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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I 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.
I was only gone for three days, but coming back into Los Angeles is sometimes hard. On my commute, a piece of cardboard flips up off the road. It hits my windshield and flies towards the shoulder. I fight the reflex to veer. Something else makes the noise of a heartbeat as I drive over it. Another scrap glances off the corner of my car, then re-enters my peripheral vision as something falling out of the sky.
But the thing in the sky isn’t cardboard, it’s a glider. A tiny plane. Red and titanium silver in the sun. It twirls on its axis on the way down, like the helicopter maple seeds I used to see in northwestern Massachusetts. I think it must be crashing, and then: up up up. It twirls on the way up, too. I can’t tell if it’s very small, almost a toy, or if its size rearranges the scale of the distance between me and the San Gabriels.
When my plane was coming down into LAX, the city spread out below me, brown and unending and flat. From the air I found it discouraging, hard to get a handle on. On the drive back from the airport, I tried to focus on the moment where the 101 curves around downtown and holds the U.S. bank tower at its center. At dusk when the lights are coming on, your eye can take in that skyline, and you think, OK, here’s the city. But it’s just a moment on the freeway. No one has that view except for the cars. It’s not a real vantage point.
By contrast, in ten minutes driving on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, I saw the curve of the water and low flat whitecaps and the park benches and the luxury apartment buildings looking out at the lake. All vantage points. Chicago may not be as consistently graceful as European cities, but it lets you take it in. A string of lights across a rehabbed industrial brick building. Blocks of townhouses. Trains. Air so cold I could feel adrenaline release into my blood when I walked out into it.
It’s so simple. The density of urban details makes you feel like you can see the city. That’s all. In Los Angeles the rhythm is thinner, spread out, hazy, and so it sometimes seems unreal and flat. A trick of the light. I have to remind myself. It would be hard to see that glider in Chicago. You need that empty sky. A pinwheel, flashing bursts of light at me as I drive on.
Once, months ago, my family went on vacation. We drove up the coast, to the Best Western BayView Plus Carmel, at the corner of Ocean and Sixth. This is a perfect place. The ice machine hums by the stairs, the breakfast room serves sausages and eggs in a stainless steel warmer, and our room, our glorious room, came with a glassed-in fireplace and a balcony with a view of the Pacific. We had a door that closed between the bedroom and the living room, such that adults could put children to bed and stay up to open wine. For a few days, we were the one percent.
In the cool fog of a coastal morning, I went for a walk with the baby in her carrier, twenty pounds of sleeping child strapped to my stomach with canvas. I stopped in a shop and looked at fancy shoes. Something about their proportions made me think of candy and Paris. I fondled the shoes. I asked questions about them. I palmed their soft leather. The sales woman offered to let me try them on. I was on vacation, so I pretended that I was seriously considering buying them, that I would come back without the baby, that I wear candy and Paris on my feet all the time. But while the Bayview Plus could make me feel rich, it could not mark down those shoes.
Carmel is a tiny beach town full of very, very expensive things. I stopped next in one of its many galleries. One of the painters in this gallery had a biography, on a color printout, which read:
“Paris born artist and France’s most prominent living artistic asset…
From his first finished painting, he has been represented professionally. This rare talent is present but a few times in each generation. [His] paintings are in the most exclusive collections globally, including an NBA team.”
This copy also appears on the ArtBrokerage website for the artist, where the asking price for one of his paintings, of a woman in a black cocktail dress striking a sassy pose on the beach, is $22,500.
In this artist’s work, the sinewy brushwork and elegant cafés are the anachronistic love child of Edgar Degas and Toulouse Lautrec. The paintings look, in fact, as if Toulouse had repainted one of Edgar’s café scenes, and then removed any details that might precisely locate the image in historical time–carefully suspended between modern French people at a costume ball, and nineteenth century people with really fashion-forward hats.
More copy claimed that the artist is the “first in generations to re-interpret Degas and Lautrec.” This “first” claim is brought into serious question by the other paintings that appear on the ArtBrokerage website, under the headings SIMILAR ARTISTS and LISTINGS YOU MAY LIKE.
In the gallery, I became intensely annoyed. The hyperbolic claims were harshing my mellow. Instead of bringing Paris closer, the copy reminded me of the distance between me and Lautrec’s bohemia. It made it hard for me to inhabit my vacation-daydream, full of Italian leather and cobblestones. I had the fleeting impulse to approach the actually-French tourists who were in the gallery with me, and say, “Bonjour, I used to live in Paris, and I’m just so sorry about that living asset business.” Or perhaps just, in my good French accent, “Bah, euh, les Americains!”
Another landscape painter in the gallery did poppies—very large, very red poppies. Some of the poppies were so red and so poppy they burst off the canvas into the third dimension. I actually quite liked those bursting poppies. But again, the curation: The artist was described as “today’s most Important Landscape painter” [capitalization in original], a woman who had been so deeply inspired by the seaside landscapes in Provence that she was the “first to paint them with real emotion.” She was now being imitated “by all.”
Something about the real estate prices in Carmel gave me a burning need to police these factual insults to the French and Art. How could anyone who had ever been to a museum or a college art class believe that these painters were the original, the only, to re-heat impressionistic Provençal landscapes? What do you mean the first person to paint Provence with feeling? It’s an insult to the language.
But who cares? Who goes on vacation and wanders into a gallery on a morning walk with coffee and a baby and becomes enraged by the relative aesthetic credibility of claims made in a beachside gallery? What is wrong with me?
Important Landscapes and Living Asset are undoubtedly good, kind humans, trying to make a living with art. But I couldn’t shake it. I walked and tried to imagine who was buying those paintings. Carmel is littered with real estate offices, all trying to lure you into putting money down on the glory of the California central coast. It’s littered with staggeringly beautiful and wildly expensive homes. Were the people living in that $12 million glass-and-beam fantasy, built into an ancient grove of redwoods, were they buying Living Asset? I would bet no. I would bet they own five homes and two Lautrec originals. Artistic assets of a different class, not Important Landscape, grace the foyer of the gently undulating sculptural modern that hangs off a cliff on the Pacific side of Highway One.
In such moments, I try to breathe and imagine Pierre Bourdieu. What Would Bourdieu Do? He would chide me for my petit bourgeois commitment to Art, capital A. The rich have better structural luck. When that luck is dynastic, it often brings with it the social distinction known as taste. Meanwhile, the more nouveau riche get the rules wrong and buy French-ified beachside art. Maybe they buy it because it’s marked Very Important and maybe that’s a mistake, but if they can resell it for $25K, it’s not a serious mistake. I’m the mistake — me who failed to go work in finance, me who builds castles to intellectual and artistic truth in the sand. My own impulse to reproduce the dictates of good taste is a mechanism that itself perpetuates the class distinctions that enrage me.
WWBD? He would say, “Bah, euh, les Americains!”
But still… France’s most important living artistic asset? Come on!! It’s so absurd!!
I got to the shore, in Carmel, and walked a few steps out onto the sand. The baby was stirring, so I just stood looking out at the cypress and purple ice plants. Carmel is everything I wanted—sea, fog, air, tide pools, a balcony with $18 wine—and yet it cracked open an abyss of further wanting. Is it relaxing to spend time near the lovely fortresses of the mega-rich? Americans often find it declassé to talk about class out loud. It’s definitely crass to think about one’s wasted merits as a trophy wife. It’s vulgar, to think about how one would be so good at being rich, about how one would wear excellent shoes and choose excellent paintings. Sometimes it’s easy to mistake the urge to escape my life — the urge to escape the inside of my own skull and all my past mistakes — for the urge to buy fancy shoes. That failing is my own. Because I am already lucky, already rich. And so is that dude who paints lovely ladies at the beach in fancy hats, who gets to be an American artist.
A poet, a friend of a friend on Facebook, is unemployed and living in his grandmother’s basement and writing The Unemployment Sonnets. For five dollars, you can commission a poem. My poem is entitled “Gin and Root Beer.” It is about striving and taste and ceiling fans. I lost the envelope already. All I have is a piece of binder paper covered in square cursive. The black pen looks almost like calligraphic marker. Calligraphy. Can you imagine?
I believe that Daniel Bailey didn’t even scroll through my Facebook profile, that the words postdoc and cocktails and “taste is not experience it is spoiling a surprise party” and “blanket our heads with lions” came to him from thinking about my name and looking at a broken electric blanket. While pop-up ads know to offer me green coffee and disco pants because of big data, the isolated poet goes on blind intuition.
I can’t remember the last time I opened an envelope addressed by hand to find careful, handwritten words, intended specifically for me. The mail is for Important Frequent Flier Information and automatic Amazon re-ups of toilet paper. A handwritten poem is a little bit breathtaking.
All broke ass writers should advertise commissioned sonnets. This is the real dream of modern technology. A PayPal-based artistic ggeh – the Korean word for the money pools that immigrant communities formed as they arrived in America. We all order up writing and pay for it while we have the means, and then one day, when we are in a particularly deep basement, our turn rolls around. The ggeh opens its trapdoors and showers us in funds and deadlines. We are kept in Gin and Root Beer. We are kept working.
When I was in college, one of the boys I fell in love with briefly spent the summer in San Francisco, near my home. I forgot to be cool and took him to the Japanese Tea Gardens, the places I loved when I was a child. We ate rice crackers and almond cookies in the tea pavilion. He left to travel in Europe and sent me a handwritten letter on a piece of binder paper. I remember he compared Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia to a castle made of dripping sand. I sat at the bottom of the stairs in my parents’ house, the front door still open to the Bay’s icy summer fog, while I read and re-read his letter and looked for clues.
The boy later told me bluntly that he felt nothing for me, mocked me for not knowing better than to take him to tourist attractions, and then later, he came out of the closet, and then later still, he became a successful writer. But the humiliation of it all was worth it to me for that letter. Somewhere in Barcelona he took the time to find the paper, the pen, the words, the envelope, the address, the stamp. I held in my hand his composition of me.
It’s almost a Luddite cliché: the technology promises to keep us endlessly connected distracted frenzied liked, and at its most miraculous, we use it to send money and messages across the ether, and for what? To drum up a plain old sheet of paper with a hundred and fifty cursive words from a stranger. And this is what makes us feel connected, and still, and seen.