Sunday, September 22, 2013

It took me until today to listen to the This American Life episode about David Rakoff that originally aired on August 12, 2012. An episode with many of his essays and interviews, compiled after he passed away. He'd been on the show only three weeks earlier. And then he died. Of cancer. [Because who doesn't?] On August 9th, 2012. Driving home tonight, the moon was no longer full, but it was huge, bouncing around from palm tree to palm tree, hanging over Hollywood, a spotlight, yellow-orange, a ghost, on this day which is, for me, filled with many ghosts. I remember that one of the first things I ever told my therapist is that I hate September 22nd more than any other day. I remember that she told me, September 22nd is my wedding anniversary. I felt bad. I wasn't saying that I hated her wedding anniversary. September 22nd is, every year, the first day of fall. On September 22nd, I begin to notice leaves changing color. Even here in Los Angeles. My jalapeño plant, yellowing slightly, the end of its season. I see in my head the image of leaves falling in that graveyard in Connecticut, where my grandfather is no longer buried. A story I can't tell without betraying my hatred toward a lot of things and people I shouldn't hate. It is a tradition in my religion to bring a stone with you to the cemetery, to place it on the tombstone of the person you're visiting. I did this this summer in Ohio. The small cemetery we finally located off the side of a rural highway south of Logan. Where my grandmother's parents are buried. Died six months apart in 1931.

It took me until today to listen to the This American Life episode about David Rakoff because incredible people seem to always die far too soon. It's not that I'd even lost Jake when this episode aired. In fact, I'd just seen him two days before this episode went on the radio, on his 40th birthday. It's that I knew that if I heard David Rakoff's familiar voice again after he was gone, I'd hate radio. Even if just for a moment, I'd hate the thing that brought this person I never knew into my life, then took him away. This is child like logic. This American Life even did an episode about that once. But really, because the radio was where I knew Rakoff, then the radio is what took him away. And I didn't want to hate the radio. Because I love radio. I love radio as much as I love books. Sometimes I drive around the country, around my state, around my hometown, listening to radio and I think to myself, goddamn, I love radio. I love radio and radio is what I should be doing with my life. No more teaching. No more school. I need to be in radio.

I saw my best friend go on as Hermia today in A Midsummer Night's Dream. We did that play in high school. I remember everyone's role from back then. I think about how Cobweb didn't make it. Took himself from us. Incredible people seem to always die far too soon. I picture the person I've spent the last 11 years loving, dressed in his fairy costume, all blue and green, waiting backstage.

When I finally listened to the David Rakoff episode of This American Life today, I noticed how sad Ira sounded. But also how confident, and calm, and together. I imagined that he must have been completely devastated. And I've heard him be devastated on the radio before. But in this episode he sounded strong. I had just listened to another older episode right before this one. #470. Show Me The Way. About a teenage boy who had no friends. Who was excluded for being different. Who ran away to the home of his favorite sci-fi writer. At the end of this story, one of the storytellers reads a quote from that famous sci-fi writer that the writer wrote in the back of one of his books in his author's note: One thing you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not, we who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs or seem to seek them, who are hypersensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and above all survivors, we're not that way from perversity. And we cannot just relax and let it go. We've learned to cope in ways you never had to.

I started sobbing at the end of that story. Driving through the canyons up to the theater in Topanga, I broke down and cried. But I didn't cry because I felt bad for myself for being someone who identified with this sentiment. I cried because of and above all survivors. And I cried because, at exactly that moment, I drove by a parking lot I'd forgotten about. The only other time I'd been in Topanga. Over three years ago, right around my birthday with the person I loved. I remember that I was disappointed. Because I'd wanted real nature. This was before I knew that the mountains I grew up in couldn't be found in the greater Los Angeles area. And I was disappointed because still, after all these years, one plus one wasn't adding up to enough.

As I watched my friend perform brilliantly today in a play I've seen more than any other, I saw all my old friends on that stage with her. I saw my other best friend, who always kills as Puck. I saw high school versions of everyone. And of myself. I was an usher for that play, I think. I watched from the last row, every night. I remember the drama that went down when the cast list first went up. I don't know where half those people are, now. But for a second, they were all on stage in the canyon.

Lately I've been having this thought. It's not really fully formed. And it feels cruel. Like a betrayal of my heart. Or like the exact opposite of a betrayal, which is a betrayal in itself. My life is bigger than everything that's happened to me. My life is bigger than this person I've spent my life imagining the rest of my life with.

The thing about the David Rakoff episode of This American Life that really gets me is that David is still alive in all those clips that were compiled after he died. If you'd never heard him on This American Life before, you could go to that episode and get so much of him all at once. And only after he'd passed away. Before that, he was scattered moments on different shows, small but powerful essays here and there over the years. It didn't hurt me to listen to that episode tonight like I'd thought it would. It made me happy. David Rakoff left behind so many beautiful words for the rest of us, that it felt wrong to be upset while listening to them. Because his life and his work were both bigger than him, and yet he was somehow as big as those things. Came to meet the largeness of his life, in his death, and in that way, created something infinite. I can only say this because I didn't lose him personally. And I'm sure, having lost a hugely important figure in my life personally, that it's different for those who knew him. But this realization about life and size is an important one to me.

After one of the essays included in the David Rakoff episode, they play Madonna's "Like A Prayer" in the background. It came on right as I was leaving Hollywood to get onto the highway home. I saw the moon stuck between two palm trees, bright. I remembered a video my friend made this summer. It's set to this song. I'm in it. Splashing in the watering hole where my grandmother used to swim, somewhere off the side of a rural highway south of Logan. And when I think of that video, and of the person who made it, my life feels bigger than me. And I feel bigger than these things I've been through. And I feel like something more than just a survivor. I feel like I can be a creator. Like I can move forward into the largeness and let myself go.

Friday, September 20, 2013

This #9

1. Arcadia, Lauren Groff
Arcadia is, by far, the best book I've read in 2013. I'm behind on reading contemporary fiction since PhD course work reading consumes most of my time during three quarters of the year. But this summer I picked up Arcadia. The first 40 or so pages were a slog for me. The language felt sticky, heavy, thick in a way that made it hard slip through the book, page to page. And then, suddenly, the language felt sticky, heavy, thick, in a way that flowed and felt like plunging myself into a river. I don't know if I've ever seen someone do such beautiful things with language. I definitely have not ever read another book that feels like what my insides feel like as much as this book does. So many of the things I've felt and thought that I never expected anyone else to understand, let alone put into language, I encountered in this book. I can't express enough my love for Arcadia. I was reading it in Colorado, in the summer, usually in my parents' backyard. One night, I was outside on my back porch, toward the end of the book, and I knew my parents were about to get home from work. And I knew I couldn't be interrupted while squeezing every last drop out of those final 50 or so pages. So I saved the end for the next afternoon when I knew I'd be alone, uninterrupted, outside in the backyard where I grew up. Because I knew I was going to cry. And I knew I needed to cry. And that I needed to make sure no one else stood between those last sentences and my blood, and the absorption process that happened after I closed the book, put it down, and looked up at the sky.

2. Welcome to Night Vale
Someone broke into my brain, stole all my random, crazy thoughts and feelings about the desert, and turned them into a podcast. That's really all I can say about this. I wish I wrote it. I did write it. In my head. Before someone broke into my brain. I know that sounds like I'm giving myself too much credit. I definitely am. Let's just say, after I listened to the first episode, I went online to find the people who wrote it to see if I could marry them.

3. I've tried all three of these in the past seven days. Biking, yoga, swimming in the sea, crying so hard my eyes were swollen shut the next morning. And all I can say is, sometimes there isn't even enough salt water in the whole world.
This month, more than any other, I've tried to stick to a routine. Because September is always hard for me. It's the month in which I experienced my first important death, it's the month in which I experienced my first break up, and since those two firsts, it's held seconds, sometimes thirds of those things. So I tried to preempt struggle this month by making a schedule filled with the things that keep me afloat. Monday and Wednesday is school. Tuesday and Thursday is teaching. Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday are yoga, Thursday is after school tutoring at 826la. Saturdays are for going places, visiting friends, etc. Monday through Wednesday is riding my bike to school. Tuesdays are walking to the farmer's market. Non-school daily things I've been doing have remained consistent all month: gardening, maintaining my fish tank, trying to find new things to cook, walking around my neighborhood, writing. If I'd done a blog post each week in September, they'd all look exactly the same. Photos of my garden, photos of my fish, photos of my cat, photos of my neighborhood, photos of something fun/pretty/adventurous/social, photos of school and 826 related stuff. So I decided to wait and lump all those things together into their respective categories. I'm taxonimizing my life. At least this month. Taking inventory. What are the things that make up my day. Who are the people that take up space on my phone, in my thoughts, in my life. I'm trying to build, again. I've been here before. Three Septembers ago. Starting over. Not from nothing this time, though. As often as it might feel like that.

School:
Where I hold office hours.
Information Visualization class.
Where I hold office hours.
My students' first assignment.
Learning to program.
Office hours. Work time. Palm trees in prison.

826la:

Adventures & Events:
Rosh Hashanah dinner at the house of the sister of the woman from the retired
couple I met on the airplane last September. It's been a year and we're only
getting closer all the time. I love my retired couple.
San Pedro
Pacific Palisades
Pacific Palisades
Pacific Palisades
Watching people watch Aimee Bender read at Skylight Books.
Los Feliz
Luck Bar

Neighborhood & in between spaces:
New art.
Blue themed work day at Intelligentsia.
Trying to breathe like a tree.
The fake moon on my bike ride home every Wednesday night.
Farmer's Market produce.

Home:
First jalapeño from my garden.
Sunday mornings.
New fish. Spinach didn't make it. So I figured out which fish were appropriate
for this size tank. Their names are Marfa, Ghost, and Lupita [from left to right].
Lupita didn't make it either. I'm beginning to have major concerns about the
tank. I've written to the people who made it. Awaiting their response. But if I
lose another fish, I'm giving up in the hipster plant growing fish tank for good.
Front yard late morning shadows.

I'm leaving LA to go to a conference in Boulder on Tuesday. So my routine will end. My budget will reset on October first. I'll feel a little safer straying from my schedule. My work load will likely get heavier. But for now, I'm just trying to exist. Existing is going well, for the most part. Except when it doesn't go well. And in those times, I just take it, like a freight train to the chest. Because I know it won't always be September. 

we did what we could
to save this house from falling
but it burns because it's wood
and now you'll never call me darling

Sunday, September 8, 2013

This #8

I often spend the first part of the morning going through the articles on my feed.ly page. When I bailed on facebook for 6 weeks back in March, I needed some way of getting all my news in one place. So I got a feed.ly account, since Google Reader was closing up shop. Going through feed.ly every morning, I bookmark anything I find inspiring. These days, I seem to find everything inspiring. I had to clean out that bookmarked section this morning because I had overloaded it. Here's some of what's making my heart continue to beat a little more loudly lately:

1. Someone created a crowdsourced map of where to find free produce from trees and plants all over the world. This appeals to my obsession with maps AND my obsession with produce AND my obsession with urban farming and gardening. And of course one of the co-founders is from Boulder, Colorado. Click on the map to link to the Falling Fruit website. [Note: the site is running very slowly today, so maybe check out their facebook page instead.]
This reminds me of an app some of the kids up in Oakland associated with Youth Radio were making last year. In my neighborhood, we have at least 10 different types of fruit trees within a couple blocks. I get so many oranges every citrus season that I couldn't possibly eat them all. My neighbors get all the lemons. My friends in Agoura get so many persimmons, they give me a giant bag full and that doesn't even account for 10% of what that tree yields. My property isn't public and therefore wouldn't be listed on this map, but I'd love to find a way to share produce even within my friend circle in Los Angeles. Though I am going to eat every single kumquat that my kumquat tree yields in January. So just be warned, you can't have my kumquats. 

2. The following quote and photo are directly from the Design Milk website: "Inspired by the brain, Swedish designer Alexandra Denton created a sculptural storage cabinet to house your memories. Synapse, with its suspended cubes, reflects the brain’s major roles: shaping connections, storing information, and accumulating memories." 
Given my interest in systems lately, I'm also really interested in things that try to mimic systems, either on a literal or a conceptual level. I don't know how practical something like this piece of furniture would be in my life, mostly because my apartment is the tiniest ever, but I like the idea of modeling something functional off of something conceptual. I could already tell you each thing I'd put in each one of those boxes, each memory associated with each thing, why it would go in its respective box with the other items that would go in that particular box. Now if only I could use this sort of conceptual to literal crossover when designing critical essay forms, I would be more successful at what I'm trying to do right now as a critic. That probably made no sense. Sorry.

3. Also from Design Milk, this amazing picnic basket. Because I want to continue to explore all the parts of LA I haven't seen. And I'd like to eat lunch while doing it. All photos are from the page I linked to in the first sentence.

4. If this book doesn't speak to my obsessive compulsive inclinations TO A T, I don't know what does. I saw this and my pulse got quicker and my palms got a little sweaty. Organization is my drug. Again, photos from Design Milk's post about this book.

5. And, tying those last two things together [memory and organization], there's this, which I'm pretty sure was invented just to sooth my obsessive narrativizing memory driven heart. Photo from the Design Milk post [see the theme here? Design Milk gives me all the design calcium, which gives me all the inspiration]. And here's what that blog post has to say about it: "We all have a tendency to collect objects: family heirlooms, trinkets, or small mementos of a treasured personal history. No matter the item, Curatorium acts as a miniature museum to store and display these sentimental belongings. The wooden box is constructed of solid maple, and is completely handmade."

I've got about 20 more posts bookmarked on my feed.ly. Modern art tattoos and tours of Long Beach's industrial side. News reports of Death Valley reaching 130 degrees and an article about a symbol for the word "the." But I've got cereal to eat and an article to finish writing and two yoga classes to go to and a goldfish and a cat and a garden and a neighborhood to obsess over. So I'll have more THIS sometime next week.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tiny little self-contained systems seem to define my life these days. Something I am grateful for. I've pursued things that develop quickly, that always reward effort. My garden, in addition to being something I've enjoyed learning about, and in addition to being an escape from the busyness of my day, has become a way for me to feel small moments of accomplishment. A one to one correlation between effort and reward. I tend to my garden, I water it, I feed it, and then it makes things for me. The first couple things I've made from my garden are an herbal infusion drink and catnip treats for my cat.
I know what you're thinking. But I swear this is catnip.

In my continuing accidental efforts [yep, that's right] to be a hip[pie]ster, I set up my aquaponics tank that finally arrived from Back to the Roots. It grows herbs using the fish poop created by my goldfish, Spinach. Another tiny self-contained system of effort and reward. I know I sound epically like a capitalist here. It's really just that I enjoy being able to watch something grow with my help. 
Only five days and already everything is sprouting! Wheatgrass, basil, lemon
balm, and lavender.

You won't be surprised to learn that sometimes I picture my life as a set of Russian Dolls. Tiny systems inside slightly bigger systems inside slightly bigger systems inside my city inside my country inside my world. My garden, my fish tank, my cat inside my apartment inside my East Hollywood/Sunset Junction neighborhood inside LA inside California inside the US inside this empty northern hemisphere inside all the hemispheres inside this sphere inside the universe. Like that one Eames video about the powers of ten. In my tiny cat system this week, I realized it's been six years almost to the day that I adopted this guy, who has been there through everything, who has lived in all my systems since I lived on my own since I turned 19.
He lives in the system that is my bungalow, where I get to sit in comfy places and read books for the system that is my PhD program.

I also kind of adopted a hummingbird or two, if you could call it that. One of them has taken to flying directly at my face, hovering there, while I read outside. My Brazilian friend tells me that in Brasil, a hummingbird approaching you means that someone special will come from somewhere far away and into your life soon. I really hope it's her. 

Every Tuesday, I purposely walk around the greater system that is my neighborhood. Farmers come into town and sell their produce. I bring cash and in exchange I get the tastiest fruit in the world. I don't know what the little red/green thing photographed below is, but I am obsessed. I buy as many per week as I can afford. And while I'm out, I notice the changes in this system, the new plants, the new buildings, the new art.
You know it.

When I need to reach outside this system of my neighborhood, I go to the post office. Maybe my favorite public system [god knows the public school system doesn't qualify for that title, nor does public transit].

I know this all sounds kind of crazy, but I have taxonomy on the brain. Systems. Networks. Neighborhoods. Mapping. Organization. Data. Information. I'm taking an information visualization class this semester, and already I'm amped for the amazing things we're going to create, and for that particular kind of high I get when I see systems functioning, organized into categories, sustaining themselves. Everything in harmony. Or not. Which is it's own kind of harmony, isn't it?