January 2008

The balance between being a writer and having a rich, full life is one that I struggle with. It takes a talent to live successfully–to juggle all the mundane responsibilities of each day with the larger concerns: finding love, finding fulfillment with your work, spending time with friends–and isn’t always as easy as striving for what seems like a larger goal: writing a book, selling a screenplay.

One of the many reasons that I admire Anne Bradstreet, the first woman to have her creative writing published in the United States, is that she managed to both write and live as fully as one can hope for. Besides raising eight children and keeping a happy marriage alive, she also emigrated from England to America and never neglected her own studies and reading. She also wrote a book of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up In America, which was “borrowed” by a family member and published without her knowledge in 1647.

I admire this intelligent, eloquent woman who not only managed to bring up a large family in the wilds of America but also found time to express herself through writing. 361 years later, it’s easy to relate to what she’s thinking and feeling.

In “In Reference To Her Children,” Bradstreet imagines that she is a bird, and her eight children are her beloved nestlings. As each grows up and flies away, she sings a song praying for their safety. One day, she knows, she, too, will take flight, “into a country beyond sight” and she prays:

When each of you shall in your nest

Among your young ones take your rest,

In chirping language, oft them tell,

You had a dam that loved you well,

That did what could be done for young,

And nursed you up till you were strong,

And ‘fore she once would let you fly,

She showed you joy and misery;

Taught what was good, and what was ill,

What would save life, and what would kill.

Thus gone, amongst you I may live,

And dead, yet speak, and counsel give:

Farewell, my birds, farewell adieu,

I happy am, if well with you.

Sniff. In other poems, she writes about events that happened in her life: the family’s house burning down, her husband returning safely from a journey, her (and her children’s) recoveries from illnesses. The immortality of her feelings and thoughts, crystallized in poetry, inspire me to attempt my own (hobbling) writing. I need to start writing poetry again, too.

Sometimes–okay, a lot of the time–I feel as if I’m not really living in that way you imagine really living when you’re in high school: passionately, heart-first, consequences-be-damned. Reading Ask Dr. Mueller: The Writings Of Cookie Mueller, I was convinced that I wasn’t.

A sometimes “Dreamlander” player in John Waters’s company, Cookie traveled around the world, had a son, had multiple adventures and wrote and wrote and wrote. She gets locked in a Chinese restaurant overnight, she gets raped by an Iceberg Slim-book-carrying mugger, she comes thisclose to meeting the Manson Family…nothing can really get her down and nothing can get in her way.

She has great stories to tell about Divine (stealing Christmas trees, lifting overturned VW buses), traveling to Rome with no plans or money (and meeting her future husband) and her brief career as a go-go dancer (doing the dreaded “floorwork” and meeting a possible murderer). The best, most touching piece in the entire book is “Edith Massey: A Star,” a loving tribute to Edith that’s quiveringly alive. The book jacket has a fantastic portrait of Cookie by Nan Goldin, where she’s laughing, head thrown back, rings and bangle bracelets and full of life.

Sadly, like a majority of the colorful denizens of her New York, Cookie died of AIDS (despite giving some misguided medical advice about the subject as “Dr. Mueller.”). It’s a testament to the power of a voice, bizarre and unique, but strong and eloquent, that she never seems that far away while you’re reading her words.

John Waters wrote the touching intro, which begins:

Cookie Mueller was a writer, a mother, an outlaw, an actress, a fashion designer, a go-go dancer, a witch-doctor, an art-hag, and above all, a goddess. Boy, do I miss that girl.

jessicaI like Jessica Simpson. I have a huge soft spot for her, and I hesitate to even type a title like this, but you’ve got to call ’em like you see ’em. (Which means I should technically write “Joe Simpson vs. Feminism.”)

No bones about it: Blonde Ambition is bad. You knew that, though. You’ve no doubt heard about how it opened in a handful of Texas theaters and barely scraped together $6,422.

My friend Z and I rented it last night. Jessica deserved better.

I’ve seen almost everything she’s appeared in, cinematically: Dukes of Hazzard, Employee of the Month, There Will Be Blood. She has a definite charm about her, a likability that could be used very effectively.

Could be, that is.

Too often, the grasping hand of manager Papa Joe Simpson sabotages his daughter, and cheap-looking, piece-of-trash Blonde Ambition is no exception (the Photoshopped cover is a leftover from her A Public Affair album cover shoot). Will he be content until he’s ruined any goodwill fans have for her?

Jessica could be good in movies; she just needs the right project and the right people who will help show her in the best light possible. I want nothing more than for her to prove this. Alas, that wasn’t the case here.

Some observations:

  • Luke Wilson looks bloated and scruffy/homeless. (As opposed to scruffy/cute.) Plus, he looks at least 20 years older than Jess. He played this role before in Legally Blonde…he (and the production) barely rate above dinner theater.
  • Jessica’s lipstick and hair are outrageous. There’s never a scene where she looks like a real person–instead, she’s got a billion billowy extensions and an unbelievable amount of hot scarlet lipstick slathered on, even when relaxing at home. Her lipstick changes, color, too: to match a coral-colored raincoat, she gets a bright orange mouth. TOO MUCH MAKEUP! (And, hey, I like drag queens!)
  • The script is groaningly stupid, giving Jessica no character to play. She goes through the typical romantic comedy tropes (She lies to the man she loves! He lies to her! He has to run to catch her at the end when he realizes he loves her!) but everything (from the opening credits that look like I designed them on a Tandy to the numerous green screen “effects”) just looks so cheap and generic that it’s a shock no one noticed beforehand.
  • Speaking of which, good actors (Penelope Ann Miller, Rachel Leigh Cook, Larry Miller) and bad-but-known actors (Andy Dick, Luke Wilson, Willie Nelson) do their best, but there’s nothing with which to do anything.

Here’s my main issue, though: for a supposedly empowering film aimed at women and girls, the movie’s feminism is, at best, strongly conflicted. While it does establish a strong bond between the “good” women (and presents some of them as capable, intelligent and successful), it also hits some really bizarre, jarring notes. Jessica lands a job as Larry Miller’s secretary, where she wears glamorous couture, bakes for everyone and cleans up the office. Like a bad fantasy of a submissive secretary (unlike the excellent fantasy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jessica leans over to pick up files, coos “Yes, Mr. Connelly” and drops staplers into her cleavage. (Well, not the last one.) Her “business” success consists of her performing similarly housewifely duties–throwing a children’s birthday party, dressing up in a slutty Norweigian costume to “entertain” foreign clients and exiting an elevator in slow-motion in a gorgeous red power suit, blonde hair flowing behind her. That’s all it takes, girls!

The film’s villainess, Penelope Ann Miller (the VP who *gasp* schemes to become president) gets the seemingly-incompetent Miller fired and takes his job. Jessica’s character, ever the anti-feminist, pouts and schemes until PAM is hauled off by security and the middle-aged white man is again president, with Jessica’s white-toothed smile and huge breasts happily subservient and at his beck and call, where the movie says she belongs.

jessica2There’s a strange, ugly twist, though. After slapping Penelope, Jessica is urged by Penny Marshall and a roomful of other “investors” to call her a bitch. After demurring (“You’re a very mean person!” she frowns), Jessica is finally convinced and calls her a bitch, at which point everyone applauds (Penny most heartily) now that the career woman has been put in her place. You know, because she was MEAN, had an unflattering haircut and hid her funbags under business suits instead of letting them flop around like seal pups in the surf. Fuck all that business knowledge she must’ve had to rise to the top–she never wore lipstick and was tired of being #2, so let’s all cheer her downfall! What the fuck?!

The only bright spot in the film was the compelling/disturbing/fucking fantastic performance of Karen McClain as Betty, the secretary whose place Jessica takes. With a knowing smile and an arched eyebrow, she delivers the limp dialogue with an awesome combination of camp and menace that’s pure genius. She knows what the script calls for (a sassy black woman referred to “Big Momma’s House” by another character), but she rises above it and steals the entire film. There’s a tag at the end of her character returning to the office, where she’s the new VP, that’s the closest the film comes to hitting the right notes. Trust me–watch at least the scene where McClain hisses, “…and SOMEBODY’s being a Sneaky Susan!” and tell me she isn’t simultaneously frightening and hilarious! Check her out at her website and her MySpace: I hope to see this “Talented Terri” again soon.

Jessica, here’s hoping Major Movie Star‘s better!

maidI hate cleaning. (I’d guess the lady on the left here doesn’t get much of it done while dressed like this, either.)

I don’t think that I’m a total slob, but I don’t mind when the laundry backs up or I have things strewn about my apartment. I have a closet that I can’t even open the door to because it’s filled so precariously.

I’m intrigued by people who love cleaning or at least are driven to it, probably because I, myself, am so laissez-faire about it. These compulsive cleaners are, no doubt, sleeker and more organized than I am. (I’m typing this while a stack of junk mail I haven’t thrown away is spread across my carpet in a colorful stripe.) I’m also intrigued, like Louise Rafkin, by the access to a house and a life that a housecleaner is given. (And apparently there’s a difference between a housecleaner and a maid.)

She talks about how, without peeking in anyone’s diary, she’s able to piece together a picture of the lives or even the energy of the house: who’s having an affair, who’s on a diet, who’s getting divorced. In Other People’s Dirt, she shares some vignette-y tales of “a housecleaner’s curious adventures”: jobs bad and good, a stint with a Japanese sect who lives only to clean up their community, the phenomenon of “exotic” maids (topless or nude).

What’s most interesting about this book, though, is Louise herself. Unlike most essayists/columnists/first person bloggers, she makes little effort to ensure she comes across as likable. She’s honest and unsentimental, the way that I imagine a professional housecleaner would have to be. Even in a chapter about the Mexican housekeeper she grew up with–how, as a professional housecleaner herself, she recognizes just how hard this woman worked for less money and less appreciation–she remains clear-eyed, even as the chapter ends with the woman’s death. That’s not to say that she doesn’t display great warmth and a sense of humor at times, but she’s always at a one-step remove from her subjects, and doesn’t hesitate to throw out a barb or expose a tough, prickly streak.

I admire that.

 Whether she’s interviewing a 95-year-old former maid to royalty who has absorbed her employers’ worldview (and now employs a maid herself), or a two-day run as a maid for a cleaning franchise (just like the similar experience in Nickel And Dimed, the women who actually do the work are getting ripped off, while the male owner profits), you never forget that, before everything, Rafkin is a writer who doesn’t opt for easy punchlines or cute endings.

 One of the most effective parts of the book lapses the closest to genuine emotion over writerly distance, when she writes a letter to a friend, saying goodbye to his recently deceased lover. She talks about cleaning for AIDS and cancer patients, how the act itself becomes almost talismanic to (as she puts it) “scour away fear.” As she moves around the corners of her employers’ lives, straightening up, she describes how a clean house can bring peace to someone returning…or leaving.

One day I sat on the bed with a dying woman. Full of chemicals, she was bald and wouldn’t let me see her head. She wore a huge, floppy, battered straw hat. Her round, hairless face reminded me of a Cabbage Patch doll. I had just been dumped by my girlfriend.

“Honey,” she told me, “life is short. Find some love.”

We both cried, the vacuum whirring in place, the smell of sickness and Endust mingling to evoke in me a slight nausea. I wanted to hug her, but didn’t. She died the next day.

Compassion cloaked in toughness…it’s powerful stuff, and I really admire Louise Rifkin. Early in the book, she talks about wanting to grow up to become Harriet The Spy and I’d say she’s nailed it: recording honestly the warts-and-all reality with an appealing, wry humor.

Even though I have to admit this book made me feel like straightening up my place, I stand by my belief. To me, cleaning seems like an attempt to control the impossible. (Entropy is inevitable, y’all!)Yes, you should keep things reasonably neat, but if you truly live and breathe, eat and sleep or fuck and fight in a place, it’s going to get messy.

Life is that mess.

What I (and I’d guess Ms. Rafkin) love, though, about writing (and I can see the cleaning connection, sparkling like a freshly Windexed window) is an attempt to take something messy and confusing and, with a few strokes of a pen or a broom, to set it in an order that makes sense, that speaks to a greater truth or a greater whole.

Or just smells like lemon Pledge. Yum.

Resilience is a funny thing. Just this morning, I was feeling really, really down and defeated, a feeling I haven’t been able to completely shake for a few weeks now. Everything I do seemed colored by my torpor. In fact, I’d typed up a blog post about the very subject (and my desire to escape take a vacation) this morning, only to erase it before posting. There’s only so much self-pitying I can take, especially from myself!

But, like that Gap swing dancing commercial, somehow your point of view shifts and what seemed so bleak and hopeless now seems exciting and possible. What causes this?

  • A good conversation with Z while picnicking in the park
  • A hot bath and a quiet night in your own apartment
  • A few chapters of Judith Krantz’s I’ll Take Manhattan (long live ’80s-mom-poolside-reading)
  • Most importantly, writing. Shaping sentences and choosing words to find beautiful and unexpected combinations; getting your thoughts down on paper in the pithiest way possible. Fighting the blank page and realizing that, yes, you can win again at something that means more you than anything else in the world.

In the movie Can’t Hardly Wait, each character is introduced by a quick shot of their yearbook picture and senior quote. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character, Amanda, (who’s undecided about attending college, which has always bothered me) quotes Jewel. (I know, I know…how ’90s!)

I’m not ashamed to admit that I love the quote myself, and although the song (“I’m Sensitive”) is a little cringe-worthy, it ends with the titular quote that never fails to make me feel an emotional rush:

“I’d rather see the world from another angle…”

That’s usually all it takes to feel cheerful or at least brave again.

newmutants1When I was in elementary school, I fell in love with The X-Men and religiously read the issues my friend would let me borrow. I soaked up the exotic-sounding names, powers and adventures they were having, and–luckily for me–convinced my mom to buy me a graphic novel collection of the Dark Phoenix saga, which I read and reread.

I was aware of the existence of The New Mutants at best, mostly because of Kitty Pryde’s eventual overlap with them. So this Christmas, I decided that I wanted to catch up on what I’d missed out on. Besides, as much fun as I had reading my then-boyfriend’s old ’80s copies of X-Men comics, I wanted to pick up something somewhat equivalent, timewise.

In the first section of the sprawling graphic novel, we’re introduced to the racially and geographically diverse New Mutants.

 They are:

  • Rahne Sinclair in An Morag, Scotland: A werewolf we first see jumping over the always-annoying Moira MacTaggert.
  • Roberto Da Costa in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil: A soccer-playing teen with a pretty girlfriend and the ability to become a glowing silhouette.
  • Sam Guthrie in Cameron County, Kentucky: A coal miner’s son, starting work in the mines himself, before discovering his ability to transform into a human cannonball.
  • Danielle Moonstar in Sundance, Colorado: A young Native American woman with a wise grandfather, a friendly mountain lion named Ridge-Runner and the ability to project people’s worst fears.
  • Xi’An Coy Mahn at the X-Mansion: A young Vietnamese woman with younger siblings and the ability to possess others.

It’s an interesting mix of powers (personalities, not so much), and I find it very odd that, for the most part, these aren’t superpowers that can be used effectively to attack. For the purposes of a comic book, I can see the appeal: the emphasis remains more on the interpersonal relationships and also places the New Mutants as a type of junior X-Men–less powerful but (theoretically) more relatable and likable.

The first story, “Renewal,” sets everything up and ends with our lil’ muties at the X-Mansion in their spiffy yellow-and-black Kitty Pryde-wear (except for the rebellious Moonstar, who keeps her boots and bizarre (turquoise?) shell belt…you know, to honor her heritage).

Quirky, likable and with enough familiar touches from the original X-book (both annoying and endearing, including the tiresome dialects and presences of both Moira McT and Professor X), I found myself enjoying the read much more than I thought.

Oh, and the “phantom Wolverine” cameo? Genius.

idinamenzelBelieve it or not, I haven’t seen Wicked. (My birthday’s next week, so maybe I’ll get tickets.) I read the book, which I liked up until about halfway through. I never saw the stage play of Rent, but I did see the movie version on my one, very strange semi-date with a photographer. I did see Enchanted, which I loved.

So I was slightly familiar with Idina Menzel before tonight, when I went to see her perform a showcase from her upcoming Warner Bros. debut album, I Stand. I dragged along my always game pal, Z, and, like our Vanessa Carlton adventure, it turned out to be a fantastic night.

Idina forgot lyrics, swore and sang all about how fucked up she is…is there any surprise that I loved her and the show? Tonight was a night when I really needed to hear Idina’s brand of “I’m a beautiful disaster,” and it’s like my inner snark just shut off. She looked gorgeous and has such a huge voice that it more than filled up the room, plus she played piano (in a charmingly awkward way) and teared up several times, including when she thanked hubby Taye Diggs, who came up onstage to hug her.

I’d been feeling so uninspired recently that it was as if someone were turning the lights back on inside me tonight. I stood there in the crowd, sweating in my jacket that I would never take off, feeling more and more as if I had something special to offer: a glow-in-the-dark, spinning fireworks/pinwheel heart that the right person will one day recognize and treasure, burning underneath my new Secret Wars t-shirt as brightly as the purple lights onstage.

Afterwards, my pal and I stumbled out afterwards with our complimentary Idina CD/DVD samplers and started driving back into the Valley. He was excited about his new iPod (mine’s dead) and was playing random songs, when he cued up a surprise for me.

As we drove up the Cahuenga pass out of Hollywood, with millions of tail lights ahead of us instead of stars (a la the ending of Valley Girl), the opening notes of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” started playing, and I felt such a rush of emotion: love for my friend, for the song, for L.A. and, most importantly, for myself.

“This is a great moment,” I said softly, more for my benefit than his. I told myself I wouldn’t forget how hopeful and happy I felt right then.

slaveofnyI’m in the middle of a few new books from the library (and from Christmas), but I wanted to keep posting. So I figured I’d write about books that I’ve already read but keep going back to.

My friend Elizabeth (sadly, not really my friend anymore) mentioned this book to me the fall of 2003, when I’d moved back out to LA and jumped back into grad school. She, her boyfriend Craig and I would stay up for hours discussing books that we loved, authors we considered our pet finds…people we wanted to be and books we wanted to write. She suggested I read Slaves Of New York, but I already had.

I’d found it in a used-bookstore in Kentucky–the movie tie-in paperback with Bernadette Peters awesomely ’80s-makeup’ed out and wearing an ashtray hat and either Chris Sarandon or Nick Corri on the cover. (I’ve only seen Fright Night once, and, of course, any star of A Nightmare On Elm Street has more prominence with me.) By the way, I can never believe Bernadette as a normal person in movies–she has such a theaterical quality to her. When she’s emoting in the movie, I expect her to break out into song, or something along those lines to make Broadway critics cheer. Even though she physically fit the role, I didn’t really like her in it.

I can pick this book up any time, any place, and be interested in it. The artsy, ’80s New York mentioned is a place where I always wanted to visit, if not live. I adore Desperately Seeking Susan and Smithereens for the same reasons (and more)–the New Wave Alice in Wonderland quality New York has.

If you’ve never read it, Slaves is (loosely) mainly two narratives: jewelry designer Eleanor T.’s misadventures in life and love, and Marley Mantello, a crazy/beautiful artist. There’s some other, random stories (probably my favorite of those is “You and the Boss,” a Jay McInerney-ish second person short story about Bruce Springsteen that mentions the Hollywood Wax Museum) as well, but whenever I pick the book up, I always flip to the Eleanor chapters. Sometimes I remember a certain scene–Eleanor crying into her fondue, Eleanor and her bad boyfriend Stash at a zombie-themed horror movie release party–and I feel hungry to read it again.

There are some strange things about the book that I’d love to ask Tama–whose other work I was never able to get into–and some really strange, beautiful details that I find myself reading aloud to myself, enraptured in the way that writers fall in love with words: “Melinda was tiny and blond with the luminous dark eyes of a loris or some nocturnal animal.”

I love how wry the sense of humor is:

Daria’s mother, Georgette, comes up alongside. “This is the one I made,” she says, pointing to the coconut cake.

“Then I must try it,” I say. I eat a forkful. What a disappointment! The cake is illusory, I mean, it looks like a gooey, fluffy coconut cake, but some basic ingredient such as sugar or coconut has been left out. “Delicious,” I say.

I loved the book so much that I ordered the movie, used on VHS (it was out of print), from Amazon. It was disappointing (although Tama did make a cameo at the end) and needlessly complicated. I’ve only watched it once, and it took some effort not to fast-forward it.

But the book I return to, over and over again. There’s something about the bizarre details, the understated quirkiness…this is a world I want to live in. These are people I want to know. A specific place and time have been captured, and for those of us too late to ever experience it, I’m grateful.

My absolute favorite chapter is “Matches,” where Eleanor throws a party. Reading it always makes me feel hopeful and happy and thoroughly charmed (and wanting to step out on a fire escape in a pair of gold sandals and green satin Chinese pajamas).

And it has the perfect epigraph (a passion of mine), encapsulating the experience of living in New York in the ’80s (or, I’d say, Los Angeles in the ’00s).

But it wasn’t a dream, it was a place. And you–and you–and you–and you were there. But you couldn’t have been, could you? This was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some if it wasn’t very nice–but most of it was beautiful.

Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, MGM Pictures

nikkisixxI knew I had to read this book when I saw this excerpt online:

The office rang Vanity and arranged for us to meet. She opened the door naked, with her eyes going around in her head. Somehow, I had a feeling that we might just hit it off.

You always wonder what life’s like for famous people, especially rock stars. Apparently for Sixx, that included spending Christmas alone, naked in his Van Nuys mansion, needle in his arm while holding a shotgun. All the ingredients that fascinate me seemed to be present: The ’80s! Christmas nudity! The Valley!

It’s basically Sixx’s diary entries with quotes from friends, enemies, bandmates and Vanity (now “Evangelist Denise Matthews”…ooh! pretty butterflies!). There’s drawings on almost every page and song lyrics and, somehow, despite all the sex and drugs going on (with and without Vanity), the book just didn’t hold my interest. Although, it DID come with a soundtrack CD if you bought it. (Wonder why the librarian didn’t hand that over? I hope she was a “Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room” era vixen reliving her glory days behind the stacks in neon fishnets.)

Maybe it’s because I was never really into Motley Crue’s music (and was, in fact, not allowed to watch MTV growing up), but I found myself losing interest pretty quickly. Maybe that Slash bio, though…

atonementKeira Knightley convinced me to read this book. It wasn’t until the big, awards-season push for the movie that I even considered reading it, and somehow my love for La Knightley convinced me to check it out.

It’s also the first book in a long time that I–gasp–returned to the library, overdue. (The shame of owing $1.50!) So instead of finishing the original, hardcover, I had to borrow the the paperback, Keira movie tie-in version I’d bought my mom for Christmas.

I didn’t love it.

I thought the first half was incredibly well-written…sometimes distractingly so. As beautiful and gracefully as the McEwan can circle around a character’s thoughts and feelings and the multiple meanings of a single action (a woman changing dresses for a party; a child hiding a squirrel’s skull), it became a little too much too quickly for me. (Of course, that may have had something to do with the fact that I was waiting in an airport, and then on a late-night flight on New Year’s Eve.)

There were passages I read over and over again–the chapters from the point of view of the mother were especially gorgeous–and I found myself writing down sentences and images that I loved. (I am still struck by the image of 15-year-old Lola twisting her tongue around a green-shell-coated candy bar.) The novel’s second half (mostly eschewing the interior for the exterior), weakened for me, and as for the twist ending…well…I’ll admit that I did gasp, and there was a power to the way it was handled, so straightforwardly as to be devastating.

Still, although I admired how masterfully it was done, I did not love this book. When I finish a book that truly moves me, I don’t physically want to let it go. I’ll look again at the cover, at the jacket copy, maybe flip through it again. I’ll stare at it, just letting whatever psychic essence it has soak up through my fingers, marveling at the fact that cardboard and paper, glued and stitched together, was able to transport me emotionally. I’ll hold it just as it held me, not wanting to break the connection, not just yet.

For Atonement, I simply put it in a priority mail envelope, addressed it to my mom and sent it.

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