Thursday, February 28, 2008

Friends and Strangers

"...there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random, not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known--yet unacknowledged--selves that summons the ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes--especially when those emotions are profound," wrote Toni Morrison.

"We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a convenient social convention which sometimes must be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger," wrote T.S. Elliot.

"...our social personality is a creation in the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call 'seeing a person we know' is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy a greater part. In the end they swell his cheeks so perfectly, follow the line of his nose in an adherence so exact, they do so well at nuancing the sonority of his voice as though the latter were only a transparent envelope that each time we see this face and hear this voice, it is these notions that we encounter again, that we hear," wrote Marcel Proust.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

letters make words make strings of words which may or may not have meaning depending on the reader or the writer or the world

(This bird and this tree are made of Arabic words and come from a book I'll talk about at the end of this post.)

I have been fixating on this idea:

"There is, they said, a good deal of evidence suggesting that at the deepest level of reality, time as we are accustomed to it does not actually exist, that we live in an eternal present. If I can comprehend it at all, this idea is not a very comfortable one."

This is a quote from Lydia Davis, paraphrasing a radio show she heard in her preface to The Life of Henry Brulard by Stendhal (New York Review Books, 2002), a brick of a book I have been carrying around for a few weeks and finally finished. Davis is trying to say that through his "strangely fragmented, digressive, and yet beautifully structured psuedonymous memoir" Stendhal achieves a sort of eternal present. Maybe she's right. He certainly approaches something unique and wonderful and strange. But I am fixated on the idea that the future and the past do not exist, that we live in an eternal present. I mean, I know carpe deim and all that but really who doesn't spend their days thinking about things that have happened and looking forward to things that may, or planning for them or deciding how to avoid them? But this isn't the point I see Davis nearing here. Rather, to my mind at least, she is saying that everything is the present moment, including those memories and those future plans. And the physical, actually-happening world is merely part of all that. Then how to account for change and the piling of days, one after the next? I'm not sure. Perhaps something like: a new present moment every infinite moment and no definitive way to order or define so go at it if you need to. I'd suggest art. Or other actions that make time feel different, like falling, or cooking, or talking, or sex, or skipping, or going to a new place, or tether ball, or substitute teaching. Anyway, it's really about letting go (of ego) and the dissolution (of structure) or something.

But I digress. I was trying to somehow get to Cairo, an earth-shattering city where I was fortunate enough to live for about nine months between 2004 and 2005. I met some life-altering folk through a job I had at a gallery there. I was a stranger in a strange place among people who thoroughly delighted and also comforted me. Two of those people were young German graphic artists Ben Wittner and Sascha Thoma. Those months I had the pleasure of sharing the eternal present with them in Cairo they began a project which seems to have come to some fruition presently. They've been working intensely on and are soon releasing Arabesque, a book about modern graphic design, illustration, and typography in the Middle East. I'd encourage you to check out the Arabic-inspired Latin fonts they created (click on "the fonts"), as well as some photographs (click on "gallery") they took in Cairo, which give a clue as to their inspiration. I'm damn impressed.

Monday, February 18, 2008

circling home

Don't I look bad-as$ in my full green ensemble through the mirror? Yes, say yes. You know I do. I was intrigued by the uneven floors in the ferry bathroom. That would be the ferry that we took back from Tiburon, after we biked out there, over that bridge some refer to as the Golden Gate, and eastwards, edging the water, until we got to downtown Tiburon, pretty much like any quaint "old" downtown in a western city by the water, with wood and stone walkways that lead one to small boutiques and overpriced restaurants. It was certainly very nice, and I have Lizzy to thank. She has become obsessed with the Tiburon bike trip and told me about it a lot and finally gotten me to go with her. We passed many interesting things, like a man unicycling on the bridge, the spot Lizzy had her awful accident when she got rear-ended by a car last fall (she on bike), some fountains, lots of adorable kids and then finally an ugly one, etc, etc. Here's Lizzy making blood rush to her head as we relaxed in the sun and waited for the ferry:

And also rather nice today I got to hang out with some dogs and their charming shepherd among ridiculously gorgeous layers of greens and yellows coating sandy cliffs and looking out at the ridiculously gorgeous layers of blues and purples and whites that were the Pacific Ocean and the sky from there.

And so I got some sun on my nose and sand in my shoes, and feel a bit more in my body again. And it's President's Day so my roommates are around and cleaning and cooking and making noise which is pleasant (as long as they don't scream and smash things) because they are cool and I like sharing a home with them, and I am about to really get down to the business of working on my thesis. I swear my life on it. I already ate and did my weekly chores and everything.

One last thing before I go: Listening to Lebanese women talk the other night after grilled meat and tabbouli in Walnut Creek and my ears perked and my heart fell when they said their hopes and dreams of going back home, of living in Lebanon again at some point are vanished now. It took a lot (trust me, I have been around the talk all my life) but now they see life is much more fortunate and secure here. Especially after what has been going on and what there may be to come. But I guess only time will tell, unless, of course, I take matters into my own hands, which is highly unlikely since I need to work on my thesis (which is coming along very well, thank you).

Monday, February 11, 2008


What is it to be happy? What is it to be good? I have come to believe the two are intertwined. They intersect and play off of each other, fuel each other.

I was pretty moody this past weekend. All stuck up in my own thoughts, and thoughts that weren't taking me anywhere but made my mind spin in circles. A few things made the spinning stop. First, was alcohol. A wine-tasting Friday night, more wine on Saturday, then by two beers while playing pool at a fun birthday gathering, and then mimosas Sunday morning at a lovely backyard brunch in Cole Valley. The dozen or so people gathered at this brunch directly discussed the nature of goodness in our world, and whether being good or seeking to be so somehow works against you, of whether it should be such a conscious quest. The champagne and the lovely garden we were sitting in made it a light and lovely exploration and certainly an interesting one to have with people who were mostly strangers to me. But then I came down off the alcohol later, right back into my stormy mood.

Other shocks of happy this weekend included:

--hanging out with my little cousin Maya, who immediately took my hand when I got to her house and insisted, over and over, on being tickled, and then laughing her guts out each time. When she was getting ready for bed, she insisted we play with her kitchen set and when I asked her for a(n imaginary) milkshake, she said "tikram 'aynik", an Arabic phrase which literally means "bless your eye." In English, I guess we would say, "your wish is my command" or something of the sort, basically a sweet response to "Please..." It was very warming since she's not even two and a half and has never said that to me before. And the exchange itself is something of a role reversal, since it's usually she who is asking for something.

--in a cafe, listening to mother explain to her young daughter, who must have been four years old or so, the following: "I read a news story the other day about a book someone wrote recently where he claims that the key to happiness is to do something that scares you every single day. Makes you brave and happy, he said." The girl solemnly nodded. I hope she remembers. I think it's good advice.

Happy today, too, when subbing for the fourth day at a tiny middle school near downtown where kids who had been terrors to me last week finally started to treat me like a human being, or at least listen to me. I had them all write letters to their new science teacher, introducing themselves to her, and then had the pleasure of reading each one. Some pretty fantastic stuff, and now I feel like I've learned a few more of their names and a lot more about them.

What else happy can I tell you? I've just begun cooking with kale, and it's pretty amazing. Favorite form so far: sauteed with garlic and oil and then sandwiched inside a grilled cheese with juicy, red California tomatoes.

And one last happy/good bit is that my old friend Lee Cohen has just started what promises to be a neat blog. A post on education caught my attention today, and has left me eager for the continuation of the story it begins.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

in between asleep and awake...

In the past couple of weeks, I have started to remember my dreams. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that a couple of weeks ago I went through the box T. left in my closet nearly a year ago now, and I found that he had left in it his old, paint-splattered clock radio. For a while, I have been using my cell phone as an alarm clock. It's pretty convenient after all, but when I found the clock radio, I thought it might be cool to wake up to the news. So that's what I've been doing lately--remembering my dreams and waking up to the news, on npr, of course. As opposed to my previous muddy morning consciousness interrupted by a cell phone ring tone, I now have a splintered morning consciousness of my own dreamscapes spliced in with whatever npr is broadcasting at 6:30 or 7:30 or whenever I set the alarm for. It's kind of neat. I can't remember what was on the news this morning, but my dreams involved flying on some spaceship-like plane to Australia for a funeral and Argentina with my family, and then acting in a movie on the plane, and being filmed in a sex scene and then criticized for my performance, and a strange resort in Argentina and shopping with my mom at a Trader Joe's (in what was supposedly Buenos Aires but doesn't seem like it in remembering it) where she stocked up our shopping cart like we were staying for weeks when in fact it was simply an overnight layover, and the plane tickets were around $9,000, and that was supposed to be a deal. What is up with dreams? There is a scene I wrote forever ago now but I am using it in a new story, about a character waking up in a semi-dark room, and I'm stuck on the following passage:

"The dogs howl and bark before the sun, their desperate chorus tugging at the sheet of night shrouding the city. The sound invades her dreams, the thrum of animals creeping into the neverland that she will only know wakefully in pieces. Pieces of people she’s known and hasn’t known and still knows. Pieces recurring in nonexistent places: a war-torn pier in Brooklyn, a school in a skyscraper on the Mall in D.C., a swirling ship docked in a coastal city that she has seen from the sky, that she has always lived in and will always live in. Dream-pieces that the dogs tear into smaller pieces and tear and tear again until they are the dust that settles finally here in the room where they fell asleep."

I've gotten the comment from a few readers that they don't understand the part about Brooklyn and D.C. and the coastal city. And I'm curious as to whether other people besides myself have dreams that take place in settings that don't exist in the non-dream world but that are amalgamations of places that do exist in the non-dream world, and are places they dream about again and again. Anyway, that's what happens with me, and I haven't yet figured out the best way to explain it I guess.

In other news, our funny/sexy/sad reading went really awesomely well on Thursday night. Click here to read what Lizzy had to say.

And I found a decent article about Obama's shifting consciousness regarding Palestine and Israel. It is disheartening but also I guess we'd have a better chance of Obama changing his tune once he got in office than Hillary. But there will never, not ever, be a guarantee for that, and that's the problem I'm having today. The American presidential machine sure does make me feel nauseous.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


I was subbing at a school today where a few kids had lice. It hit the fan while I was trying to remember what happens with negative and positive numbers when solving inequalities. And all of a sudden everyone was freaked they had it. Someone was telling someone else off for giving it to her. Someone came back to the room crying because she had it, and asked for the homework. Kids screamed, one kid claimed there was "A LICE ON THE FLOOR!" Girls gathered around and checked each other. I pretty much gave up then. Everyone got to go get their heads checked in the teacher's lounge.

I had lice once, when we lived in Sudan, I think. I was young, younger than five, too young to be freaked out, I guess. (I remember my mother taking a special comb to my head...) But also I'm thinking hysteria wasn't such a big thing back in those days?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Very many much

There are very many things occurring in my head and around me. I'm not sure where to begin or what to say. Coolest, maybe, is that I discovered my poem published on the International Museum of Women was translated into Arabic. My mother was delighted and claims she will carefully read through and make sure that I have been accurately represented in her tongue. My own study of Arabic has been going slowly but steadily, but I'm not so far along that it would be something I could take on myself with any sort of efficiency. Something else that's pretty exciting, if not a little nervous-making for me, is that this Thursday at 7:30 a couple of compatriots and I will be staging the very first funny/sexy/sad reading at the cafe I frequent on a corner close to my house. Check us out on myspace. Become our friend! This weekend has been uber-busy; I've done most of my Arabic homework (a task more difficult each week), finished a major revision on a key story in the collection I'll be turning in for my MA culminating project this spring, written my first review for Kirkus Discoveries, and gotten through a good chunk of The Life of Henry Brulard. This reading is for a course on autobiography that I've just begun, the last course of my MA, and I must say I am much intrigued by the things that Stendhal demonstrates, through the amusing and careless listing of the major events of his life that stick out in his memory, a few truths about the reality of memory, as well as the fundamental influence of sex and the sexual on the development of a human psyche. (Boy, that was a long sentence! Now I'll give you a short one:) Spoiled brat that he seems to have been. And now I'm trying to slog through a particularly theoretic article by Paul DeMan, tracing the development and conception of allegory and symbol and irony in European literature. I knew there was a reason I went back to school to focus on writing instead of lit. There's so much more but I've got to go. I'm having dinner at a friend's house. There will be mussels gathered today at a beach south of here, and mushrooms foraged from, among other places such as highway medians, Golden Gate Park. I'm not bragging or anything. Okay, maybe I am. Oh, and my favorite quote from Stendhal:

"The fact is I have no company in the evenings to distract me from my thoughts of the morning."
A distinction nicely drawn, no?