Sep 29, 2009

The Opposite of a Secret

There was an old lady crossing the street in front of me on my way in to work today. She was wearing a crazy denim get-up, with crocheted pieces added to it. I'm assuming she made them herself. And a big floppy knit hat that looked like a modern re-envisioning of Whistler's mother's kerchief. And she was pumping one arm vigorously as she strode across the street. Her slouch implied a certain hippie joie de vivre. She had a water bottle holster slung over her shoulder and a big handbag syncopating bounces on her hip as she walked. I'm assuming she was headed to Pavilions. I'm assuming she had shopping to do. I'm assuming a lot of things.

Over the weekend, my dad said to me, "You love living in Los Angeles, don't you." And I thought (and said), "Yes, actually." It's one of those things that people who live here get asked. And they have to make the decision whether or not to follow the answer up with a bunch of explanations. "I know there are a lot of shallow people, but..." "I know it's dirty in places, but..." "I know it's hard to feel like you're somebody, but..."

I do love living in Los Angeles. Both in spite of and because of all its peculiarities. The only Los Angeleno instinct I continually strive to unlearn is assuming I can figure everything out in a glance. Summing people up is something I do, usually for the blithe amusement of my friends. But I'm also prone to look at a person -- say, an old lady crossing the street -- and think I could tell you everything about him or her with breathtaking accuracy. And, of course, like all such casual experts, I seldom ask how someone looking at me might similarly sum me up. I seldom even catch myself wondering it. Living in Los Angeles trains you to walk about knowing everyone is looking at you and ignoring you at the same time. When I enter a room, people turn and look right at me in a manner far more forward than you see happening anywhere else. Except maybe for Europe. They look at you and you can see them asking, "Is that someone?" And you just as quickly see them decide, "No. It isn't."

I have never craved fame. At least not the sort that involved visual recognition. Ironically, I only crave the kind of fame advertised in the lyrics of the theme to the movie and television show and then movie again Fame. I would be content to have people remember my name. But to have them see me walk into a room and feel the need to tell someone or to feel the need to approach me for any reason, no thank you. I'm instead working on very slowly earning my reputation through excessive tipping on a server by server basis.

You can live anywhere, and there are certain immutable parts of yourself that will persist. But it's just plain impossible to be so stubborn or so stalwart that you don't eventually let some of your surroundings seep in. You become a part of the place, and it becomes a part of you. It took me a number of years to actually realize that I live in Los Angeles. At first, I spent so much of my time back and forth to San Diego that it still felt like San Diego was my home. And if someone asked me where I live, I'd often accidentally say San Diego. But eventually, you've spent enough time in a place that you know how to get from here to there and you know where to get the best whatever it is, and you take that place in and it becomes yours. And you begin to belong to it as much as it begins to belong to you. And in the case of this city, you get the added benefit of very frequently getting to see it portrayed in film and television, if that matters at all to you.

I'm not suggesting you should move here if you're not already in the neighborhood, by the way. It's hard enough finding a decent apartment. I don't need to fight over it with you. I'm sure you're very happy in whatever place you live, and I don't in any way feel the need to challenge you on it. Please enjoy the rising and setting of the sun as it appears in [Your City], [Your State], and with my compliments.

I transcribed a poem a few years back. You can read it if you like. The bit I am thinking of today is in the voice of the city, and it goes:

Bring me your muscle and spirit and brain --
Here to my glory-strewn, ruin-strewn plain!


I don't always think of Los Angeles in an anthropomorphized fashion. But when I hear her voice, I don't try to drown it out. Sure as the spring is the food of the sea.

posted by Mary Forrest at 5:01 PM | Back to Monoblog


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     Sep 28, 2009

Exploring the Savage Mind

In my lack of desire to see if anything else was on, I sat through three re-airings of the same episode of Mad Men. It reminds me of the days when my parents' big old console record player would automatically kick back the needle at the end of a record and start playing it all over again. The intervals were shorter, and there was less of a sense of completeness, as you would only be listening to the same half of a thing again and again. I would usually leave a record playing when I was reading something with many pages or when I was trying to write something that mattered. When we lived in Guam, my father's big wooden desk -- the one where the writing surface folds up on a hinge to reveal a beautiful bas-relief of Japanese ladies carved in shiny, opalescent stones -- was set in his study, in front of a great window. Floor to ceiling as all the windows in that house were. This one looked out on the palm tree on our front lawn and the steep grassy slope at whose base our house sat. I would languish at that desk and gaze out that window without purpose for days on end. Particularly on those days during the summer when my older sister and my mother were traveling to the National Spelling Bee, and I was at home studying dictionaries in the hopes that the next year I would get to make the same trip. So I spent a lot of days in my dad's study, alone with the record player and the reel-to-reel. I mostly listened to showtunes (Grease and Fiddler on the Roof were the first records I ever bought), a collection of Jewish music called Spirit of a People, and a compilation of Telemann and Vivaldi called The Splendor of Brass.

I remember the heft of that desk. If I'd tried to move the whole thing, it would have reminded me of my impotence. But the writing surface was on a hinge, so that big slab of wood could easily be lifted by me. The only thing I feared was fully closing it, because I always worried that I would catch my fingers when it shut. I don't know what kind of wood it was, but I think of cedar when I remember its smell. And I don't know why I refer to it in the past tense, as it's sitting in my parents' formal dining room at this very moment.

I didn't learn every word in the dictionary during those summer days. And I didn't write anything important. And I didn't read as much as I could have. But I learned there were certain halves of albums that were my favorites, and I would play those with prejudice.

And if you can look at an excerpt in place of the whole, you can see things worth cheering for without being burdened by the details. You can wish for less and thank for more. You can forgive and forget. You can grow nostalgic without inevitably falling into melancholy. And you can tell yourself it's better than looking at things more truthfully, because not all things must be examined truthfully and directly in order to be properly appreciated. In fact, looking at a solar eclipse without the aid of a camera-obscura will burn your retinas blind. And knowing everything about everything will hurt more than knowing nearly nothing about most things, because knowing carries with it the obligation of recognition and ignorance is more likely to make you popular.

I strive for symmetry even when I don't prefer the look of it. I hate running out of shampoo when there's plenty of conditioner left. I like hot dogs to fit the bun. But I was able to ignore the symmetrical imperative when playing records in my dad's study. I was able to distract myself with the demands of all the words I wanted to learn and read and write and say and all the blank notebook pages I expected to fill.

If I allow myself, I can identify which side of the Mad Men record I would rather play. But it would seem tawdry and for all the wrong reasons.

posted by Mary Forrest at 2:01 AM | Back to Monoblog


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     Sep 27, 2009

Day for Night

I feel as if there has been a void in the part of my brain that used to scramble to write down the little bits of inspiration that every day held. I've faulted micro-blogging and social networking for that to some degree, and that seems reasonable. I distill my momentary impressions into brief little bursts and post them with such immediacy that the tangential expressions that used to come from writing down this or that never have a chance to flower. I've thrown a blanket over the creative halo.

And there's also room for the gingerly admission that when certain categories in my life flourish, the writing withers. It's not necessarily because I'm so productive or such a failure or because I'm so happy or so sad. There's just a specific little mix that occurs from time to time -- often for months or years at a time -- that quiets my fingers. I've never been so courageous or so brash that I didn't always worry how things might appear. I am careful not to tread on toes or the feelings that figuratively reside in them. I am careful not to undermine relationships or professional affiliations or perceptions that might be important in the looking back. And that means that the more I work and the more people I know, the fewer things I am free to say. At least in the prison of my own sense of propriety.

It taxes me. If only in my sense of having dropped the torch. What many fires might have been lit had I just worked on my upper arm strength a bit more. And how tired I grow of having to hide behind song lyrics.

When I was a little girl, I loved being inside a tent or a fort or a box big enough for a human of my size. I am a middle child, and I never had much time to myself or space of my own. And there was something precious about an assigned seat or bunk bed. I'm sure I'd have lain contentedly within the confines of a chalk outline if it had been drawn just for me.

There is a difference between reveling in a sweet secret and hiding from what has already been revealed. You can zip up the tent so no one will know you're in there. But that won't keep that family of raccoons from noisily helping themselves to the remainder of your Kettle Chips. They like that sort of thing. And what do you know about camping anyway. Come to think of it, this tent is air-conditioned and what a surprisingly beautiful shade of green marble surrounding the bath! Is that a Kohler tub? I knew it.

I'm tired of diamonds that turn out to be sand and emeralds that turn out to be glass. There's a third part to that statement, but I didn't write it down before I'd managed to forget it.

posted by Mary Forrest at 7:23 PM | Back to Monoblog


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