Friday, September 26, 2008

the tricks of memory

Cities and Memory #5 (from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino)

"In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine old postcards that show as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits; admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannto compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old postcards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one's eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through wat it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was."

An absolutely stunning paragraph brought to my attention by one of my new teachers here in Richmond. Richmond, which felt so awkward and awful, like an ill-fitting shoe, when I first came here over a month ago now. Richmond, which now feels pretty okay, even though it's been raining for the past twenty-four hours. Actually such gloom might be the perfect thing for not making me feel like a shut-in as I stay home most of the weekend, reading and writing.

Had my first short story workshopped this week. So intense! I came home and fell asleep right away--couldn't do what I always did in San Francisco and read everyone's comments on the train ride home, since I bike home here and I was too, too tired.

Our first real party in my house last night. It was actually thrown by my roommate's girlfriend to raise $$ for a great cause. Amazing though (even if I was in pajamas and avoiding direct contact with any new people) to have the house full of bodies and warm food and voices. After they left sipped overly sweet wine (like nectar) out on the porch, happily talked about nothing, about the past, and watched the incredible lightnight shock the whole world around us almost as bright as day and listened to a rumble of thunder longer than I've ever heard. Thunder is just clouds bumping into each other, right?
(The picture at the top of this post was taken in Richmond near 1900. The young boy front and center is a newsboy, who lied at first when asked his age. He said eight first and, when prodded, went down to six.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It's Getting Hot in Here

So yesterday I get to school for my really long day that starts at 1pm and ends at 10pm and I'm a little early so I have time to gawk at the thing that is happening right outside of the building I'm heading for. This man is wearing suspenders and shiny black shoes and black pants, a white button up shirt and he is holding up a bible and he is yelling.

"There are the sinners! And there are the righteous!"
"There are Christians and there are unbelievers!"
"The Mormons, the Catholics, the Muslims...they are all unbelievers! They are all going to Hell!"
"Anyone who does not except Jesus Christ as their savior is going to Hell!"

And he is surrounded by people--at least sixty, maybe one hundred people--circles of people around him and the ones standing farther away are smirking and talking amongst themselves. But I am standing in front of them. I want to hear what the ones who are closer to him are saying. The ones who are closer are yelling. They are mostly men. They are all men, actually. And there is one who is standing right in front of the preacher's face. Right in front of him, yelling, "Will you please shut up! I just have a question. One question. Close your mouth for a second!" But the preacher will not stop. He just keeps going right past the man who is yelling for him to stop and his face is turning red. And finally he says it:

"Why are you here!? Is there a population problem in Hell or something? Did the devil ask you to help him out and make some space down there by saving us?" He's laughing. And everyone laughs and is yelling, and the preacher is jumping and raising his hands.

And then I can't quite hear what is going on and then another man says: "Yes, I am homosexual. Do you have a problem with that?"

And the preacher: "Homosexuals are damned and they lack intelligence!"

And the guy: "That's interesting because I am a sophomore in college and if just because I f- men in the a- that means I'm dumb than you are a f-ing fool."

And more mixed yelling. And there is another man standing close by with a bible asking about verses and the preacher is still going and then someone else asking about the logic of Jesus dying for our sins since he died before we sinned them, and then I have to go inside.

And still going an hour and a half later when I leave the building on my way to another building and I hear him say to someone:

"I've been preaching the gospel for two hours." And he looks flushed and happy, and then later when I am moving from building to building again he is gone.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


So my new roommates are three charming young men who are obsessed with seeds and soil and soul and earth. We have been eating watermelon and they save the seeds, sprinkling them on the lawn. There are drying olive pits on the kitchen table. We have water bottles and beer bottles and things set up out back with cuttings in them. We have tiny tupperware full of soil sprinkled with seeds and a compost heap started in a large green plastic pot that we've moved far away from the back door. We have a tiny little lattice made of twine and twigs snaking up one of our fences for the passion flower that has already begun sprouting tendrils and wrapping up and around it. There is a hollowed out half cantaloupe with seeds and soil inside it, cantaloupe seeds already sprouting, in the patch of earth in front of our house. There is also a pineapple top that was immediately planted there after we ate the fruit beneath it last week. All this and we've been sharing the house on Strawberry Street less than a month. I don't participate much but for gawking and they've got me all excited about what is going to grow.

I have been watering a garden though, the vegetable and herb and flower garden of a neighbor of ours who has been away this past week. I talked a bit to the plants today; I asked them to grow and tell Nancy that we've been taking good care of them.

As I report all this to you, I'm sitting in a cafe a mile away from Strawberry Street and the people sitting next to me are getting into a spirited conversation about Jesus. I've got to get out of here and back to the seeds.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Los Angeles

City of Angels--what a nice name for a place, huh? I've been there mainly to visit my uncle and aunt and their daughter and her family who live in two apartments relatively near to each other in Beverly Hills--and we spend time in their living rooms and kitchens and then drive around and eat good food and go to the mall and I know it's a place I wouldn't necessarily want to live but I could because it's so big and so varied that there's certainly some neat stuff going on always and there are so many different sorts of people who live there, but there's the whole car thing, the freeway thing, which is what most people talk about when they say why they couldn't or wouldn't live there. But more than that, L.A. is a place in my imagination, thanks to movies and books, and it's had a decided resurgence on that level lately. I just finished reading Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie. It is a novel primarily about Kashmir, but also perhaps about how its characters carry the weight of Kashmir to the U.S., and L.A. in particular, and Rushdie awesomely renders the metropolis, for example:

"That the city had no focal point, he professed hugely to admire. The idea of the center was in his view out-dated, oligarchic, an arrogant anachronism. To believe such a thing was to consign most of life to the periphery, to marginalize and in doing was to devalue. The decentered promiscuous sprawl of this giant invertebrate blob, this jellyfish of concrete and light, made it the true democratic city of the future."

Then also I just finished plowed through Less than Zero, which I would only recommend if you are in the mood for something really fast and pretty depressing and not too well written but fascinating just the same. For those unfamiliar, the novel follows Clay as he goes back to L.A. after four months in college in New Hampshire. He revisits his friends and becomes drawn into a depressing and dehumanizing spiral of sex and drugs and disturbing family interactions that is home. And all along I wanted to know why he was so fucked up, and if he had the power to be his own salvation, and I guess the novel answered these questions but never in much of a way that satisfied me. Though, since it was published in the 80's the book serves as a historical testiment, as well as an intriguing study in first person narration. I'm going to take up American Psycho next, and a little scared about that, but hoping the writing will wow me more, and wondering if I'll have the stomach to read it.

I have been feeling under the weather and last night stayed in, mostly in bed watching "Short Cuts," which Robert Altman made in the late 90's, I guess, based on a few of Raymond Carver's short stories and starring a crazy cast including folks such as Juliane Moore and Robert Downey Jr and Jack Lemmon, and managing to tell the stories of more than twenty characters. I'm about halfway through the 3-hour movie so far and am caught up in all the characters but also a bit bothered by how short the scenes are, though all the shifting around and continuous building of often tenuous connections between characters certainly does paint a varied and fascinating picture of the City of Angels...