Archive for August, 2009

On What Doesn’t Need To Be Said

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Yesterday, John and I were at a BBQ hosted by his Ultimate Frisbee game, and the intriguing topic of foreign phrase books came up. It began when Dan*, who is Korean-American, and his partner Jill*, who is European-American, were discussing the possibility that Jill might learn to speak Korean.

*Names have been changed, because I cannot remember these people’s names. Oof!

Dan: We started with the alphabet, because of course it’s different.

Jill: Yeah, and I said to him, ‘Rather than have me learn an entirely new alphabet, why don’t you just teach me to say, “I’m good enough for your son.”‘


Then someone (Kaoki?) mentioned that his friend has a foreign phrase book with highly unusual content, including the phrase, “You’re just using me for sex.” And he said, “You know, if you’re using a foreign phrase book to learn how to say that, isn’t it already obvious?”


John: That would be an excellent phrase book: All of the things you don’t need to say, because it’s already obvious that they’re true.

Me: Yeah, totally. Except — what’s in that book?

John: [Blinks.]

Me: [Blinks.]

Honestly, what is in that book? Comments about the weather? Things you’ve already said a million times? It’s pretty site-specific, I think — and by “site” I mean time, place, and people involved.

While John and I were contemplating this linguistic meme, Paul mentioned that he knows of a “phrase book” which is actually just a picture book. If you need a bus, you open to the picture of a bus.

John: I want that book with hand gestures. Like, what if you need milk? [Bows his head and points his fingers to make horns.]

Paul: What is that, a cow?

Me: I would never have known what that was.

Matthew: It’s the devil! Take me to your devil!

December: Present Tense Pour Quoi?

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

First, a brief note on my relationship to books:

Need need need. Get get get. Read read read. Need need need.

Just finished December, by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. The first thing I want to know is, why the present tense?

Plenty has been written regarding present-tense narration in fiction, and here’s where I stand: I’m against it. Because storytelling, naturally, happens in the past tense. In person, we don’t narrate events as they happen, when they’ve not yet been organized into a story, but rather after the fact, when they have. Of course, sometimes when we narrate, we switch to present-tense, largely from convenience, I think; the verbs are shorter. Sometimes we switch for immediacy. Mostly, though, we tell stories in the past tense, so that’s what reads naturally.

The present tense can work, I think, but only rarely, when there’s a reason. Second-person POV, for example. (“You find yourself in a dark theater, digging a corn kernel from the crevice of a molar.”) A first-person narrator who’s skittish and unstable, for another. (“I’m walking to the corner store. I mean, I think I am. I’m walking somewhere. Where am I walking?”) If you know of other justifications, feel free to supply them.

I would have liked December, a story about a child who stops speaking, much better in the past tense. It would have been less mannered and more confident. And I don’t think Winthrop ever justifies her character’s silence, or completes her psychological arc. In other words, big set-up, small delivery. Which is frustrating, because I liked the premise. And plenty of the writing.

Next up: Jeff in Venice/Death in Varanasi.

The Scottish Play

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

In a couple of weeks, we head to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for our honeymoon. On the docket: Macbeth, a play I’ve never seen performed, despite having read it multiple times and having performed in it myself, in an abridged version, in 5th grade.

I was Macduff. And, briefly, when Lady Macbeth proved incapable of memorizing her lines, Lady Macbeth. Then she got her shit together, and I took comfort in the joy of killing Macbeth in the final scene.

One thing I always remember about Macbeth is what Harold Bloom told us: The Macbeths have the happiest marriage in Shakespeare. Bloom is a contrary kind of guy who likes saying scandalous things for the fun of it, but I used to agree with him. Now, though, I don’t think so. Because, I mean, you don’t want one partner egging the other on to commit murder, and challenging his gender status to do so. Because that’s, like, not happy.

Scenes from a Marriage

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

John: [Leaning in to kiss me.] You smell good.

Me: I do?

J: Yeah.

M: It’s my lotion. [Holds up hands.]

J: [Sniffing my hands.] No, it’s your skin.

M: [Sniffing my shirt.] Maybe it’s my laundry detergent.

J: [Sniffing my neck.] No, it’s your skin.

M: I don’t think so.

J: Your skin smells good.

M: I don’t think it does.

J: But it does.

[Flash-forward 24 hours.]

J: [Leaning in to kiss me.] You smell good.

Me: I do?

J: Yeah.

M: It’s my lotion. [Holds up hands.]

J: [Sniffing my hands.] No, it’s your skin.

M: [Sniffing shirt.] Maybe it’s my laundry detergent.



M: [Attempting to sniff own neck.] I can’t sniff my neck!

J: [Attempting to sniff own neck.] Me, neither!

M: Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!

J: Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!

M: It can’t be done!

J: It cannot be!


M:  Maybe I’ll blog about it.

Lionel Shriver: Part the Second

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I reiterate my request for a Lionel Shriver Support Group.

Has anyone read The Female of the Species? And needed a good scrub-down after? With one of those highly toxic powdered cleansers?

Granted, it’s an early work. And dated. But dated in ways that are particularly hard to take. For example, racism.

Gray Kaiser, the book’s main character (though not protagonist), is an anthropologist in the mid-century mold, an intellectual celebrity/emotional idiot distinguished by the hautest of hauteurs. She spends the first 50 pages of the book succumbing to the thrall of a fascist European dictator who rules a splinter group of Massai warriors — violent, ignorant Massai warriors who worship the white man as a god.


After that highly sympathetic character dies in a ball of flame (further enobled, naturally, by the look of sympathy he bestows on his Masai predators shorly before he does away with himself), Kaiser spends the next 300 pages in the thrall of a severely damaged and sadistic graduate student who introduces her to her own humanity by way of repeated humiliation.

The central conceit, or one of them, is that Kaiser has refused the copious solicitations of all other men but these because no other men could meet her power. In other words, she’s a man-killer, until she meets men who can kill her.

And you know what’s really, really creepy? In the Acknowledgments, Shriver writes this: “I thank all the men who have suffered so that I could learn what even this book has not yet taught me.” Eeeeeew.

Of course, I kept reading. And by the end, the book has at least slightly redeemed itself by coming into some important knowledge. Example: Love is not about power. Or at least, it moves toward that idea. Not sure if it fully embraces it.

Lionel Shriver support group, anyone?

Beckett: An Unbridgeable Inch from Buddhism

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Last night we saw Happy Days at Cal Shakes. I had been both dreading it and enjoying subjecting John to my dread:

“Oh, this’ll be good.”

“I’m sensing an imminent mood lift.”

“A woman buried to her neck in sand. Now there’s a concept.”

Actually, even before we saw it, I had to admit that the concept was genius. My fear was that the play would be all think and no feel, which is something that John can get behind but which always leaves me cold. (Exhibit A: Godot.) I don’t mind thinking (I swear), but I’d like to also feel. Please?

I’m happy to report that Happy Days is a sympathetic play. Heartbreaking, actually. I sort of need a good cry. And possibly a hug.

I’d also like to posit that if Beckett had had Buddhism, there would have been no Beckett. Or perhaps less of it. I kept noticing that his characters are in a proto-Buddhist state. They’re utterly in the moment. They have nothing but the moment, and the moment’s emptiness. But rather than face the emptiness, they dance jigs of distraction, waltzing over the void to avoid the terror of the plunge.

In Happy Days, Winnie’s horror vision of succumbing to the void is the image of herself silent, lips pressed, staring. Loosen the jaw muscles, and we have an image of meditation.

Just a thought.


Thursday, August 20th, 2009

On the one hand, I love Zappos. Free overnight shipping. Free returns. Over 1000 women’s shoes in my size. (Or at least, in what they think is my size. Note to shoe vendors everywhere: European 42 is not equal to and is most certainly less than American 11.5.)

Recently, when my UPS tracking status was listed as “delivered” despite the absence of said package, Zappos sent me a duplicate order. For free. Without making me wait to see if an errant neighbor would deliver the package. Which said errant neighbor did. Despite being a drug dealer who lives behind a doorless, 8-foot wooden fence.

And then? For my trouble? Zappos upgraded my account to VIP status.

Which was kind of like saying, “We’re so sorry we didn’t screw up! We’re so sorry that you were inconvenienced by your own impatience! Please allow us to worship you a little bit, even though you’ve returned every pair of shoes you’ve bought from us in the last 6 months!”

It made me a little sick. I felt like I was enabling a co-dependent partner to overstep his or her own boundaries for fear of being abandoned.

Meanwhile, in other Needy Customer Service news, the greeters at the downtown Berkeley Wells Fargo drive me nutso. The branch policy is clear: If you’re not helping customers at your desk, stand near the teller line and beam smiles, plus greet. The problem: Three or four of them can be there at any given time, and you have to say hello to all of them. Then, while you wait in line, you must turn your back on them while their beady eyes bore holes in your skull. Then, when it’s your turn at the teller, you’re bombarded with the scripted questions: “How are you today? How was your weekend? How has your day been going? Is it raining yet? Is there anything else I can help you with?”

PEOPLE. I just want to make a split deposit! Without being harangued by an android!

I always leave Wells Fargo exhausted, feeling as though I had to take care of them.

On Reading the Acknowledgments

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

When I read a book, I read the Acknowledgments. First of all, I want to see if I recognize any names. It’s fun, and enjoyably surprising, to see which writers know which other writers. And sometimes, I know one of the writers in the Acknowledgments, which leads to speedily dashed-off emails, requesting the story.

On the other hand, when to read the Acknowledgments is a vexing question.

Case in point: I’m currently in the middle of Swimming, the fantastic debut novel from Nicola Keegan, and I’m sorry that I read the Acknowledgments. Why? The novel’s prose is stylized. It’s meant to mimic swimming, and submersion, in its wavy, stream-of-consciousness dreaminess. The narrator, Pip, is a teenager, and her world has collapsed, and she’s immersed in grief, confusion, and swimming pools. The high drama of Keegan’s prose perfectly captures Pip’s psyche. In fact, the voice feels so signture, so particular, and so crafted that my image of the author was a sober prosemaster, purposefully going berserk.

Then I read the Acknowledgments. And they were not sober. They were wild and emphatic and trying a little too hard to be clever, I humbly submit.


Cold Souls: Logically Incomplete

Monday, August 17th, 2009

After reading Anthony Lane’s cheerful review of Cold Souls in The New Yorker, I hate to pull a Debbie Downer. And I did enjoy it. It’s a smart, funny movie that resolves into something far lovelier than you’d expect, given the givens. The movie heats slowly, opening in a frozen tundra of feelinglessness and warming, gently, to a soft and cozy place, thematically if not visually.

But Cold Souls would be a better movie–both smarter and funnier–if it resolved its own logical inconsistencies.

The film never bothers to take a stand on what a soul is, or how it operates; Souls‘ characters keep resorting to easy ambiguities like “The soul is mysterious” and “Nobody really understands how all of this works.” But because Souls is so specifically about the soul, it has to take positions by default, and those positions don’t make a lot of sense.

Case in point: When Paul Giamatti puts his soul in cold storage, he undergoes no noticable changes; when he rents a Russian factory worker’s soul, the only change is an improved acting performance (a fun joke, that any given Russian can perform Chekhov better than one of America’s most accomplished actors); and when a Russian actress/model uses his soul, she becomes no less vapid. So what’s the point of all of this soul storage, rental, and retrieval?

It’s still worth seeing. Bring a sweater.

Nelson Lichtenstein: WTF?

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Yesterday on Fresh Air, Dave Davies interviewed Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at UCSB. The topic: Lichtenstein’s book, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. It’s not the first book about  Wal-Mart’s nefarious business practices, but it sounded like a good one, and, having turned down Wal-Mart as a client on ethical grounds, I was interested to learn everything I could about what’s still happening there, even after some positive changes have been made–albeit in a preemptive move to ward off unwanted attention from the Obama administration.

Things at Wal-Mart, it turns out, are still pretty gnarly. Wal-Mart does everything it can to milk as much out of its employees as possible while giving them the fewest benefits; it pits them against each other in competition for hours; its salaried employees are not compensated for overtime, which they invariably work, since meetings are held on Saturday mornings. All this is to say nothing of its environmental practices, or its well-documented gender discrimination, or the macro-economic impact of sourcing most of its uber-cheap products from China, or the micro-economic impact of shutting down independently owned businesses in towns across the US.

So here’s my question. Why does Lichtenstein shop there? Here’s the final question of the interview:

DAVIES: Do you shop at Wal-Mart?

Prof. LICHTENSTEIN: Yes, when I can. I have no objection to shopping at a big firm like that. I buy cars through assembly  lines, and I buy products sold at the most efficient form of retailing. And I’d like the change the company, but I see no problem with, you know, shopping there.


Shopping at Wal-Mart is NOT the same as buying a car off an assembly line. First of all, you have to buy a car off an assembly line; they aren’t made any other way. Second, the problem with Wal-Mart isn’t mass production. It’s labor and environmental practices. And if there were a car company that treated its employees and the environment with the same disdain that Wal-Mart does, that company should be boycotted, too.

Maybe the book is more cogent on this point? Because Lichtenstein, WTF?