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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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.The Vitamin Vault at the Walgreens in Bronzeville

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.

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