I cannot stop laughing. Below one of many, many examples, sans the fabulous commentary
At the risk of sounding like dodo brain #92/asking a question that's been posed for a decade: do you read a daily paper online? I read plenty/link plenty. But we still get a daily paper (The Oregonian) delivered, and I still try to read the New York Times every day, in its paper form, "try" because I no longer have it delivered at home, but a copy to each of the shops. This latter is an imperfect system, in that people often steal the paper (if I catch the person who keeps taking the Sunday Magazine, I am going to give them a giant tongue lashing), or I don't feel I have the time to linger and read.
I've been traveling a lot this year, to bigger cities, NY and SF and LA. When I was in NY last week, I felt great. I felt like myself, with an endless number of museums and restaurants and places and people to interface with, if I so chose. This is another reason why Matt Davis's goodbye, Portland post resonated with me. One of Matt's commenters astutely wrote, Matt is going where there stories are, to New Orleans. (He will make his bones there, as I made mine in LA.) Portland is not a big enough city, there is too little cultural collision and too many people with thin skins here to really sink your teeth in and do serious journalism (to say nothing of local places willing to publish it). A recent example: a little nothing piece I wrote for the O, in which I quoted a local PR person, who in several emails to me had a quasi-nervous breakdown because she thought the piece did not show her in the best possible light. I did my best to explain, the piece was not about her. A long-ago example: the editor of a paper I was writing criticism for musing aloud at a staff meeting that if the paper were to run anything negative about a venue, perhaps the paper should call the night before and alert them, a suggestion that made the editor I worked directly beneath bust a nut.
Anyway, two things happened this morning: I took the time to read much of the New York Times while standing at the new stand-up bar at Ristretto Beaumont, and drove home with two thoughts: one, I want to make a bunch of money soon and buy a place in New York, where I can spend more time and where, perhaps, Tafv can live. And two, I might start reading the Times online, on a daily basis -- something, by the way, I am willing to pay for. Politically, I realize we are all supposed to stand up and screech that the web is meant to be free, god dammit, and going behind a pay-wall -- which the Times plans to do later this year -- is as antediluvian and anti-progress as it comes. But here's the thing: as a journalist, I know first-hand how decimating not having any money to support a publication is; I had four -- four! -- of my editors (at the LA Weekly, Wired, Bon Appetit and City Arts) downsized out of jobs last year in a four-month period. That's a lot of freakin' cake not coming my way, kids. Also, I don't expect to get everything I want for free. I will be on the frontlines shouting, "Huzzah!" when the web is better monetized for writing and writers, and certainly, there are individuals and larger sites that have figured out how to make the finances work through traditional channels, i.e., ads and backers. I am also in the fortunate position to still have work. But the money? Do we really want to have this conversation first thing in the morning?
While I enjoy the range afforded by reading the paper online -- the skipping, the photos, the videos -- I also know I blow off more than when I read the paper in hand, and am divided about the idea of defaulting always to My News, divided because I see this as a good thing (deeper knowledge about fewer issues) and bad (where is Pakistan, again?).So: do you read the Times or a comparable paper online, and if so, what have you gained, what have you lost? And, any tips for me?
NB: Yes, I aware there will almost certainly be no print papers within the decade.
NB: And yes, I am aware that the medium that is slowly killing journalism as we've known it has created the opportunity to have this conversation here, for which I am most grateful and which I find both fulfilling and full of infinite possibilities, yes.
Various quotes wind up on my bulletin board, at eye level. They come and they go. This one has stayed longer than most. It's from Elizabeth Kaye's "Mid-Life." I usually just glance at the last line; the rest I know from practice.
And while I have always assumed that when I reached mid-life, I would not want to think about my own mortality, I find I want to think about it now. I want to because I'm one more person who elevated procrastination and sloth into an art by sheer dint of practice. Yet these days I have no patience with sloth, and I don't procrastinate much, and I try not to waste time. My life has improved accordingly. I'm not surprised. I've always been one of those people who does better on a deadline.
And though I still make mistakes, I am less inclinded to delude myself about their cost. I no longer expect things to make sense. But that does not mean there is no magic. It does not mean there is no hope.
It simply means that each of us has reason to be wishful and frightened, aspiring and flawed.
And it means that to the degree that we are lost, it is on the same ocean, in the same night.
I dreamt last week that, in the course of and for my work, I needed to read someone named Rebecca Mead. When I woke up, I wondered who she was and if she were even a writer. I googled her; she's a staff writer for The New Yorker, so it is likely I've seen her byline but it had not stuck. I immediately went out and bought her book, and also downloaded from The New Yorker site three of her articles. One is a profile of the current director of the Metropolitan Museum, and Mead wrote (in a separate piece) that when she was doing her research, she "read with pleasure--and considerable envy--John McPhee's lengthy, fascinating profile of Thomas P. Hoving, who was the museum's director from 1967 until 1977."
You can, if you subscribe to The New Yorker, read the whole thing online, as the magazine has digitally archived every page of every issue. The first thing you will notice, if you get to the Hoving profile, which runs sixty pages, is how very many ads there are in the magazine; leafing through these is a museum experience in itself. But downloading and printing would have been a veritable bear, and so I bought a collection that contains the essay, which I read in one big gulp yesterday morning. This is the very finest writing of its kind: perfectly paced and measured, masterfully constructed, illuminating, playful. Superb in every way, it made me realize what the phrase "trip the light fantastic" means, or can mean.
Extra bonus: if you have an iPhone, you can download the images Hoving refers to as you read.
Besides cooking, learning to mix a Ransom gin perfect martini, and a lot of backroom work for Ristretto - Din just now finished the built-out for the third, roasting-only location, and is firing up for the first time the new roaster as I type - I have been thinking. It's required, as I am embarking on a project that might easily slip fish-like from my grasp.
In some ways, it already has, and must. I can't know the answers to what I will write until I do the research, which means gaining access, which often means contacting people who do not want to be contacted by me.
I have a list on the left hand side of the blog, "The Last 8 Books I've Read." Those who've noticed it no doubt also noticed, I am reading about murder. This is because I am writing about murder. One story involves a triple homicide and the people affected: the murderer, his family, the victims' families, the attorney, the what happens now. The people in this story are, for reasons you will read about -- one story will appear later this year in The Oregonian, and if I can fashion it, another feature in the magazine O -- are interested in speaking with me. Their pain is such that they are willing to spread it on the table, to say to me in effect, can you help me with this? The simple act of listening to the mother of the murderer seems to offer succor.
The other story, the book, is crowded with people with different prerogatives. Some -- the attorneys, the police, the social service agencies -- stand behind various laws in order not to talk about what they know. This, despite their every hue and cry, often to my face, of trying to understand in order to prevent such horrifying acts in the future. I believe they might actually believe this, despite their actions proving otherwise.
Others within this story have a lot to hide, and thus can I understand their reluctance and even hostility. And yet I do admit to being shocked at the accusation of the other murderer's mother, that she will quash my attempts at access because she does not want me making money off her child. I was momentarily rendered silent by this accusation (as anyone who knows me knows, that's a tough trick to pull off), and then said to the attorney, while I can certainly appreciate that this was the conclusion the woman came to, we must admit the world is made of bigger ideas than that.
The title of this post, I now see, refers to my having to think quite a lot about why one writes, and about what, and for whom. What I also said to the attorney that day was, if I wanted to make money, I would be writing about Paris Hilton's panties. Instead, I push through with no guarantee of anything but that the finding is in the looking, and that positing the question, to you, is part of that.
Over the course of the past two years, I have accepted various invitations to join online writers groups, and promptly ignored all interaction with said same. Well. Today the call came from Redroom.com, to blog about one's neighbors, and I thought, hey, I have something on that. From the Los Angeles vaults.
Meet the Neighbors
In eighteen years in Los Angeles; I lived in five homes, moving progressively from west to east. Each time, the rent was higher and the house larger. Correspondingly, my neighbors went from working class to the sorts that keep a 1972 Jensen Interceptor in the carport, not to drive but because it is such a beautiful object.
The neighbors in West Hollywood, on Curson Ave., were mostly Armenian, including the dozen or so housedress-clad older women in the apartment complex next door, women who would verily ululate at our fence and tear at their throats when they realized we were having another get-together for two hundred. On the other side was a two-story complex where my brother’s friend Todd lived. Todd was a plumber who shared an apartment with his mother-in-law, an Armenian widow in black, and his SoCal, short-shorts-wearing wife; at twenty-four, he already had two kids, the first born blind. Todd spent every afternoon in our yard smoking pot, and that’s where he was when his wife banged open the screen door and stood on their balcony.
“TAHD!” she screamed, “I’M PREGNANT AGAIN!”
“Cool,” Todd squeaked, holding the smoke in his lungs.
I next moved, while pregnant, to Holly Drive, a street that runs up to the Hollywood Reservoir. We had the big front house. Behind us was a duplex where the owner lived. Dave was about forty, and had one of those nose jobs that leave the nostrils so large you can see into the skull. Dave’s parents owned the property; he was a musician (or said he was) and a nice guy, but I don’t think he had any friends, because he was always trying to pal around with us. One day, I found Dave in our driveway with a couple of young guys, painting a rock with a $50 can of varnish he’d taken from my storage shed. You may wonder why he was doing this; I sure did, and asked with all the good will of a woman entering her ninth month of pregnancy during a hundred degree heat wave. Dave’s young friends shook their heads, said, “Later, dude,” and left Dave squatting there beside his shiny stone.
There was another house on the property, where M and S lived. M was a musician who played his electric organ at all hours; he was a pretty nice guy who regaled me with stories of how former tenant Nick Nolte, or maybe it was Gary Busey, used to dive through the window screens. S I rarely saw, and spoke to only once, when I woke up to the sound of screaming, and found her in the driveway, standing over the carcass of her cat, which had been eviscerated in the night by a coyote. We often had coyotes trotting up and down on our street. I don’t know what S did for a living, but am going to go out on a limb and say she was an actress, because I once found several hundred headshots of her strewn beneath an underpass to the 101 Freeway, looking gnashed and wet.
I do know both she and M were Scientologists. Occasionally, M would sit in our communal yard with Tim and talk about the astral possibilities the religion offered. Tim is an open-minded guy who believes in both UFOs and that Jesus Christ is his personal savior. But after an hour of hearing M talk about how the human race is descended from alien warlord Xenu, who seventy-five million years ago came to the planet Teegeeack (a.k.a., Earth) aboard a DC-8, Tim would come inside saying, “Nanny, white people are crazy.”
M became fixated on buying a house, a goal that did something to his nervous system, as he appeared to never sleep again. One night around ten, we heard a vehicle backing up fast into the communal yard.
“We have to be out by tomorrow!” M said, trying to run as he carried a loveseat on his head. He slid it into the back of the van and took off. This procession went on for hours, during which I realized I had a book of his. The van was gone, but the door to his house was open. I called hello; there was no answer, but I could hear was a man’s voice, speaking in soft even tones. I took a step inside; the voice became louder, it was saying something about taking proactive steps, today! I followed the voice to the back bedroom, where, sitting on the bed and surrounded by half-packed boxes, was S, listening to a motivational tape while slowly sewing sequins on a hat.
Dave soon moved to Colorado, and rented his place to two young musicians. A few months later, he called me: the musicians had left, he needed new tenants, and would I mind showing the place? He’d take $200 off my rent for my trouble.
I first showed the house to a couple that looked as though they never missed laundry day. I was Miss Perky as I led them up the stairs, telling them what a great neighborhood it was and so close to everything and how you could just jog right up to the Hollywood Reservoir, and with a happy little flourish I opened the front door, to a wave of fish death so bad I retched. The electricity had been turned off sometime after the twenty or so pounds of fresh salmon had been loaded in the freezer. There was graffiti on the living room walls, the bedroom had been painted black, and in the middle of the wood floor, someone had charred several birds. And I was still trying to play the cheerful realtor, saying, “Let’s go downstairs and see the music studio!” which was the property’s big selling point, a soundproofed room with wall-to-wall carpeting. I tried to push open the door, but there seemed to be something in the way. Ah, that would be the five hundred pounds of broken glass, glass a foot high throughout the studio, an inconceivable amount of glass, and I’m saying to the couple, with just a little work, and they’re looking at me as though… let’s just say they did not see the humor in the situation.
My next house was on Robinson Street, the shitty block in Silver Lake. My first night there, there were two bursts of automatic gunfire that had me pulling Tafv, not yet three, from her loft bed beneath a window. Within the week, the Filipino owner of the mini-mart around the corner would be shot in the face, and for the next month sell customers their cigarettes and bolillos while wearing so much gauze he looked like The Mummy. There was a duplex in front of my house, and I had two neighbors. One was Paul, who was my age and worked in the art department on commercials and videos, and when he wasn’t working watched a lot of NASCAR. He was a great gardener, and grew about thirty kinds of fruits and vegetables in what was ostensibly my yard; not only did we eat well, but to this day Tafv insists she and I grew the garden. (Thanks, Paul!)
My other neighbor was Claudia, a ninety-year-old Russian with a wee beard. She spoke almost no English, but liked to have Tafv over for a cookie. The only time I saw Claudia upset was when Paul and I were in my garden, and I was wearing a bikini.
“Shame! Shame!” Claudia said, shaking a finger at me. She died within the year. Paul, Tafv and I went to her memorial, in a Russian Orthodox chapel around the corner, a beautiful, miniscule chapel done in imperial reds and purples and full of frightening icons and sweet smoke.
I next moved to Valleybrink Road, in Atwater Village, to the lower part of a Spanish-style duplex that had ceiling beams in the living room and nothing else to recommend it. My first week in the house, I woke to a ladder being slammed against the outside wall and firefighters banging on the front door; the upstairs neighbors had somehow ignited the roof. The following day, the couple, middle-aged, stocky and perpetually short of breath, told me they’d inadvertently started the fire while burning literature they deemed heretical to their faith, and would I like a copy of the Scientology bible Dianetics? They’d love to give me one; they had hundreds; they were distributors! Not only that, but because I seemed like such a smart girl, they wanted to cut me in on their business, if I’d just follow them out to their garage, where inside were dozens of boxes of Amway products. Didn’t I just see myself selling laundry soap and vitamins and disposable toilet seat covers?
They moved soon after, and were replaced by another Scientologist. (The adage that someone who’s attended Harvard will mention as much within twenty minutes of meeting you extends, in my experience, to Scientologists.) This one had three or five children (depending on which spouse she was fighting with), including a curly-haired six-year-old who did not attend kindergarten because her mother thought it was some sort of racket set up by the Los Angeles Unified School District, a little girl who used to knock on my door and ask me to read to her. I saw her one Sunday morning wearing a bonnet and skipping down the walkway.
“We’re going to L. Ron’s birthday party!” she squealed. This, though L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, had been dead eleven years.
The landlord of this house was a judge in children’s protective services. She stopped by a few times, each time with a different female minor, introducing the girl, invariably in Catholic school uniform, as a ward of the court who was temporarily living with her. But if you called the judge after five P.M., you reached her nighttime persona, the one so drunk she fell asleep while talking to you on the phone, until a moment later, you’d hear this or that girl take the phone and softly hang it up. I once woke at five in the morning to the sound of grunting below my bedroom window, and there was the judge, on her hands and knees ripping up the flowers I’d planted.
I hated this house, it was dirty no matter how much I cleaned, and always cold in a way that got in your bones. Later, a friend said he’d known the couple that rented the place before I did, and before them, a couple from the Midwest had lived there. The Midwest couple’s second week in Los Angeles, it had rained and rained, until the Los Angeles River, usually a few inches of water in a concrete channel, ran twenty feet deep. I’ve seen the river do this; the transformation is unbelievable, this little trickle is suddenly a raging Leviathan churning with downed trees, abandoned cars and trash. About a block from the house is a gate that leads to the river’s embankment, and the couple had gone down there, to see how much the river had changed, and were there when a kid skidded his bike and went into the water. The man had jumped in to save the boy, and both were instantly gone. The woman, my friend told me, had then barricaded herself in her bedroom—my bedroom—for six months before leaving Los Angeles.
The house I would be leaving in Los Angeles was on a cul-de-sac in Los Feliz, near the Shakespeare Bridge, under which there is not and, as far as I know, never has been any water. I’d loved this house. It has three bedrooms, a real bar in the basement that was once a Shriners hangout, and a separate studio shaded by a fifty-foot pine. Our neighbors were Cameron the fashionisto (with whom I share a fondness for Emilio Pucci, if not the ability to afford the ones he sells in his lovely vintage shops), and Jeff, whom I adore, and who would watch our kitty when we went out of town, not merely feeding and watering her, but spending time with her, because, he said, he was “concerned about her mind.” They live in the mid-century modern glass house across the street, a historic Schindler into which they poured about a million dollars and which attracts many slow-moving vehicles of guidebook-carrying, camera-toting German and Japanese tourists.
Beyond their house, on one of the highest ridges in Hollywood, is the Griffith Observatory. This I could see it from my bedroom. There are many places in Los Angeles whose ostensive beauty I will debate; the Observatory is not one of them. No matter how many times I visit, I am impressed by the stillness; how separate it feels from the lights below; the way the Astronomers Monument and the dome broadcast their resolve that, they are not going anywhere. It was while standing outside the Observatory at sunset in late 1988 that I’d felt so ineffably tired, tired in a way I’d never felt, and realized with a start that I was pregnant.
I drove Tafv up to the Observatory one night, soon after we’d decided to leave Los Angeles. Aside from two parked cars of lovers, we were the only people. We ran around the monument and lay in the grass and reminisced about how, for Tafv’s eleventh birthday, we’d had a limo drive her and her friends up here. Yes, I’d hired a limo, for $200, to drive us around Hollywood for a few hours. The girls had loved it; they blasted Christina Aguilera and No Doubt while I, the sole adult, sat in the back and poured one shot from the cut-glass decanter of brown liquor, and thought, what the hell, if it makes her happy.
“Tafv’s going to hate you forever,” had been my mother’s first comment, when I told her, we were moving to Portland. When I’d recovered the composure to ask why, she said, “Because you’re taking her away from her friends’ lifestyle.”
“You know what I mean.”
She saw me uncoupling my daughter from certain advantages. I tried to tell her, this, too, was the point. Yes, Tafv was accustomed to movie premieres and grand houses, to vacationing with friends’ families on Lizard Island and Lanai, in Mammoth and Las Vegas. I was grateful for the love and generosity she’d been shown. But the “lifestyle” was changing, and now included the eighth grade girl who did coke in the school bathroom with the $100 a day she stole from her parents, who hadn’t noticed. The child who lost her cell phone nine times in six months and each time was simply given a new one. The fifteen-year-old boy who, when a girl turned him down for a date, went to Tiffany’s, bought her a diamond bracelet, and asked again; she said yes. And the six-year-old sibling I watched scream bloody murder and kick the Mexican maid because his mother had not bought him a Frappacino, whereupon she got back in her Navigator and drove to Starbucks to get him one. Half a dozen girls Tafv knew were cutting; twice as many had eating disorders, were on antidepressants or both, and several, at thirteen, were in rehab. This, shoehorned amongst the facials and auditions and pedicures and voiceover classes and headshots and nutritionists and therapists and private Pilates sessions so they could fit into the $300, size-two Miss Sixty jeans, just like their mothers.
My mother brushed off my complaints. She was of the opinion it was all sour grapes with me. And then she called Tafv to ask her advice on an appropriate high school graduation gift for her step-grandson, just a little something, and Tafv said, “A car.”
Not that I was immune from imagining we were off to the hinterlands, a place where culture meant canoeing and all meals included salmon.
“New York, Los Angeles, Portland,” I said to Din. “What’s next, Anchorage?”
“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said, which made me recall, after I moved to LA, Tim affixing to his cap a pin that read, We don’t care how they do it in New York.
We gave our landlord notice. We put everything we owned in boxes. I stood beside the roof-high bird of paradise that grew by the front steps and watched the moving truck drive away. Din would follow the next day.
The night before we gave up the house, I drove to get us dinner. I wound through the side streets of East Hollywood, passing a group of young Hispanic men with shaved heads loitering in front of two gigantic mounds of clothes and a busted-up desk. I wondered what precipitated this mess, and did anyone care? It was in front of an apartment building whose awning sagged to chest height, and I remembered, six years earlier, a friend of mine’s housekeeper’s sixteen-year-old son being shot dead on this block, part of a lover’s triangle I never got the whole story on. I remembered his mother, her eyes begging but also, not in the room at all as she asked: Did I have an answer for what happened? Was there going to be any resolution?
I sat at Palms Thai’s counter and drank a Singha as I waited for the food. I was reading a book the journalist Cathy Seipp had lent me, about home keeping, and smiled at the sentence, “The main purpose for giving parties for children is to remind yourself that there are children more awful than your own.”
I carried the bags of food to the car. I turned north off Hollywood Boulevard, passing the Trianon, a turreted apartment building that looks like a castle and must’ve been a very glamorous address in the 1930s, and then turned east, where I saw a young man lying in a driveway. He had on jeans and sneakers, his feet were crossed, and one hand rested on his chest. He looked like someone taking an afternoon snooze on the grass. Except it was eight o’clock on a winter night, and he was lying on concrete.
A middle-aged man had already pulled his car to the curb. He approached the young man, and crouched over him. Blood was unfurling beneath the left shoulder.
“Call 911,” the man said. He was pale and shaking.
“I’m calling,” said another man. He was walking a dog.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He got shot, just now,” the shaking man said. He looked as if he were going to cry.
“By who?” I asked.
“Two guys, in an SUV,” he said, and pointed east. I looked back at the young man, and knew he was not sleeping; he was too still.
I hit the gas, my first thought being to find the SUV. Was that it, the one that made a U-turn in front of me? And then I thought, but they have a gun. There was a time when I’d have followed anyway; ten years earlier, I’d chased down a guy who’d just robbed an LA Eyeworks on Melrose; I’d sped after him and screamed until he looked as though he were afraid of me, and then a cop car cut him off, and my job was done. But tonight, I thought, realistically, what can I do?
I called Din. “I’m on my way home.”
Home, which Tafv did not want to leave; from which Din was already out the door. I was in the middle. What would I do for work in Portland, where people were sensible and genial and set achievable goals?
“You won’t find anyone up there like you,” said my friend Mary, during a fare-thee-well lunch on the patio in Chateau Marmont. Her sentiment terrified me. But there were my own achievable goals: a house I owned, a half-step off the freelance treadmill, which was lucrative but just; when I complained to Cathy that most publications in 2004 were still paying $1/word, or what I made ten years ago, she said, “And what I made twenty years ago.”
There was also the somewhat comforting notion that, when I turned forty-three someplace other than Los Angeles, I would not be considered hideous and in need of immediate revivification, eyelifts and root tints and vaginal rejuvenation, whatever that was. Whatever it was, it was just starting to be heavily advertised in the LA papers, ads always accompanied by a photo of a woman in a bikini. Though I knew she was probably a model, I’d stare anyway at her crotch and wonder, what have they done to you, and why were you so ready to submit? And what comes next? We’d all heard the rumors about the cadaverous actress who’d had her anus bleached in order to show her much-older and stratospherically famous lover a baby-pink pucker.
You might contend, if someone wants to whack or blanch her privates, it’s her business. And I agree. But if you’re born and raised in Los Angeles, as Tafv was, you’re confronted with these procedures more often than you brush your teeth. Once when she was six, and standing next to me at a pharmacy, I noticed Tafv’s little brow tensed in concentration. I followed her gaze to a young woman with humongous breast implants, engaged in the everyday act of examining a can of Comet. In the car, I explained to Tafv how the woman had come to look like that.
“So they’re blow-ups,” Tafv said, a term that stuck and which we’d used for years, only now, when I mentioned that her friend ______’s mother had blow-ups, Tafv said, “Mama, stop, she’s really nice.” And of course she was right; my daughter had what I did not, the ability to see this world, the entire world, through graceful eyes.
And she genuinely loved Los Angeles; what teenager in her position wouldn’t? A rundown of her recent outings included trick-or-treating with Pamela Anderson and swooshing down a giant slide into Gene Simmons pool. At a mall in Palm Springs, her friend’s mother handed the girls $400 to spend while she, the mother, got a manicure, then changed her mind and gave them another hundred, in case they wanted lunch.
To Tafv, this was real life. And it might have been, but not one I could support, or would. I’d never earned more than $54,000 in a year, but if I earn ten times as much, a hundred times as much, I’ll still know what an Aunt Bea’s Pretzel costs. That giving a child $500 to blow in thirty minutes almost always does more harm than good.
Still, part of me was titillated Tafv was brushing up against so much gloss and fame; that for her this all-access pass was baseline. This was why my mother feared Tafv would never forgive me. Din, on the other hand, had no use for it; he was done having the lotus-eaters tell him Los Angeles was the center of the universe. Anyone who flies in an airplane knows it’s not true. But how do you convince a young girl of this, after she’s been flown to and from Australia, Business Class, to spend three weeks on the set of The Matrix, which her friend’s father is shooting? How do you explain it’s going to be better in Portland, where it rains two hundred and sixty-eight days a year? Where she will go to public school? Where, when we visited the local mall, she frowned and said, “These kids are so Hot Topic.”
You can’t, or I couldn’t, and so let her gorge on what was on her table, including what would be the last bat mitzvah she attended in Los Angeles. It was in Beverly Park, a gated community above Beverly Hills where the properties are so vast and spaced so far apart they appear arounbd each sweeping curve like another kingdom. At pick-up time, the other parents and I were made to wait by the tall iron gates outside the bat mitzvah girl’s estate. We did not refrain from gawking at the eight-thousand square foot guesthouse, the several ponds, the acres of lawn on which we could just make out the silhouettes of prancing teenagers before they disappeared behind the next rise, scraps of their laughter coming to us on the wind. How big was the place, anyway?
“About as big as Disneyland,” the security guard said, with the qualification that he usually worked at the owner’s Malibu property, so, he didn’t really know.
Tafv and her friends came down the boulevard-wide drive.
“This place is amazing,” Hef’s son said. “Way, way bigger than mine.”
"Mama, it's the coolest house in the world!" squealed Tafv, floating backwards to the car in order to get one last look. "They have three swimming pools, one filled with Evian water!"
"... the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the heart's purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It's got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved."
David Foster Wallace quote posted by writer Cheryl Strayed, on Wallace's posthumous birthday, 2/22/2010
For one of the most searing essays you will read, see Strayed's "The Love of My Life." Here's the first line:
THE FIRST TIME I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.
It's a loaner, from, Smith CFI here in Portland. I get to keep it a week and decide. It is the first office chair I have ever had that wasn't either a cast-off dining chair or found on the street affixed with a piece of paper that read FREE.
Think I am going to blog this week.
This piece, by a guy about to enter the same sex-rehab as Tiger Woods, is like a frying pan to the face, the writing is brutal. I certainly have some familiarity with shame-and-sex department. But not like this guy. A clip:
I'll usually open a few different browser tabs and hit the sites I like best. By now, I'm so far gone in my addiction that your average penis-in-vagina scenes, even by the grimy gonzo standards of internet porn, may as well be Victorian courting rituals. My favorite message board features only the most hardcore, exploitative, gang-bangiest, piss-drinkingest, public-floggingest scenes you could imagine, and then some. A few months back I horrifyingly noticed myself jerking off to video of a Japanese girl being penetrated with cockroaches. A real girl, not animated. Chuck Klosterman once wrote that some of the more extreme online stuff is about as sexy as watching someone get hit in the face with a frying pan, and he's right, though I don't usually get to the invertebrate smut until the fourth or fifth hour of my sessions.
In other writing news: turned in my book proposal for "On the Bridge" the day before I left for Panama.
My four unpublished books, transferred to memory stick from four-year-old laptop, not to loaded onto new laptop bought today. Only book on there will be one that I am currently working on.
And maybe the novel. The novel, she can come.At Matt's request, below, the new computer on the left, old one on the right. The new one is a Gateway NV78, running Windows 7, which is very clean and easy thus far. It's got 4 GB of memory and a 500 GB hard drive. And the screen is huge, 17.3 inches; an interesting perspective, as though you're falling in the screen rather than looking at it. The computer itself is over 7 pounds; not really as a concern, as I have a two-pound Asus netbook for when I travel. Which I will do tomorrow, driving across the state to sit with and interview the mother of a man who has just very narrowly escaped the death penalty.
As someone who is coming late to reading many of the classics, I enjoyed W.A. Pannapacker's essay, "Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor," in which he quotes Virginia Woolf:
"If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me 'middlebrow,'" wrote Virginia Woolf in an unsent letter to the editor of The New Statesman, "I will take my pen and stab him, dead."
Woolf and her ilk, Pannapacker goes on to say, professed great love for the lowbrow, so long as they did not get anywhere near her sparkling little pocket of the ether. Others rolled their eyes.
As the Harper's Magazine editor Russell Lynes argued in his 1949 essay "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow," the ideal world for Woolf is a caste system in which billions of bovine proles produce the raw materials for a coterie of sensitive, highbrow ectomorphs who spring fully formed from the head of Sir Leslie Stephen. At the very least, lowbrows with upward aspirations should have the courtesy to keep themselves out of sight until they complete their passage through the awkward age of the middlebrow.
I think I probably am middlebrow, not in my mannerisms, but in the fact that, yes, I strive--and fail--and strive again for knowledge. There is, after all, no such thing as an intellectual caste system, no matter how comfortable others might be in trying to erect one.
The most comprehensive recent analysis of the cultural turn is Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008). In one chapter, Jacoby remembers the 1950s as a brief moment of intellectual aspiration among many Americans: "I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude, and regret rather than condescension," she writes, "not because the Book-of-the-Month Club brought works of genius into my life, but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers encouraged me to seek a wider world."
The Great Books—along with all those Time-Life series—were often "purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing," Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief—now endangered—that "anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself."
The opening and close of The Journalist and the Murderer (which I realize is twenty years old, but I just read it yesterday):
To which I must say, yes; what she says is true. The only defense I can muster is also true: I nearly always walk into a story with no or very little set opinion about the subject, and so can say, when I am talking with him, interviewing him, hoping he will trust me with his story, I am in empathy with him; I am trying to see it his way, because thus far, it's the only view I am getting. I do not lie and say, to the murderer, "Oh, yes; I'd have done the same thing," but I can often in truth say, I see why you did it and why it made sense to you. It is later, I think, once you have finished the interviews, once you start to look around at the parts he has not told you, when you start to breathe life into the piece, that the betrayal, and I think that is the right word, can and often does begin.
From what I've read, when Malcolm published this (first in the New Yorker, then as a book), other journalists went ape-shit, saying they would never act in the way she claims. More honest writers, however, knew just what she meant, amongst them Susan Orlean, who "endorsed Malcolm's thesis as a necessary evil." Yes.
I am sorry it has come to this, but it has: I simply cannot answer any more emails from people, nearly always non-journalists whom I don't know, who ask by email how to break into journalism. I have spent hours and days and weeks answering these questions; I have met people for coffee, people who with one exception have not, as far as I can tell, done anything to advance their careers. I've said it a dozen times: I don't want to be anyone's mentor, and I am happy to share my editorial contacts provided you are serious. But replying to the random, tossed-off, "So, I'm thinking about being a journalist, what do I do?" No more. Sorry.
Why do people think it's any different from making it in any other profession, meaning, do a good job, a better than expected job, and do it again and again and again?
So here's my advice, once and for all: Be courteous, meet your deadlines; make your editors' lives easier. You sell the pitch, not the completed story. Remember, it's their publication, not yours. Don't call on deadline day, and frankly, don't call at all. Email. Don't expect an instant answer, and yes, it's OK to send one reminder email. Read a lot, write a lot; write better. Start a blog to keep yourself well-oiled and for connectivity (and for god's sake, don't be like the ninny who, when I suggested as much, replied, "But what about copyright?!") Get your facts and your spelling right; be generous in your writing. Never, ever, ever betray your subjects. Don't massage the material to suit your idea of the narrative -- that's called fiction. Strive to be great.
I just now tweeted a question to fellow journalists, asking what they do/what advice I should dole out. Here's what I've gotten back. I will refresh as well as paste in what I get in the comments:
Like books? You are going to love love love love love this section, with authors aplenty telling you what books they love, which ones they're sorry they finished, which ones they've never finished. Plus this year's great beach reads; literary pull quotes, books on the horizon and those authors you really, really should be reading. Plus my take on Kindle, all courtesy of City Arts Magazine (which puts out three editions, Seattle, Tacoma and Eastside, so pick on up, will ya?)
Readers of this blog -- and again, my apologies for being so absent of late -- know that a few weeks ago, I followed Dan Baum's Twitterfeed regarding his unrenewed contract with The New Yorker. I later emailed with Baum, and also, wrote an editorial for LA Observed.
Baum's original tweets contained a few links to pitches he'd sent to various publications, as well as noting whether the pitch had sold or not. I read one or two of them; they were well-written, writing we learned was helped to get that way by Baum's writer/editor wife, who edits not only his articles (and book) before they go to his editors, but the pitches. I am not going to get into the discussions I've seen online, and also had with several colleagues, about Baum's wife working for no byline; that's their business, and those interested in her services can read about them on Baum's/(their) website.
At the time I read the pitches, I felt they might be useful to beginning journalists. I've had at least a dozen beginners ask me how to write a pitch; I am happy to tell them and to share an example. It seemed a generous act on Baum's part to include links to the pitches.
Since the whole brouhaha has died down, I've checked Baum's blog once a week. A few days ago, I came across a post in which he explained there'd been a slight uproar over his saying, in a recent Q & A, that when he's researching a piece for a magazine but before he's actually sold them the piece, he represents that he is already writing the piece for such-and-such magazine. For those who do not understand the process of selling an article: in the main, you write up your idea (i.e., the pitch) and submit it to an editor at a publication. Once they give you the green light -- meaning they are going to buy it --you're now working on the piece for this magazine. But not before. During the research phase of a pitch, it's just yours. You're out there with no big name giving you credibility, but nevertheless must harvest enough information to make your story appeal to that big name.
Baum doesn't see it this way. From the Q & A:
When you are calling people and you don’t have an assignment yet, how do you convince them to talk to you?
I say, “I’m working on a story for The New York Times Magazine.” Or “I’m working on a story for Wired magazine.”
So you don’t let them know you don’t have the assignment in hand?
No, I say I’m working on a story for Wired magazine and I am. My relationship with Wired magazine at that point is none of their business.
He later clarified in a blog post:
For example, if I’m working up a proposal for Wired, and I call a source to ask some questions, I don’t say, “I’m working up a proposal for Wired,” or “I may be doing this story for Wired.” I say, “I’m working on a story for Wired.” And if I have to leave a message, I say, “This is Dan Baum. I’m working on a story for Wired; please call me.”
Is that dishonest? I don’t think so.
The truth is, in such a situation I am working for Wired. Wired doesn’t know it yet, but I am out there gathering information that I will send to Wired’s editors in the form of a proposal. So not only am I working for Wired, I’m working for free.
It is true that I am engaging in a trade with Wired without its consent. I am doing a bunch of legwork for its editors for no pay, in return for the use of Wired’s name and reputation.
It’s fair, I believe, because I’m working in good faith. I am genuinely trying to develop a story that Wired will want. To use Wired’s name in any other context would be dishonest.
Really? I've been a journalist for fourteen years; I know a lot of writers, and I don't know any who would do this in good faith. We've all had to make cold calls -- recently, I had to make some for an article I hoped to sell and did sell to Wired. If the people you cold-call ask who you're writing for, you say, you're working on a pitch; in the past you've written for so-and-so, and they can see some of your work on your website.
As a journalist, I do think it's dishonest to say you're writing for a publication from whom you've yet to get a contract. Baum is a road-tested journalist with good credentials, but who's to stop Joe Blow from calling and saying, "I'm writing for the New York Times"? The person called now feels a certain security (or, as the case may be, hostility) to speak, to open up; to rely that his story is going to appear in the New York Times.
To me, prematurely (one might say, hopefully) using a publication's name is a line that cannot be crossed. But what galls me, and I guess why I am blogging this, is that Baum is doling out this advice as acceptable protocol to junior writers. Think I'm exaggerating about the possible impact? Read the comments, which include "Massively inspirational," "comforting" and "He's so tenacious!" Which makes me think that Baum may be creating for himself an empire along the lines of what Robert McKee did for wannabe screenwriters. I cannot count the number of people I knew in Hollywood who shelled out for McKee's classes, and to whom he became a Svengali.
I could go on; about how much I hate the word "mentor" (want to learn how to write? Read. Write. Write badly. Write better); how having an editor before your editor seems decadent; how I finally last night read a New Yorker piece of Baum's I printed out weeks ago, and how painful it was to see how little his subject wanted the reporter around. Instead, I reprint here what my editor emailed me, after I sent him Baum's Q & A:
Dear Dan Baum,
One of my favorite novels of the past year was Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. It took me a little while, nearly 100 pages actually, before I fell into it, and then, to my surprise, just kept falling and falling. Most successful novels (successful in the sense that, I like them) do not gather ferocious speed at the three-quarter mark, but this one did, throwing me into the abyss where you could only fall and watch, fall and watch. Not a lot of writers can do this sort of controlled madness -- the first I recall reading was Jane Bowles, who just let the whole thing spool out until you were, sometimes and unfortunately, untethered from the story. Anyway, I wound up loving Netherland, whose end had me holding my breath and then crying from the realness of it all. The last book to do that was Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, which I cannot recommend strongly enough, and which, I've just realized, also threw me at the beginning, though in that case, only for the first page or two.
O'Neill writes, in the Atlantic, about Flannery O'Connor, one of the very greatest of twentieth century fiction writers. She writes with a controlled, even cold savagery, writing which O'Neill describes as:
Or (upon the arrival of refugee Poles at a farm):
She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel. God save me, she cried silently, from the stinking power of Satan!
The narrating third person hovers in an almost miraculous fusion of proximity and comic distance. With O’Connor, there never seems to be space between the words and their creator’s sensibility. You almost never catch a whiff of authorial self-consciousness. About how many writers can this be said?
A note on why so little blogging: I am writing, and I am also often on Twitter, posting what would have gone here. Why? It's fast. Join me? http://twitter.com/NancyRomm