wasn’t lying.

My theory is that the confusion on Alex Turner’s face was about me, and whether it was a good or a bad thing that I was a fan of his band. S. looked great in black pants and lipstick. But I had hurried out to the bar in an old sweater and a ponytail. My five year-old daughter had made me a necklace out of rubber bands on her Rainbow Loom. I was wearing it. And S. and I were so direct, so unfazed, so over caring what people thought of us. S. reassured them that “Mini Mansions” was also a very good name for a band. Were we flirting? Or being patronizing? I landed right on the cusp — cute girl in a bar? or soccer mom? Unclear.

Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker’s music critic, has made it explicit that he equates artistic death with appealing primarily to women like me. You don’t get to the top of the streaming charts by thinking of yourself as a band that appeals to moms. The frontman for The Arctic Monkeys looked at me and thought — maybe I have really gotten famous? or maybe this bird is lying? or maybe I should finish this fag and go find someone who won’t look at me with such intense curiosity?

Arctic_Monkeys_-_Do_I_Wanna_KnowI like the whole album, but that song, their biggest hit, is about that time at the end of the night when you want to call your ex, the one you can’t stop thinking about but know you shouldn’t call. It’s about obsession and spilling drinks on my settee and crawling back to you, feelings and cravings that people conventionally shelve in a marketing category separate from soccer moms. We are meant to hold down the edges of a square world that indie rock must define itself against. Yes, it’s true, Alex Turner, I also like Katy Perry. But I promise my fandom doesn’t have a downside, I carry no glamor that wards off cool. Dark feelings and difficult cravings don’t end because you have children. I meet your music where it lives.

I spent this morning reading articles recommended by friends on social media and waiting for my brain to come back online to tackle this new year. It seems that everything is ending. Midlist book publishing and the community of readers. Water. Alternative newsweeklies. Affordable housing. The academy. Cities. Being a cute girl in a bar. The world and all the things I hold dear, facing their imminent demise. But there is still drinking and writing to do. And with endings come beginnings. Hello, 2014.

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