14 December 2007

Housewifely truths

One of them is that laundry rocks.

I used to hate the laundry. It was this odious chore that had to be done once in a long while, with a lot of heat and noise and huffing and puffing and time away from far more interesting things.

But I have come to realize that laundry's been very, very good to me.

Someone at a recent grouping of many generations in the room queried about whether things were harder now, or back in the days when the elders in the room were raising their kids. My grandmother rushed to say, "Oh, things are much harder now. You have to worry about drugs, and...." She didn't want to say the other thing (sex). I protested, "But to have to use a wringer to wash your clothes, or go back to washing all our dishes by hand -- life is so much easier now in so many ways. We have dishwashers and washer-and-dryer sets and we have vacuum cleaners that really do suck up dirt. We don't have to live with the threat of a kind of squalor that it used to take this phenomenal effort to stave off. Then we have more energy to pay attention to the other stuff." No one won that argument; I know I haven't yet been confronted with drugs and sex in my child's world -- yet I also I know my grandmother would suffer greatly if she had to do more household labor.

I remember driving the hour again and again in delicious anticipation of another visit to my Oma's ranch-style spread, which had pavement and grass all around it, a few trees but not many, and absolutely none of the dirt that lurked just beyond our front door. Her carpets were white. My grandmother could wear her nice shoes when she went out because she would pull her Cadillac convertible into the garage (with its inimitable Eau de Auto, with perhaps a note of coolant from the big extra fridge in the same room, a scent equally toxic and irresistible). With a punch of a button she would roll down the garage door, and step out of her car onto the clean floor, and walk right into her house without walking on dirt, something I thought was nothing short of miraculous, having just come from our 400-square-foot rental near downtown with its postage stamp kitchen and bath and one teensy bedroom for the kids (my parents slept in the living room, something that might have horrified and fascinated my mainline Philly grandmother, who seldom came to our place). It was like being able to play in a kind of museum for me. She had TVs in several rooms and all the modern conveniences at her house.

We sure didn't, though. At home, we schlepped down to the laundromat, which was at least mercifully close and downhill, all the better for carrying the dirty laundry. Into my teens, after my parents divorced and remarried, my stepfather was the proponent of the in-house washer-and-dryer, but we continued our irregular schleppings from my father's house to the laundromat. After one memorable, epic laundry session, we arrived home positively crowing about having done fourteen loads (and I swear they were lighter after washing), but spending that three hours doing them wasn't really an experience I relished, no matter how hard my stepmother tried to jolly me up about it.

My husband grew up in a house with a washing machine and it is a wonderful thing. When we bought our house, he just assumed that it would have its own washer and dryer. To me it is still a kind of magic to simply walk downstairs, put your clothes in with a touch of soap (far less than recommended by the manufacturers, I might add), and to be able to pull out first some damp but clean laundry, and then to later pull out some dry, fluffed, and clean laundry, all without leaving the cozy shelter of your own home. What could be more pleasant, more agreeable? We even found a very efficient washer, yet another great luxury.

Maybe this is why I like to do my laundry when I'm home, why I like folding it just after its wash-dry cycle is completed. (Although I admit just as often I do end up leaving laundry for days in the dryer.) It's like having a fairy or a robot do my bidding. And the dishwasher is the same way. I realized I didn't mind putting away the dishes as much when I thought about not having been required to wash each of them myself first, and the same thing goes for folding laundry. Laundry is love.

05 December 2007

Go, Diablo, Go!

Juno came out in New York and L.A. today and I'm just so excited for Diablo Cody that I can't see straight. My heart swells with joy and pride for her!

And I'm sad to read about her and her now ex-husband, but pleased to hear they are friends.

04 December 2007

It's for stuff, not for people

All right, so I've told you I've been researching the pharmaceutical industry. I've been reading all these books about it and trying to find as many stories I can, and thinking about all these stories I'm hearing from my relatives. What keeps me watching Sicko and reading nonfiction titles like Over Dose and Hooked and looking for a way to tell this story is that everyone's health has declined so much in the past few years. It's my own personal Freakonomics study. My hypothesis: what everyone has in common is prescription drug use.

I'm seeing people gaining more weight that ever, being more anxious about their health, and having a more fragile connection to their bodies and their states of health. I'm seeing a scary kind of dependence on something that is completely foreign, external, and about whose long-term effects little is truly known. As many of these authors I'm reading (Brody, Brownlee, Angell, Cohen, Abramson, etc.) are saying, we're all subjects in one giant health experiment.

I think my first shock came when I realized that FDA approval for a drug doesn't necessarily mean much. With all the information that has come out about the way drugs are marketed and priced, brand-names vs. generics, and the way drug companies are manipulating study results these days, not to mention the utter chokehold the U.S. insurance industry has on the economy, it's pretty clear that big pharma is not in it for the public good, and our regulatory watchdogs aren't in much of a position to do anything about it.

Yet the public good was the motivator until surprisingly recently, until drugs started to be marketed directly to individuals on TV and in magazine ads, an approach that was unthinkable until as recently as the late 1960s. This approach had been suggested before then but was rejected for its potential to weaken the important expertise of the doctor in the critical doctor-patient relationship. And indeed this has come to pass, with people insisting that they need their doctors to prescribe Viagra or fen-phen or Vioxx -- or, worse, Prozac for their teenagers.

So I've been amassing data and now I'm trying to spin out a tale that shows some of these facets. How the FDA can't really stop a drug that a drug company is heavily invested in, especially if it's predicted to be a "blockbuster" drug. How even with less oversight and fewer controls than ever, it's in the drug makers' interests to make the FDA out to be the big bad bottleneck that keeps these miraculous substances out of the hands of the people who need them so badly. I see how studies are designed to make one pharmaceutical company's drugs look better in comparison to existing formulations, or even compared to a placebo (looky here, this is two percent better than a sugar pill!). I see how study authors are paid to reach and write up forgone conclusions.

The one I love is how big pharma likes to say it's expensive to bring new drugs to market because of the cost of the necessary research and development. Get this, though: A huge chunk of what these corporations list as expenses includes the "opportunity cost" of not being able to market and sell their drug while it is in the development and trial phase. So when companies say "It costs $1.7 billion US to launch a new drug," this translates to: "We've been restricted from earning $850 million while the FDA's been twiddling their thumbs." Add to this the subsidies they get from the taxpayers (who fund the research hospitals where drugs are developed and tested), and the fact that drug companies turn around and start extracting profits from products developed on the public's dime without compensating the original researchers or institutions -- except through different channels that give them more control over the outcome. Once in place, the institutions seldom want to jeopardize these funding sources; without them their institutions would suffer.

And now if you look at the drugs in the development pipelines, they are the ones for "lifestyle management" (or even enhancement -- see Viagra and its me-too drugs), rather than to cure AIDS and malaria and other persistent ailments that beset those among us who don't have the luxury of overeating and underexerting ourselves. I'm guessing cancer drugs are major blockbuster hopes, and that we'll see these issues playing out again when there are some candidates that druge companies think will fill that gap in current treatment options.

Yesterday I watched Michael Moore's latest documentary, Sicko, which looks at the same story from another angle. He suggests that if the insurance industry should disappear overnight, a lot of people in this country would be a lot happier, maybe even as happy as the people in France or England. One of the big questions he and I have both arrived at is "How are we treating our own?" Watching Sicko, it struck me that ever since 9/11 and Katrina, it's our own country that feels like a third-world country. It's our country's people the folks at the top (the increasingly rewarded haves) are leaving behind in their haste -- to do what? Give a handful of corporate players a few more millions of dollars? (And why? To affirm the limitless potential of the American Dream? So they can buy a bigger SUV and a third home, at the expense of their workers and shareholders and the people who helped them become who they are?) Michael Moore makes the point that it may behoove those in power, which include many of those who are being paid in one way or another by the pharmaceutical industry, to keep the general populace in a state of fear, poverty, and ignorance; a confident, rich, smart populace is much harder to govern.

I am cynical enough to agree, although I think the aphorism's conclusion may be false. I look at the level of discourse in European countries like Germany and France: on television, you see responsible people engaging in a high level of debate about the issues of the day, not these Fox "News"-show shouting matches that take place between the commentators and their "guests."

Okay, this will look like a tangent, but bear with me. The other day, my daughter and I were cleaning the window on our front door. I had some spray window cleaner, and she wanted to help me wash and wipe the window. So I warned her, "When you're working with stuff like window cleaners, don't breathe in the mist when you spray it. Be sure to keep it out of your body, and don't get a lot on your hands, either. Because," I added for emphasis, "it's made for stuff; it is not made for people."

More and more I'm seeing this distinction and it is a useful one. You can learn something about the intent of the makers of something by how willing they are to ensure its safety for the people who use or depend on it. Every day we read about a new study that proves that processed lunch meats cause cancer, or that people who use a greater variety of chemicals to clean their houses have more respiratory illnesses and cancers, that lead is in our toys and lipsticks, or that prescription drugs can have disastrous side effects either when used alone or in combination with other drugs. Or that our earlier assumptions about everyone's health (like the advice to take an aspirin a day) were flawed and further research has not borne them out.

I believe that many of our health issues today stem from the way corporations are guided by money, not people. Factory farms feed the animals growth hormones and antibiotics to improve yield and suppress disease and end up introducing more profound imbalances into the animals' and humans' natural ecologies. A friend was talking with a vet the other day who bought a dairy that was transitioning to organic. The dairy is now fully organic and the vet said to my friend, "I can't believe how healthy all the animals are now." Because organics aren't just about a new market or a new opportunity but are about sustaining and contributing to the health of the organisms involved.

That's why I'm writing and working on this stuff. Because I still believe in people, in doing for people, in making life better for people. Because if all I am on this planet to do is get mine and get rich before I die, what is the point? There has to be more to it that money and toys and having more than the next guy. But sometimes you wouldn't know it to look at the companies that are supposed to be in the business of helping people recover from illness and disease.

26 November 2007

Just the writing, thanks

Besides the existence of this quirky stew of mine I dabble in cooking now and again or when seized by the brilliant idea of the day, what occupies my hours during the day is working on my stories. I just decided not to take an unrelated job and it made everything so clear to me. I'm going to pull a Diablo Cody ("...and be a stripper?" my best friend quizzed me, but no, I reassured her) and go check out a couple of screenplays and sit down and make one with all my drug rep ideas, or from the other story, about the Sonoma sisters. Maybe I'll be like Hal Hartley and just make a bunch of stories about different people in the same constellation.

I keep having all of these visions of the people and the way they're being filmed, the colors and the bouncing flesh and the buildings and the sky. Seriously. I see this stuff. I'd better get it down before it's gone, eh?

And I hear the Rolling Stones now and I am amazed at how gone I was on them and how misogynistic they are -- it's taken 20 years of distance from a mysogynistic father to recognize those lyrics. The ultimate hit was seeing Gimme Shelter a year or so ago -- and also that chapter in the book by a girl growing up in NYC and meeting her idol, Mick Jagger, at a party when she was a teenager, but all he could see or say was "boobies" when he looked at her. Those two things really slammed that door shut for good. If you know me, just imagine what "Brown Sugar" sounds like to me now. I knew a little about the incorrectness of that song when I was a kid, but I had no idea then how it would feel.

21 November 2007

Movies I've seen recently

Well, I usually manage to keep up with my writing assignments, because I don't have many, and because they're usually self-inflicted. And this month, I think I had a case of information overload: I had to stop turning around and immediately describing what I saw. There was too much to take in. So I stopped and just looked and listened for a few days. What an amazing few days.

At the Denver International Film Festival I watched films about a game played in Myanmar, about a pregnant suburban U.S. teenager, about a boy who believes playing the music he hears in his head will bring his true parents back to him, about a girl growing up in Tehran, and others that impressed me in some way or another with their particular visions and truths.

The most fun and delightful discovery of the 2007 SDFF was far and away Juno. So many things won my heart: the wise humor, the tenacity at which the central character worked at being grown-up even though she wasn't all the way there yet, the acting of the woman who plays Juno (Ellen Page), and even my unbridled delight at discovering that Diablo Cody was responsible for the fabulous screenplay, which would make this her first in a three-screenplay deal for the Pussy Ranch bloger and erstwhile stripper. (In my book, she is the Wonder Woman of the new millennium.)

Another of the big Denver Film Fest premieres, August Rush, worked at evoking the ways music can be magically powerful, one of my core beliefs. And it had the orphan's search for his parents, a core issue in my world. But there was something about the orchestration of all its elements that leaned too hard on things that were too easy to reach, like the way cute kids are used to evoke specific emotions. But I cried all the way through anyway, and was vaguely reminded of elements of The Fisher King and The Cider House Rules, another orphanage story but with kids I believed in a little more than I did these ones. I liked August Rush even though it was sentimental as hell, even though Jonathan Rhys Meyers' upper lip is practically a character in its own right (speaking of scene-stealers), and even though I knew exactly where the movie was headed every second and turned out to be right. (I'm not bragging, honest: it's just not that difficult.)

Mystic Ball rocked my world, simply about a man's discovery of a game of six players who pass a ball around a circle. There are no opponents; without total cooperation and concentration you can't play at all. As a group meditation, it is both a very old way and to those of us in the capitalist west a completely new way to conceive of thinking of working and playing together. Since seeing the film and looking for replications of this pattern in other enterprises (music ensembles, theater, juggling, and some martial arts have a lot in common with this), I notice that this mode of complete collaboration exemplified by the game of chinlone is seldom encouraged by the economic forces governing our usual activities.

Getting along means something completely different in the world of Persepolis (I'll save you the internet session: Persepolis was an ancient ceremonial capital (what? a Burning Man kind of thing?) of the Persian Empire. Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical animated feature, with graphic artist Vincent Paronnaud, concerns her burgeoning awareness as she came of age in Tehran in the late 1970s into young adulthood amidst wartime politics and diminishing freedoms. An astonishing, funny, tragic, charming film (adapted from her graphic novel) Satrapi has made, and I believe her deft reanimation of her carefully chosen scenes will affect anyone who has ever been touched in any way by war. It is haunting – the scenes and images she submits to the light of film are iconic and will be etched upon our minds as they were etched upon hers as a child. It's not that this is exceptionally technically astounding filmmaking; rather, it is graphically exceptional, which heightens all the associated emotions. The cartooniness of the images belie the complexity of the intellectual and emotional centers of the film. We grow fond early of Marji, a girl whose bedtime stories are about people committing acts of bravery and being jailed and executed, the heroes of these stories her immediate relatives – uncles, grandpas, dear friends and fellow risk-takers. Young Marji learns about betrayal and ideological zeal and adaptation the hard way, and from a tender age. Fortunately, she has the honor of her own people to stand for as she finds her way in the world, and most of the time she does, even if she's a little clumsy at it from time to time.

I also saw The Savages, which was a brave attempt at finding a way through the alienation common to many parents and their kids in the dehumanizing process of aging in this country. It wasn't just the subject that had the feel and musty scent of wet wool smell clinging to it in my mind the whole way through, however. The kids' difference, their brands of intellectualism (the brother's a Brecht scholar and the sister is filching envelopes and postage at her temp jobs to apply for playwriting grants) felt somehow forced upon us, like this was something we'd get if we were hip and should want to get if we aren't. Maybe that mustiness for me came from the way the story centers on people I thought I aspired to be twenty years ago, people who look nothing like the people in the world I live in now. I liked the script and the jokes and the not-so-funny bits, even if I felt a little hit over the head by it all by the end. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are at their actorly bests, and Tamara Jenkins has some inspired moments choreographing life in an Arizona retirement paradise. And the funniest coincidence of the festival was seeing The Savages first, Juno second, and finding they have a soundtrack song in common: The Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking to You" ("...'cause I'm made out of glue").

In the midst of all this there was a screening of Stop-Loss, a new film by Kimberly Peirce, of Boys Don't Cry fame. It addressed a side of today's “war effort” that we don't hear about that often but is affecting a lot of stressed-out soldiers: when the U.S. Government puts a “stop-loss” on the soldier's service contract and they have to go back, even though they have fulfilled the terms of their enlistment. “Some of them are in effect until 2031,” the director said of these contract extensions in a Q&A following the screening. A decompressing soldier in the audience broke down in tears after the film, and I too felt the film communicated the pain of how things are back home and in the war, for the people who serve in the U.S. military forces. A film like that doesn't just communicate, though: I feel it transfers some of the weight of the information it contains to its new owner, which spreads the burden a little across more people now that it is out in the open, where we can name it (violence, addiction, infantilism, nihilism) and then do something about it.

That something can be done was the surprising and beautiful lesson of Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, a feature-length documentary you're bound to see on your local PBS affiliate someday soon. It is a history lesson of a shockingly recent episode: a 1979 demonstration and conference of a pro-union anti-government Communist group in North Carolina that was crashed by the Ku Klux Klan – and also happened to be deserted by the Greensboro cops. Klan members then pulled shotguns out of their vehicles and started shooting, not stopping until four people had died – a fifth one died later. In retrospect, the absence of the police became conspicuous: they had seemed all too aware of the congregators' plans that day. And as one of the demonstrators notes, "Communist" had the emotional charge then that “terrorist” has now. In the wake of the "Greensboro massacre," the city's government whitewashed as much as possible in the hopes of attracting new business; while a core group of aging reactionaries who had literally been shot down in their prime still nursed their collective wounds, because none of the Klan were ever convicted for the murders. The city paid a settlement to the widows of the victims, admitting some responsibility, but no one in the city government ever claimed any direct responsibility for this atrocity, or even said "We're truly sorry this happened on our watch." Lo and behold, someone suggested forming a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," to investigate and sort out the truth, and something shifted, like stones from a formerly forbidden entrance. A bunch of people from the community, the kind of people you don't really notice but stand in line with you at the grocery store, dug through evidence and participants' and eyewitnesses' accounts. As a result a hope for peace grew, and you can see a kind of justice emerge that has been invested in by the participants of the society who attend these hearings and bear witness. We hear some of the testimonies not just of the aggrieved Communist Worker Party marchers who'd been shot at in 1979 but of the Klan members who talk openly about what they believe. Desmond Tutu comes to speak to the people of this small, North Carolina city about truth. And there is acknowledgment in the end of responsibility on all sides: The Klan say they overreacted to the Communists and the Communists admit that perhaps saying "Kill the Klan" in their own propaganda wasn't so smart on their part. Yet many of them get the apologies they sought in the first place, and healing and hope are shown to be possible in the actions of human beings who look just like you, me, and everyone we know.

I certainly don't consider my job as a critic to tear things down, or to say how I could do it better even though I've never even tried to do anything like that. So I feel I must respond honestly to art and truth and attempts to make meaning, and my role is to talk back. Otherwise, what's the point? Why not let people know how you are affected and afflicted by what you see and experience instead of walking out of the theater and carrying your private thoughts back into your private sphere, never to be shared or analyzed or challenged. I see films and read books both because I want to know more about things and because I like passing bits of information along and seeing what others make of them.

So I want you to know that you'll hear the same Lou Reed song in two different movies this winter and that both of those films are worth seeing, I want you to know there are artists graphically opening our eyes and our minds to what is behind the "World News" headlines. I want to know what happens when we say yes to our government's wars, and I want you to know how you can find out if you're willing to go there, too. I want you to know that someone out there loves music or respects teenagers as much as you do. I want you to know that violence doesn't always get the last word: sometimes hope and healing and love do. I want you to know that there's a game that has no opponents. I want you not to give up on popular culture or expression, to still believe people are making amazing art that has real meaning and purpose.

I love the feeling that what we get when we put our work out there is a sort of infinite system of checks and balances with all the other information each person is bringing to the world correcting and compensating and complementing the other information that people have already put out there. Like an infinite game of chinlone.

16 November 2007

Now I don't even know if I can tell you the name of the film

Is a blogger the same as a journalist?

I ask this question because I attended a screening of an excellent film last night, followed by the privilege of a lengthy Q&A session with the director. I'm quite certain the publicists want grassroots support for this film, or we would not have seen it and been treated to the access to its director. This is a key market for a film like this; this was an audience that had college students and film enthusiasts and political activists, even war veterans.

But before the film I asked expressly if I could cover this event for Movie Habit, where I write film reviews, and was told absolutely no press. Yet I took notes (partly because it helps me remember things and partly because I hadn't gotten the message when I went into the theater). I did, however, get the message when I got home, in email and on my message machine. In fact, my editor at Movie Habit even received a note, which he tried to relay to me before the screening.

So I understand that they feel they can reserve the right to have a member of the press not cover it for a publication, but the screening was "open to the public" (they were handing out free tickets and handed me one when I walked out of the bookstore right nearby last night) and presumably a event like this has the purpose of generating positive buzz for the film.

With all I gathered last night, I could easily write a commentary on the film and recreate some key moments from the Q&A, but now I feel I am not supposed to.

Yet undoubtedly the filmmakers want support for their film within the community, a little viral marketing. (They've got it; I know other people liked the film and four people have already asked me how the film was. I said it's very good. Quite powerful. Moreover, I would have said the same thing even if I hadn't been seven feet from the director last night.)

But today I feel a little stepped on as a writer, as the backyard journalist that I am by nature. Wouldn't you?

12 November 2007

A shout-out to the dogs I've known

What a lovely experience!

I'm still feeling all warm and glowy from seeing this heartfelt film about a game called chinlone, Mystic Ball. The filmmaker brought his discovery of this cooperative and peaceful thing: a game with a team of six and no opponents. The fundamental play of the game is keeping a 7-inch hollow sphere made of soaked and wound rattan cane in the air, a basic foot-and-knee form of juggling that requires total concentration to master or even do a teensy bit well, it turns out.

The game of chinlone is revealed a form of meditation, an entertainment, and ultimately, as filmmaker Greg Hamilton says, "a form of loving." I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was reveling in the piece of news about human potential the filmmaker had shared with us. My friend and I hung around and bought one of his chinlone balls, and chatted after the film with "Mr. Greg" as he is affectionately called by his friends in Myanmar. We even stayed to check out a couple of chinlone tips; Greg changed and stretched for a good long time, no doubt trying to shed some of the anxiety associated with another screening of his film and the bombardment of chat after. As he readied for play, clearly he was not just going to share a couple of moves after all but was in for a long practice session after the rest of us drifted off to pick up kids or see other film-fest fare.

As we walked over to a playing field for the instruction, I asked Greg directly the question my friend had asked aloud as we walked out of the theater: Have you become a Buddhist as a result of these experiences? He said no, but chinlone and his friendship with the Myanmar people has given him a new spiritual dimension in his life, something he addresses in Mystic Ball that had been missing after a violent childhood and a dedication to music and the martial arts. "And," Greg said, "I've learned a lot from dogs." This made me so happy -- I thought of all the dogs I've been learning from lately and it's so true (hi Kimi, you sweet spirit).

The collaborative game is kind of like a more selfless combination of hacky sack and soccer, with your knee and all the surfaces of your foot legal for touching the ball and keeping it in motion and everyone's goal to support the kicker's best possible form at all times.

Writing this I find myself musing, what is like this here in our culture? And the answer comes immediately: rock bands! Not the kind lampooned in Almost Famous (as much as I love that movie, Stillwater is a caricature) but groups like the Grateful Dead and Gomez who get a bunch of people together to agree to go down that path and see if we can all get somewhere interesting. That live music is played to accompany and inspire the circle of ball players and an announcer engages in tricky wordplay to accent the tricky footwork of the participants only reinforces the likenesses in this comparison. (And maybe I'm more likely to form a rock band in pursuit of this experience than I am to master chinlone!)

I liked seeing a different way of doing things in Greg Hamilton's lovely film. Now it's time to do my own practice of keeping my own literary ball in the air.


02 November 2007

For the love of film

Here's a good idea: I could approach my friends over at Naturally Boulder about a new Green Filmmaking Institute -- or a food and film program. I would bet people would be all over that here. Wouldn't that be fun, from pulling people together to show their films, to talking about opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint of film-
making? It's a vast and wasteful industry I know: I think of the layers of information in the experience of seeing a car inside a mall bearing a sign that indicated this was the make and model of car used in another film so it could be destroyed in yet another film now playing at this multiplex. We are left to admire an exact replica of the 50- or 80-thousand-dollar automobile that they truly blew to smithereens in the making of the current film. I see all kinds of flaws here: that's a lot of nasty stuff to burn up and dispose of; you can use computers to simulate effects; and not least, can you imagine how the women at a safehouse could have a nice car to travel in and what a difference that car could make in their lives and attitudes?

I feel the same way when I see people driving Hummers as when I saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith, staring one of our currently celebrity-obsessed culture's royal couples, Brad and Angelina, or Brangelina, as everyone likes to say (on the heels of Bennifer of course, another doomed high-profile union). I could hardly find the chemistry in the smoking shards remaining from the wide swath of destruction that film carved. When they destroyed that house from the inside out it made me wonder what they do with materials like that. These days, though, everyone just shrugs and says, "That's why it cost them $100 million (I had guessed 50 but then I looked it up and was stunned to find I was off by 100 percent). Everyone shrugs and accepts this despite the fact that it stopped computing a long time ago, kind of like the medical and pharmaceuticals industry. There is a whole waste stream that could be much more efficiently and effectively diverted, or reduced in the first place (e.g., don't buy a real thousand-dollar microwave oven and then destroy it; project a cool one onto a green screen behind the actor and blast it to smithereens electronically -- surely there are a kajillion experienced game designers who could help you out).

Can you believe I'm only just now starting to see how the question always comes down to how much you can do with each opportunity you have in front of you?

31 October 2007

Nearly November

It's Nanowrimo time again.

I have but a skeleton of a plot for this year's novel, but I think my settings and characters are ready to emerge from another project (my sweetie gently suggested, that maybe my bad guy from last year's novel takes the focus away from them? maybe he needs a story of his own? and I'm seeing the wisdom in that, and the bad guy's story is just itching to be told because it turns out I know more about male bad guys than I had thought and I've been trying to write about a bad woman, and I don't know many of those but I'm always gobsmacked when I do come across them). I also saw a couple of inspiring documentaries that made me want to write this stuff down in fictional form, and I am also in the back of my mind thinking of this as the story on which a screenplay could be built. So there has to be a lot happening, some layers of intrigue, which I'm not as experienced at but want to get some practice at.

And I'm completely digging this idea of creating something from nothing. Everybody in the business world talks about adding value and I think, what's something that has high cultural and social value here? Movies and fiction and theater and poetry are certainly among those. Athletics is another: a few sports have been elevated to high entertainment, their participants richer than the royals of many nations. Doctoring is another. Medicating is yet another. But I have a skill set that helps me create lots of somethings from nothings.

One inspiring documentary out of many, many films I've seen lately is one called Steep, coming out at the beginning of 2008, about the history of big-mountain skiing. It turns out that not many people knew you could ski on a slope steeper than 45 degrees until about 1971, when a guy named Bill Briggs prepared himself, climbed to the summit of the Grand Teton, the tallest in that craggy, patchily covered range, and skied down. His friends, who got to the bottom of a massive couloir and decided they couldn't do the summit, watched him go on toward the summit alone. An avalanche came down a few hours after he left them, and they thought for sure he'd been in it, but he skied right up to his friends just after it swept past and boggled their minds. It was Briggs' perfect day.

And that might be the money shot of the film, that camera swinging around the mountain from the air shortly after they descended to see Briggs' beautiful lines in the snow that only stuck to those slopes for a few days a year and this had been one of them. Briggs said a thing I'd never thought of: he said he felt it was nature enhanced by a human's participation.

That we can bring about a net benefit rather than occupy an enormous carbon footprint is such revolutionary idea to me on some fundamental level: I feel as if I'd never really and truly considered myself as anything but a blight on the earth.

I see we all have an effect, every time we make the choice to take a bus or ride our bikes and let the planet take an extra breath. Every time we plant and tend something.

It feels like standing in the sun at the edge of a beautiful meadow full of wildflowers after a cold climb through snow and mud. I can see how I can make something new just by being here, by listening carefully, by serving in the ways that I know best and sharing that with others.

22 October 2007

What matters most

Went to an interesting event on Thursday: a lady's talk at a local restaurant. She came back from extreme illness (and this reminded me of other friends who have these debilitating gastrointestinal diseases) and started making books and art and sending her ideas around the world through a package of stuff. I was a little taken aback when I saw the array of books and candles and oils spread out, with many drawings that are pretty and colorful and dense and in a particular style, all of them in that exact style. I liked some of what she had to say but not her style of interacting with the group; everyone was put on the spot at least once. But later, after her talk about loving and nurturing our beauty (in part by remembering that it's inside and out, of course), I thought about the nugget of truth in there that sometimes it takes that near-death experience to remind us of what our most important truth is.

I have had lots of vicarious ones and only a couple of near-death or out-of-body experiences: being alone on that hillside in winter in Ward was one, the overnight in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was another, as was being stuck under a waterfall that was part of a river rapid that had moments before ejected me and everyone else from a raft. I've been close to enough deaths and near deaths, too, to know how fragile our connection to life is.

What have I learned that I need to do? Make it safe for people (including me) to tell their stories. Take my perspective and make it clear, then take yet another perspective and make it clear. This seems to be my work, my service. Yesterday I went to our little neighborhood film's premiere party in my cartoon earrings, braids, t-shirt with a kitty playing electric guitar that says "You rock!" under a long wool skirt and ankle boots. I had a great time with everyone and felt like I'm paving some kind of way that other people aren't necessarily willing or able to do.

And in reflection, Ingrid's talk was a good reminder for me of the meaning of keeping what's important to us close to our heart and in our sights. What makes me glad I'm still here and didn't drown in a river when I was seventeen? Every minute with my little family, first of all. Mostly when I think about some chain of events or set of causes and effects lately, I want to express it in fiction. That's my driving impulse. Watching the new George Clooney film Michael Clayton yesterday (written and directed by Tony Gilroy, lately known for writing the Jason Bourne trilogy), about a law firm's "fixer" who gets into a fix within his own firm, reminded me so much of my drug rep story that I've been starting to set down; I want so badly to see my name next to a screenplay credit on a Section Eight film. (I'd settle for that, even if I really just want to direct.) That film was just my kind of intrigue: lots of suspense, tested loyalties, and twists.

And sorry, but Aaron Sorkin is not the only once-in-a-lifetime talent there's room for. I refuse to accept that, which is yet another good motivator for bringing my stories to life, which is something like what this fellow I went to high school is doing.

16 October 2007

Nuts and Berries of the Living Dead

We did it! We made a movie. I edited it yesterday and today -- there's still a hiccup or two in it but it is very fun and funny. I may recut it again. Still have to learn to manage the sound; I didn't quite pull that off in the few days I had to do this project.

But it is rendering as I speak into a format I may be able to upload onto youtube -- nope -- too big! Google? Google has changed my life. (Yet I'm still not sure why their stock is worth hundreds of dollars a share.)

11 October 2007

Just for the joy of it

I'm listening to Gomez' "Devil Will Ride" and it is, in one of those tiny cosmic bursts of synchronicity, amplifying and reinforcing the thought I came down the stairs holding in my head and heart to post, which was this:

Music was my big clue leading to something about life that I needed to know. Music revealed that all the world comprised more than what I knew best, a difficult, scary world full of deceptions and entanglements. Music said, hold on, there's also the joy of it: it really is about bouncing around together and unabashedly wanting everybody and everything all at once. I still believe in my heart of hearts that we can solve world peace with music, one note at a time, something no other medium (not religion, nor politics) can claim. A "singing revolution" took place in Estonia when the people took up a song to represent their nationhood, refusing to yield this nugget of their identity to the political dealings of bigger and badder nations (Turkey, Russia) warring for that tiny yet hugely symbolic isthmus of a country. People who loved to sing their song defused a moment that could have turned tragic and stood up for themselves as Estonians.

There's something about singing a song out loud -- and meaning it -- that pulls us to the proverbial campfire to reflect on our experiences in a way that nothing else does today. Some people think TV is an equivalent form of entertainment and diversion, but take those friends to a live show once a year and remind them of the electricity we can share when we decide to spend an evening in one room together, without all the retakes and flattering angles and commercial breaks.

I am still convinced that people know this better first-hand in other countries. I'm always talking about going other places and hearing adult men sing out loud in public. Here they think that will turn them into sissies or something and they're afraid to sing. But go to Europe and the people just sing, everywhere I go.

So I listen, and play. It's all I can do, all I can really believe in.

04 October 2007

Homeward bound

Even living a mere mile or so from where I grew up, it is still a journey to a place or a state of home. Along with the tree I planted when I was eight that is the only thing that has remained constant: that search for home, for belonging. Once our daughter said that: "I want to go home!" and all of our ears perked up. "Where's home?" and the answer has varied: from "Oh! I'm already home!" to "India."

I ride by regularly on my bike and check the property where we lived long ago: the tiny building is still there yet it is surrounded now by a heap of rubble and nothing else remains the same about the arrangement of buildings and spaces on that plot where we lived in that tiny little house next to the Gatelys' bigger house. That house has now been redone and moved up and over on the lot, closer to the street, the big old spruce out front gone now and the rest of the lot razed in preparation for a cluster of new housing units, much more densely packed in than anything that has ever been on that plot of land before.

I spoke one day with the builder of the new development, High Street Lofts, and was delighted to hear that they were not going to cut down my tree, now sixty feet tall. It is a locust tree, with its tiny leaves and long seed pods, one of which I found on my school playground and opened and sprouted seeds and grew with the earth and sun and water. Now it is getting ready to give shade to a bunch of condo dwellers in a year. The tiny house will be gone soon (it's so tempting to buy it and move it somewhere, but maybe not really what I would want -- too many awful scenes there; I'd rather let it go) . Our presence there will be just a memory, but at least one still marked by the tree's great and steady limbs reaching up for sun.

Even with that marker of where I come from, though, I search for what home means to me. Is it just knowing the date by the color of the air: that the early October leaves are just now goldening from green en masse, a good green this year so the air is permeated with green and yellow leaves, even a spray of red here and there? Is it picking up broken glass and trash and shit from other people's dogs and disposing of them properly? Is it speaking up when you hear bullying going on around you every time, not just sometimes?

Would I feel that way if I lived in Barcelona? I have no idea. I can't even imagine it. Probably, because I do have a tie to Barcelona. Huh. And I'd feel that way about Santa Cruz or San Francisco, Berkeley, even Dortmund. About any of the places I've lived at least once. I care deeply for my world, to the point that I'm convinced if I'd been there when Kitty Genovese had been attacked I would have done something, dammit.

It's even extending to my work, I think. I was describing to my neighbor this world I see developing in my novel, permeated with food safety and body image and corporate-sponsored bioterrorism and the standard conspiracies among the fat cats in all corners, and he looked at me and said, you mean this is some kind of social activism? and I said, sure, of course. why not? when you have the chance to say what you truly believe in? and he seemed really tickled by that. I am finding it fascinating to be building myself a platform from which I can launch these complex thought-sets in the form of stories, the campfire tales to which we've been drawn since the dawn of campfires. What could be more fun than this, I ask you? I can't think of many things.

And of course, I thought about that search for belonging and homeyness (like truthiness?) this past weekend when I saw my family. My grandfather is 90 and he's not going to be able to do this much longer, but he's doing it now, despite the pain in his body that won't let go. He and his girlfriend and his nurse just roll him everywhere and sometimes complain that he's hard to keep up with. His mind is sharp as ever, if slowed by strokes and pain.

But he was so delighted to gather all of his grandchildren at his table and see how everyone got along with everyone else. We were all happy to see each other for the most part. There were layers and layers of past and present but we were all comfortable with one another. My father wondered if I was going to chill him out, I think, and I did to some degree. Tough cookies. But it was worth every bit of angst and discomfort to see my grandfather light up. He's always happy to see us, I think, with the kind of pride an admiral feels in his fleet. And he is still proud of me, no matter what, which is always a kind of gift to me, something unasked for yet always given. Not many people in this family can say that about him either, so that is another bequest especially to me it seems.

I felt like my walls were up a bit over the weekend, but I also felt that that was perfectly appropriate for me. I'm busy right now, and I am unwilling to pull away from this work to engage in a painful dance with some people who I am related to but not very connected with these days. There's something too broken there and I just want to turn from it and say, thanks, but I am over here. I have more to offer doing what I am doing than trying to fix someone else's broken lives. I am here but I don't have a lot more to offer right now and I don't feel like spending the time to find out if things would be different now.

So I'm back in my world, over here, the one I've chosen for myself. Living well and all of that. End of story? That's the thing: I don't think it is. Not by far.

24 September 2007

A conspiracy in every corner; Goodbye Mr. Peet

You can read a remembrance of Alfred Peet here as I did this morning -- he died about a month ago. I was lucky enough to land one block from his original coffee shop when I went to school in Berkeley and that is where I got the first notion of coffee being great, not just very good. I have many fond memories of huddling in small groups and communing with hot cups of fine, rich coffee, variously engaged at all levels of discourse, from befogged to brilliant. It is to his credit I think in this time of celebrity worship that I knew nothing about the founder of Peet's -- it was all about the coffee.

I dropped in at our local, new Peet's Coffee again the other day for an espresso tamper that turned out not to fit our machine: little did I know that there's a plot among espresso-machine makers and the manufacturers of those little stamp-like devices baristas use to pack the finely ground coffee into the filter baskets. The conspiracy is in making you go online to spend heaps of money on a lump of metal or wood or some combination thereof by making the filter baskets an obscure size for every different brand of machine. The effect is much like the way the prices of office supplies are inflated because most buyers are corporations, not individuals; and the way medical services and supplies are inflated because they are billed to insurance companies. Imagine what would happen to prices if people started declining to buy insurance and paying for their health care out of their own pockets. Well, astoundingly, it's the same thing with espresso tampers for the home coffee enthusiast: most people appear to assume this is a restaurant expense and charge $48 US for rosewood-stainless steel works of art that will be used thousands of times, rather than just hundreds.

Sure, I can find a handful of espresso tampers at the various foodie-supply houses and coffee temples around town, but none of them is quite right for our machine's parts. Grr. Maybe it's time to look for some substitute device not intended for this use that can be adapted for our purposes. Hmm. I'll have to think on that. Any ideas? I'm imagining a giant nail or the base of something...

While I was in Peet's buying one of those ill-fated tampers, I had that hopeful feeling for a moment: the cafe was full of people and felt like something of a meeting place. Perhaps, I thought, it has more life than I gave it credit for a season ago. Yet perhaps it was that every surface was so polished and gleaming and bright: it completely lacked that sheltering, cavelike ambiance of the admittedly cramped original cafe and lacked any of its intimacy as well. Despite the failings of the replicas to represent the experience of that first shop, I remain forever grateful to Alfred Peet. He showed me something not only about the quality of the things we savor the most (coffee, and by extension food) but also about something equally important: the quality of the shared rituals in which we engage every day.

18 September 2007

What they don't tell you in gluten-free school

I went on a little odyssey recently into the gluten-free world. I found much that is good and available, and also experienced how difficult it is to consistently find gluten-free food when you are traveling. But the biggest shock was when I made a cake with bean flour and was totally horrified at the smell of the batter -- it was the most noxious scent I can remember in a long time. I had to finish mixing and pouring the batter while avoiding breathing through my nose.

Basically, I went down this road because we had neighbors who discovered they needed to quit eating gluten, and I was curious when I read about it whether it might explain some things. One book in particular stoked lots of questions: Dangerous Grains. Could eating wheat be responsible for immune disorders, developmental issues, my health issues over the years? Could that be weakening us in a way that we refuse to consider because we are so strongly acculturated to eating wheat that we won't even consider that it might not be health-giving?

My mind reeled at first at the notion that I have simply eaten what our culture has said was good for me. I couldn't help wondering if my buying the cultural myths about eating had prevented me from being healthier and more energetic. Just recently I'd had a little internal loss of faith in refined wheat flour, what we call "white flour," but I had not figured out a way around it. The gluten-free path seemed to have potential: I felt relying on a more diverse range of flours and grains would be a healthy thing I could do for myself and my family.

The mechanics of it weren't so challenging -- there are good flours available in our grocery stores. I spent a week eating gluten free (except for that first batch of zucchini cake, which I baked in pans that I -- d'oh! -- sprayed with oil-and-flour spray). I found it doable, even when I was out. I realized people are just starting to be sensitive to the gluten issue and I could see how people who can't eat any gluten at all are constantly at risk at restaurants and other places where other people's priorities aren't so closely aligned. I plan to keep some gluten-free mixes and things on hand for friends because I like being able to support them.

But it took a little chat with my sweetie to realize that none of us in our family really seem to be one of those so adversely affected by gluten: eating bread never makes us sick. I felt I'd been quite impressionable up to that point. I find myself still wondering, though, whether there's a different way to look at our food. There's food that gets us through the day, sustains us; then there's food that nourishes, that adds to our health. How do we choose the foods fall into those categories?

I still want to explore this question further, but mixing up that beautiful cake batter and finding not the sweet scents of egg and sugar and butter but the vile scent of bean flours wafting up out of the bowl doesn't make me eager to bake the next batch of gluten-free goodies very soon. I'll stick with the occasional batch of pancakes from the Pamela's line of mixes for now and get back to you on further experiments and observations.

13 September 2007

What we like is who we are

Have you noticed how we make up our minds about things? This seems to me sometimes the most profound thing about aging. Everyone talks about the aphasia and the aches and pains, but in noticing my daughter's and hence my own sensory likes and dislikes, I'm thinking there's something else that calcifies, too.

I thought of this when I was attaching my iPod, sliding cords under my shirt and clipping them to its edge. Some people would hate all those cords. They wouldn't ever think a portable stereo was worth it because of all of the stuff clattering around their bodies.

And I notice that my ability to screen background noise is poorer by the day; all the same, I still have my high threshold for loud music. My self-knowledge has helped me do things like wear earplugs on flights to mute the loud engine sounds so I arrive more rested, even after shorter flights, and I wear noise-canceling headphones when I vacuum, but I still find myself picking loud restaurants and regretting it later.

My preference for quiet -- especially when I am not at my best -- gets more acute as I age, I notice. I don't mind a bunch of cords hanging from my head and neck, but I never get in a shower before it's hot. And I know people who can talk endlessly about whether their extremities get cold or what they snack on before bed and it's only going to get more so as I go on.

05 September 2007

I've already done three good deeds today

and it's only 9:03.

My friend sent me a link to a new online toy, where you can get Bob Dylan to sing "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while your message goes by on his cards -- it's fun.

I liked it so much I sent a note to the agency who developed it. They sent me a note. I even found a typo on their website and sent that to them.

I made my own Dylan message and sent it to my mom and two of my friends. Then I posted it online so other people can go play with it.

Oh, and I wished a bunch of people happy birthday. Now I've lost count.

I feel like a good fairy this morning and I haven't even started writing my book yet.

p.s. I even called that guy from outside the bookstore, the fellow who almost got pinned under his car but for my intervention at the right moment. I talked with him. He's an interesting guy who was in the Merchant Marines in WWII and served as an English Prof at Berkeley and CU and ran marathons ten years ago. Now he seems to be in some shock because his wife is an invalid (has a pinched nerve). He has spinal stenosis and can hardly move, much less run or racewalk anymore. He didn't sound like he's doing any better than he was last time I spoke with him several months ago. I'm going to see what I can do about that. Really, I just want to give him the info that the city's adult services folks sent to me when I requested a packet. He needs to know there are resources available. The tough question is whether he would ever use them. There's something intractable about this guy (and I think I know what it is, but that would be between me and him -- and his caseworker, should it come to that, and it may).

It's weird: I have been thinking about my own PTSD and I feel my daughter has a similar malady, too. That's something I really want her to know I understand. And lately my PTSD has been rearing its pointy heads. I was on my bike and heard a strange yell from an alley and had to make myself keep riding and not assume the worst, that I'd just heard someone fall off a ladder or something. Part of my thought process, I admit, was that I had a child on the trailer bike and didn't want to enter some kind of trap. How few ingredients I require to conjure such horrific scenarios: thoughts of my fellow oldster above forgetting once again to set any of his automobile's brakes, this time fatally; the store clerk I was working with when she fell off a ladder during an epileptic seizure; Susannah Chase, a victim of abhorrent violence near the same alley where I had this recent bout with fears of ladders and traps; and JonBenet Ramsey, another victim of appalling deeds whom everyone still remembers ten-plus years later. I am not feeling safe, I believe, with so many things happening like my child going back to school and family events coming up and knowing the fellow I just wrote about is still up on the mountain ailing in so many ways and not getting any attention.

I've asked myself if in saving him once I have made myself feel responsible for him, and I don't think that's it. I just need to let him to know he has some options, and I seem to be the one who was picked to tell him that, at the very least. He told me that his wife tells him he doesn't know how to take care of himself. If people tell you who they are, he was giving me a message and I feel an obligation not to let it go until I've seen to it that he gets some help with that.

28 August 2007

Durian Juice Sales are Thru the Roof!

Here's an actual posting from today's job offerings on craigslist.org. I hope none of us ever get this desperate.

Durian Juice Sales are Thru the Roof!

Date: 2007-08-27, 5:11PM MDT

The big money is always made by those that had foresight and took take action to get involved when a new product first gets launched. To catch the next big one: http://evans.michaeljonathandavolio.

  • Compensation: Based on effort
  • This is a part-time job.
  • Principals only. Recruiters, please don't contact this job poster.
  • Phone calls about this job are ok.
  • Please do not contact job poster about other services, products or commercial interests.

27 August 2007

Burble, burble, burble

We camped at a fine spot by the river this past weekend, thanks to my pal's dad, who scouted locations and made sure we had the ideal setup. On Saturday, while everyone else hiked, I nursed my sore knee and sat in the river and read and wrote. I sunscreened up and shaded myself with an umbrella but soaked up some rays nonetheless. As I wrote, I giggled at the idea of the river talking to me, and answered, "Really? What?" The answers came: "Burble, burble, burble." Always the same, always different.

It was marvelous and relaxing to spend the weekend outside with my closest people -- this summer has reminded me how great being outside for nice, long stretches can be. My sweetie said he really wanted to make sure we got out more, and that's been a theme with my pal, too. Maybe I'll take my daughter to the Res today and we'll check out the boat rental options. I can even take a life vest that's just right for her now.

We'll just keep on appreciating summer while it lasts, because who knows what the rest of this year will bring. If you'll recall, as soon as fall turned to winter in late December, we were bombarded by blizzards. Then we had to shovel snow every day for some long stretches this winter. Spring was hot and lovely, with no late freeze to knock off blossoms and fruits here, but some freezes affected crops in Florida and on the western slope of the Rockies. August is usually parched-earth time here, but not this year. Usually the dry heat has bleached everything several shades lighter by now, from the leaves on the trees down to the blades of grass on the ground, but this year, we have had Arizona's August monsoons and the remnants of a tropical storm, and all our lawns are still lush a little longer than usual.

An aside: I have to admit that as often as not, when I'm not envying someone their perfect lawn, lawns remind me of a Muslim scholar's appalled reaction to the people in America he saw expending the kind of energy and fervor on their yards he believed more appropriately directed to Allah and service. It was enough to makes me say "hmmmm."

24 August 2007

Oh, the humanity!

Seeing this Crowded House appearance in the studios of Santa Monica's station KCRW stuck with me. It's not just the music but the talk that's memorable.

After the death of drummer Paul Hester a few years ago, Crowded House's other remaining musicians -- and Neil Finn's sons, Liam and Elroy, started picking up guitars and playing together. They felt good and decided to be Crowded House again.

I love the story Neil tells here (minute 17) about how Nick had sent out a terse text message putting a call out for a drummer; the next morning his text was quoted in a front-page story in the Melbourne city paper and they were subsequently swamped with thousands of applications. But they narrowed it down to auditions of 45 drummers in 5 cities in 10 days (!) and about midway through they liked Matt Sherrod in L.A.

So did we when we saw the re-formed band at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver. Sherrod (say sha-rod') has worked with another perfectionist, Beck, and it shows in his assured work. Here on this KCRW appearance we get another interesting story (well, Neil kind of makes him tell it): Matt's dad was a stuntman and Sherrod has fond but terrifying memories of his teenaged times spent with his dad teaching him to ride straddling two horses at once, also known as "riding Roman." Sherrod is happily stationery on the drummer's stool now, however, giving drive and power with beats that are supple and sophisticated, a nice fit for Crowded House's luscious catalog of songs. He's a pleasure to watch, too, as he's clearly digging on learning this entirely new river of music.

Neil's hissy fit when he couldn't pry his guitar pick out at the end of the third song was interesting, and some of the banter revealed the ego-jabbing, not-so-nice aspects of being in a band. Neil seems to like control, getting the last word in, being the smartest guy in the room. He gave himself an endearing bitch-slap at the end with his remark about "instant karma" catching up with him, but I bet he'd cringe if he saw parts of this performance again.

It's a pleasure seeing Elroy Finn here, btw -- I still have a shirt he signed for me when he was a little kid at the Fox Theatre one excellent night, and it's fun to imagine him off doing archaeology in Jordan with his pals.

I thought I might get emotional when I heard "Fall At Your Feet" here. I was feeling incredibly grateful to my husband for being there for me and incredibly sad about how I had earlier vanished so quickly that he couldn't give me help when I needed it. I had gotten tunnel vision and lost consciousness inside the theater and was helped outside by a medic. I couldn't even see properly again until my sweetie was right there next to me a minute or two later. I felt fine after cooling off and drinking a pint of water. I'd had a beer on not very much dinner and gotten overheated, I think. But I felt good again, happily relinquished my wristband, and then we went back to the show, which was great.

When we had gotten settled in a new, cooler spot next to the soundboard and under a vent, and my sweetie went up to tell our friends where we were, the memory of just before blacking out came back and I felt so sad at how vulnerable I had been. That's when the band played "Fall At Your Feet" and I just wept through it, in sadness and in gratitude to my sweetie, through the whole song. I still feel a little shocked by that whole sequence of events -- it was terrifying to lose control like that.

21 August 2007

The East Coast and all that that implies

This year for the first time I didn't feel like I was at home out east. It felt like a vacation place alone, and not a return to a refuge. (Although I did let myself indulge in a couple of moments of fantasy of grabbing up one of those $145 e-fares to Boston and holing up alone in a cottage somewhere to finish a few chapters or work out a knotty plot problem.)

Part of the difference came from staying in a different cottage. Through no fault of the perfectly lovely cottage we rented this year, this time we had no family connection to the place where we lived for three weeks. Every time we came and went we saw a heap of people and their bikes and towels in "our" cottage, the one my dad thinks of as "the Baringer cottage" although a Baringer hasn't owned it in the last ten years. Later, hearing my dad be able to joke about that name for that cottage with his aunt and uncle turned out to be a bright memory of the trip for me.

Talk, sunsets, those white, round shells I mistook for coins under the water, watching the tide come up the beaches, hearing new songs on the radio ("Ah, Mary" on WMVY), and knowing my way around made for wholesome and restorative vacation time. So did being with our friends who came out for the week. We went and heard a charming and proficient local band called Funk Salad at Nauset Beach and had a blast. The two martinis later put a nice cap and a dizzying spin on a very fun evening. (And I haven't felt any interest in repeating that experience since -- I always feel a little bruised the next day, you know, whether they are shaken or stirred.)

Being with my dad while he was learning about himself and his past was painful and a test of loyalties and keeping up appearances. It was a good thing, although I felt quite helpless to be of any aid except by just existing. I tried to remind him of an upside or two, like that he was trying to survive and that everyone in his family did survive -- which to him I realized later wasn't even close to true because his dad died two years ago, which he still doesn't feel is fair.

The thing that nags at me is that I'm seeing a trend in people of a certain age/health status losing the ability to look after themselves. They need more help. I'm seeing how on our own we are as we age. Perhaps even one person they can hand themselves over to on some crucial level and allow to look after them would make all the difference. But how do you help people find that? Especially people who are that cut off from others, like the fellow I rescued from his car? How do I help him from a thousand miles away?

But I love it here in these wide-open spaces. The little spot we've settled is precious to me; I love these trees and the fact that it's in the neighborhood where one of my best friends grew up yet I'd never in a million years have imagined I'd one day buy a house in that neighborhood. This year on Cape Cod I felt like if I'd grown up there I would be one of those people who couldn't wait to go west. I felt how much I love the wild enthusiasms of the west as opposed to the il n'est pas fait judgments, the old-guard reserve and wiles of the Europeans. I am so much more a child of the west, having spent my formative years in the thick of the forging of one of the last frontiers: the hippie movement.

Staying in Boston before I could feel my ancestors' feet on those bricks. This time, I felt my dad's family's presence but we saw a different view of the city and I didn't feel that homey feeling one bit. The apartments all looked to me like they'd be hot and cramped in the summer and dreadful in the winter, in a city of little warrens and caves and dens. If you're an underground sort I suppose it might appeal, but not so much to this sun-lovin' Coloradoan accustomed to her 300 days of sunshine each year (read that but hold the weeping over there on the East Coast -- there's enough rainfall on your coast already). All the crowds and the dreary winter weather seemed oppressive, not stimulating in the way of the Pacific Northwest's cafe culture.

By the end of our visit I couldn't wait to come home to my own yard, get away from that feeling like people were always wondering what my position was in the village, always testing to find me coming up short. Early on, I considered what it would take to become one of those people about whom they say, "I just couldn't imagine being there this summer without her!" and decided it would take an unnatural effort for me and dropped that idea. I wanted a vacation too, after all.

Yet somehow the talks and the hours in the sun in the gentle lapping waves of the bay, the little drives around when you connect more of the dots, the great books and movies and even TV shows, the comparisons of fried clams at multiple outlets of varying charms, the endless variations on the vacation house: all added up to a fine trip. This year, I didn't experience a feeling of returning to my roots nor even of upholding a grand tradition (although I do like that part, I admit). I just took a vacation.

And now... I'm baaaaack!

10 August 2007

OMG! What's with this Hollister business?

It started innocuously enough with a couple of tshirts bearing the moniker "Hollister." Then it was shopping bags. Then I noticed it was trendy as all hell among young people of a certain tender age. And I thought, what the ...?

Because when I lived in California, I spent five years in Santa Cruz, which wasn't too far of Hollister in the scheme of the larger state but in terms of culture it was worlds away. Hollister evoked lettuce and onion fields, carnivals and rodeos and the County Fair. Livestock, all the stuff that didn't happen so much in liberal, stoned, surfer's-mecca Santa Cruz (any given person was always at least one of those things).

I felt like I was going on a ride at Disneyland. It was like the line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride or for the restaurant, either guaranteed to complete the theme experience. When I walked inside the retailer's shuttered room into what felt like the inside of a boat perhaps, or a wooden chest stuffed full of thin, stretchy t-shirts in every configuration for young guys and gals.

The store answered my question when I looked into a lot of the stores at the mall and wondered aloud, "Where is everyone?" There are stores that are absolutely dead. There are stores that are sort of listlessly busy; they'll pick up when there's another good sale. But Hollister was jammed with people: teens, young college-age kids, their parents, and unstylish me (I would have gotten admiring glances if I'd been wearing my donkey gong t-shirt Leocadia made that I wore last night to the company picnic and got lots of compliments about, or if I had been wearing my hot-pink Where the Wild Things Are shirt, but no), both me and my kid outside the target age range for their products (although I did fix my gaze on one very cute top).

Later, I noticed that Abercrombie and Fitch has nearly identical dark shutters and this is a complete ripoff of their cutting-edge strategy. Thing is, it seems to be working. Now I have to ask whether they're all one thing. And my first few seconds with their Wikipedia entry confirms this!

It still strikes me as ironic that a town associated with earthquakes and fried artichokes is now the word on young shoppers' lists. That's marketing genius, turning that into giving the kids a way to project themselves back in time to a simpler notion of surfer dudes and bettys while giving the ones who think Abercrombie's too spendy or so last decade an obvious alternative (even if it seems a little too obvious). Simple stuff you wish you'd thought of first.

Speaking of which, the reason we were shopping in the first place was to find a rolling backpack for my kid. There are few options for the kid who must have something kidlike. I was willing to consider anything related, having seen the recent explosion in colorful luggage. But a wheelie, kid-friendly case was a tough item to find anywhere except the usual suspects: LL Bean, Lands End, and finally, Hanna Andersson. I thought: there's a great market. Design a simple, fun case for kids that they can sling over their shoulder or wheel as easily as they can pop the wheels out on their Heely shoes.

06 July 2007

My one-woman think tank

There’s a certain jaunty, I-did-it-so-you-can-too attitude all too present in magazine writing today, in which writers report on their adventures, now older and wiser and having not only accomplished feats of derring-do but spent the reflective time required to arrange them into a meaningful pattern that can illustrate some broader principle for the rest of us. We can only read with our mental jaws dropped, almost the way we watch television, saying to ourselves again and again, I wish I had thought of that!

I felt so misanthropic as soon as I advanced my magazine-unit theory. I've decided that what bugs me about magazines and newspapers is this presumption that a story is always supposed to fit into specific shapes and sizes: the survey pieces; the instructional articles, helpfully broken into chronological steps for you to follow; the confessionals, column-length and up; the photo essay detailing the lifestyle of People More Beautiful Than Us Who Look Like They Have Solved the Problems We Still Haven't.

Most of the queries I start write turn into one of these forms. I’ve had enough of that, though – I don’t want to write puff, or stuff that offers a false confidence in order to win yours. I am starting to seek out alternate forms of expression, ideas that go beyond genre, fiction or nonfiction, voices that don’t hew so closely to category but sound like themselves.

Perhaps that’s what rocks most about this blogging phenomenon. You can just decide what you want to do, do it, and it is what it is, not screened and sorted according to subject or whether it’s true or not.

Reading the second book of an author I'm liking, I wondered what I would do if I had a think tank working for me. I am drawn to the image of the professional novelist with a research staff (much the same as I am to the photographer with the staff who helps develop his sets and set up his shots), and I thought, what an interesting question to ask people in different walks of life: How much is enough? How much GDP growth does a country need to continue to stay viable? How much rainforest is enough? How much does a band need to tour and sell records to stay afloat? How much love is enough for a baby? How much cake is enough for a five-year-old? It would make a fun documentary. I think about that question all the time in so many ways. I personally would like to ask people like Jeffrey Skilling how much is enough for them. How many vacation homes are enough? How much salary? And what fun it would be (if a little mean and obvious) to juxtapose his answers with those of a single mother of small children living in low-income housing, or the answers of an immigrant picking peaches in western Colorado.

How much is enough?

The funnest craft ever

I am still loving my new craft.

The recipe is so simple:

  • Clear floral pebbles (the kind they sometimes use to keep stems in place in jars and vases) - They're always going on sale for half off at the local craft stores. I went to a fancy glass suppliers' shop, for contractors, but their pebbles were really cloudy and at least as expensive.
  • Pictures or papers to glue to the pebbles.
  • Magnets - Small, strong, neodymium magnets are the best! They are what brought this whole idea together at last. I found them at good prices here.
  • Glues - The best one is E-6000, for attaching the paper to the magnets, and Gorilla Glue is good for attaching the pebbles to the magnets.
  • Optionally, a hole punch that makes circles the same size as your pebbles (3/4 inch, usually). You'll want this if you're going to make a lot of them, as I am. Make sure you find one that has guides on the outside. (On the one I bought, I had to mark my own. The guides help you line up your hole punch and see exactly which part of your image you are punching out. I was amazed this one didn't have any marks on it at all to indicate where the hole was being punched.)
I did a Cook's Illustrated (or if you remember the lovely Handcrafts Illustrated, a magazine far ahead of its time) breakdown of this project, trying a variety of techniques and materials to arrive at my final recipe.

A sticky problem

The basic ingredients were the pebbles, the images, the glue, and the magnets. The glue was by far the most challenging ingredient, with problems I'm still not convinced I've solved.

The problem lies in affixing a porous thing (paper) to a nearly nonporous one (the glass pebble, or the magnet). A lot of glues dry opaque, and I needed a clear glue. But once I started working with glues, I quickly noticed how toxic they are.

So I wrote a brief note to a green contractor friend who probably has an encyclopedic knowledge of building materials by now, especially safer alternatives to traditional materials, after his twenty years in the business. But he didn't really know -- Gorilla Glue was his best idea.

He sent me to Planetary Solutions, a clearinghouse of sustainable materials for building needs here in town. But they didn't really know, either; I bought an ecologically safe (no toxic fumes, etc.) glaze I thought might work. Once dry, however, the glaze allowed the paper to peel right off the pebbles, even if I roughed-up the pebbles with some fine-grit sandpaper before applying the glaze and paper and glaze again. Even if I did multiple layers of glaze over the paper and pebble, letting it dry between coats, the paper just peeled off.

At the glass supplier with the cloudy pebbles where my contractor friend took me, the woman at the front desk suggested another glue, E-6000, which has turned out to be the best glue yet. It dries firm and clear, allowing the image you're using to be clear and bright under the pebble. It adheres even the strongest magnets to the pebbles.

It's toxic as hell, though; I never glue unless I have a cross-breeze going through the house or set up a fan to pull the fumes out the window. Or I do my gluing outside. We had a lot of snow this winter and I was frustrated because so many days were too cold to experiment on this project with the windows open.

So I'm still not perfectly satisfied on the ecologically sound front, which means I have to do another round of research on glues -- or I have to go invent that now.

Subjects and objects

The most fun part of this craft has been finding papers and cards for the pebbles. I was first inspired to do this ten years ago, when I discovered some exquisite metallic-and-color origami paper in gorgeous, pure colors, each color with a different repeating pattern. By hand I cut out circles and glued them onto the back of some floral pebbles I had lying around. My friends and I were making lightswitch and outlet cover plates, and I attached some of the beautiful pebbles to one of the plastic plates with mastic and grouted over it. I still use it in my home office.

I had always envisioned the colorful origami dots as magnets, though, and when my husband received a container of very strong magnets for Christmas, that problem was solved. I quickly borrowed a couple and glued them onto my origami pebbles (I had glued a bunch of the origami circles to pebbles when I first was inspired but hadn't done anything with them since).

I also tried out another idea about the pebbles and put faces behind them. I found one of my daughter's pictures from a summer camp and made a color photocopy of it on our computer printer/copier, reducing it a little so that the faces would be smaller than the pebbles. I cut out the pictures of her and her friends from my copy. The results were charming, each sweet little expression magnified by the clear pebble.

When good-looking people look bad

One time when I tried this with my daughter's class photo, I let the glue sit on the images for several seconds before I went around and then smooshed pebbles onto the dots of glue. I'd waited too long, however, and the ink ran. Under every pebble was a face that looked like the child was in the midst of a tantrum or about to burst into tears or twice his or her true weight. It was a bizarre and unexpected result, but it taught me to work faster with the glue: I could avoid these twisted effects if I put a dot of glue on the center of the flat side of the pebble, pressed the image down onto the dot of glue, and quickly checked to make sure I'd pressed out any air bubbles. If I left the pebbles undisturbed until the glue had dried and cured, the images were fine. If I kept trying to press out air bubbles or centering the picture on the pebble a little more, I got smudgy, sour expressions and blurring chins.

Although my favorite thing so far is making pebbles of people's faces, I have also enjoyed working with other materials as well. I made a set of them for my mother's birthday from some maps to highlight all the places in London we'd stayed and seen, plus a few we still want to see on our next trip. Cards are nice if the stock isn't too heavy. Wrapping paper and scrapbooking papers are excellent, especially ones like the origami paper I described earlier that have bright, small, repeating patterns. Newspaper and magazines are fun -- it's easy to make words or phrases you like, for your own home-grown magnetic poetry set. Fabric can work, but it is time-consuming to cut out the tiny circles.

And because I'm using super-strong rare-earth magnets, little tiny ones work very well. One of the little magnets I settled on is about 4 mm across and holds about three 8-1/2 x 11" sheets of paper to our fridge without sliding. I am wondering whether they don't weaken over time, though. I'll get back to you on that. Gorilla Glue is excellent for attaching the tiny magnets to whatever you like; just use a very small quantity because it can foams unpredictably as it dries.

Since the magnets are so small, you can attach them to small things. I have some buttons and some single earrings that have become lovely little fridge magnets.

18 June 2007

Adventures in hacking my DVD player

You wouldn't believe how happy I was when I learned that I was not going to need to shell out anything like the $80-140 I thought I'd have to spend if I wanted to watch a DVD from outside the US. As usual, big organizations don't like to play nice, and our DVD players here in the US don't play non-Region 2 formatted films. I had found a director's cut of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World from Germany and had been searching for options around town, finding a couple of sources of multi-region DVD players.

But then I discovered a hacking site that offered codes and instructions passed along by folks who had altered the behavior of their video players. I searched for my model in their database of hacks and found people who had successfully reprogrammed their machines using their remote keypads.

I was elated.

I tested it out by pressing a sequence of keys including the first few digits in the number pi, tweaked some memory codes, exited the menu, turned my machine off and on again, and proceeded to watch my five-hour version of Until the End of the World, a completely different film from the one I fell for twenty years ago in a San Francisco theater when it was first released in the States.

Some perverse instinct grabbed me recently and I changed some of the codes using the remote, but I did it stupidly and removed the ability of the remote to fast forward and rewind at varying speeds and instead only worked to advance or return to the beginnings of chapters.

I hacked again, for the last time, and the remote worked properly again. I breathed a sigh of relief and shut the machine off.

Curiosity: you know, it can get you far, but it can also send you over the edge.

Taking the new mall for a spin

Our town has a new mall, after the slow and languid death of the old one many years ago and the black hole of construction that occupied it for a long time. A friend mentioned recently that her dad had, back when that first mall was built, turned down a chance to own some of that land.

Now it is owned and operated by Macerich, and it is that corporation's territory in more ways than I had realized.

I hadn't understood that malls have a different status from other public spaces because of the ownership of the land. It's like your parents saying, "Our roof, our rules!" when you come home with your "special" friend. They get to say, "No demonstrations on our property because they block trade on private property, our private property." They get to enforce traffic and other regulations fairly selectively, as I understand it.

And what are we left with?

I spent an hour there today because I'm curious. Who goes to this mall? I know bored parents of small children do because it's safe, full of pairs of eyes, full of similar people with similar issues. I saw lots of mall workers arrive, as I arrived around 10 so I could redeem a coupon for a freebie at Panera Bread. I never know what I want there when I go in. I always feel kind of perplexed at the panoply of pain: all those white breads and pastries, all that starchy, sugary stuff with nary a whole grain in sight despite dustings of whole oats suggesting otherwise.

Looking at their menu I felt like I was choosing a breakfast item from the dairy case at the supermarket: Let's see, Grands buttermilk biscuits or the can of cinnamon rolls? Both of those choices are pale imitations of the biscuits, scones, and rolls we typically make at home, but I know people get seduced into thinking that prying those spiral-sealed cans open with a spoon is the experience of baking or is an improvement on the time and labor baking requires. Looking at my options at Panera I felt like I was choosing from a selection of Betty Crocker cake mixes, which are fine for what they are but again are not the same as beating butter and sugar, adding eggs and flour and milk and salt and rising agents and baking it all together until it becomes something more than the simple sum of its parts.

I am deeply skeptical of how designed the whole mall experience feels today. At Panera I like their muffin tops, called "Muffies" -- all the best part of a muffin, a great idea -- and the free "souffle" was okay yet enough salt to burn the back of my throat seemed to be standing in for some of the cheese in the four-cheese "souffle," an eggy center baked inside a pastry shell that stayed pleasingly warm for a while. I know people who write at Panera because of the free wifi (I think we should start pronouncing it wiffie or weefee; I like the play on the word wifey, too). I love it that people like me can work anywhere now, that people like me are being courted with the free wifi and the endless refills, that we are encouraged to make these spaces our mobile workplaces. But I don't like the way the staff are relegated to fast-food workers, assembling cookie-cutter items and always having to answer to some remote entity called "Corporate."

I've felt a tinge of the same dismay every time I've visited a new Peet's coffee outlet in the past few years. They're all pretty, with nice finishes and art that professes the company's interest in the places they buy coffee. But there's little there there, as Gertrude Stein infamously said of Oakland. Mall coffee shops are the unisex replacement for the disappearing lounge adjacent to the department store restroom. The room that allowed you to call it a restroom and not just a bathroom or toilet. Mall cafes and other spaces offer public parlors, environments that are clean and inoffensive enough to disappear so you can use them for your own purposes for a while.

All these wipeable surfaces feel alien after living a block from the original Peet's store in Berkeley for two years in the early 1980s. We were lucky enough to land not on the Telegraph side of campus but on the Chez Panisse side.

I've only dined at Chez Panisse three times, each of them memorable, but at least once a week my housemates and I would amble the block, threading our way along the heaving concrete sidewalks of North Berkeley, to Peet's for a small cup of their rich, deep elixir. We'd claim a little patch of sidewalk or stairway or lean on a newspaper box and watch other people come to life with us under the effects of the brew. Thus was one of the final nails driven into my life before coffee snobbery. (I was a goner from way back: there were too many things urging me in that direction, like when my sweetie returned from Boston with tales of coffee a friend at MIT made after cooling the coffee with liquid nitrogen; the theory was that the highest temperature differential between coffee and water made for the best flavored brew; this accounted for our freezing of all our coffee beans for the next twenty years.)

Peet's defined Berkeley for me: nestled among the Craftsman bungalows of the Berkeley hills, all that dark wood paneling and shelving under low ceilings made for a cozy cubbyhole that got steamy when it rained. It's hard to say whether the wood was all stained dark deliberately or whether some of it was simply coated with the patina of a million visitors, a million transactions before ours. I think it was a lot of both. I loved the way intellectuals engaged with each other, caffeine as the facilitator.

But here, at the Peet's at the new mall, there's no patina, nor do I find impassioned intellects at odds. I go in and buy coffee there anyway, because it's a decent place to sit and write. A woman is reading next to me, a guy is on a laptop, and a couple of women are chatting in the section I choose, the one with a great view of the Flatirons, our beautiful mountains. Real estate agents and contractors meet their clients here and pore through checklists with them. I find I can't concentrate on my novel about a Venetian police detective, again, and I'm distracted from the gorgeous view of our dramatic mountainscape by the names etched on the tops of the boxes across the parking lot: Men's Wearhouse; Staples: The Office Supply Superstore (also subtitled by me "The Only Office Supply Store Pretentious Enough to Have a Name with a Subtitle"); and a storefront with a name that always perplexes me, Massage Envy.

I walk back toward my car along the main row of shops, and even at up to 60 percent off, I know there's nothing I need in any of these stores. I bought socks for our daughter at Gymboree the other day. My friends and I liked the drinks at The Purple Martini one evening when we arrived at the tail end of their four-hour "happy hour." (But the volume of the music videos they had playing on screens all over the bar seemed to increase exponentially while we were there and our ears were ringing by the time we left, around 9:30, when the night was still young for most people.

A man who is maybe thirty walks past me, talking animatedly with himself. "Why? I don't know why!" he exclaims, a daypack and a cotton sack with handles bouncing behind him as he strides south. Off-Center Guy doesn't seem to be slowed by the store displays any more than I am. Maybe it's just us who are out of sync with everyone else, but I'm not so sure.

There's nothing here for him, there's nothing here for me. A couple of shops looked like they reflected someone's individual style: Christina's Collection and a denim boutique. Perversely, the kind of jewel box that is Christina's Collection, preciously named and looking like a little museum, a thoroughly curated expression of one person's unique sensibilities, is simultaneously more attractive and extremely suspect: I worry that if I cross its threshold I may be subjecting myself to the sticky snares of some person for whom this little shop is the absolute culmination of their hopes and dreams, my every glance will be pounced upon, and my every murmur met with an essay revealing the storekeeper's extensive interest in just that detail. Sometimes you just want to browse in a very anonymous way, and that, I'm convinced, is also the appeal of the chain stores. I know people who are very attached to the freedom of being able to buy dinner without getting out of their cars now; at the mall, I have that same feeling. I could buy a garment here without anyone I know judging me for where I shop or what I buy; the store clerks and owners are simply glad to have me as a customer because that means, for now, that they have jobs.

But everything here feels like it's for someone else. The store with all black, white, or black-and-white stuff? Cool idea, but I don't need any of that right now, thank you. I'm just not a person who updates my decor continuously, who swaps out candle holders, dish towels, and coordinating oven mitts every season.

And I know my reluctance to buy my little trendy tops at mall chain stores is slowing a certain economy down in some ways. By buying used things, however, I'm also nurturing other economies I believe in more than I believe in The Macerich Corporation. My friends and I lament that for what you get back it's hardly worth consigning at Childish Things, a shop just a half a block north of the new mall that resells used clothes, toys, and incidentals for families with little kids and babies, yet I still bring some of our used stuff there anyway, if simply to support someone who I think has built a nice business for Boulderites and a kind of refuge for parents of small children, no small thing during that peculiarly isolating time.

I get the most help from a stocking clerk at Macy's, who directs me where I want to go (I feel so geeky for asking the young Hispanic woman for "swimwear"). A make-up clerk who had just started to work with another patron still has a "hi" with a smile for me as I go by. She'll go far, I'm sure, if she doesn't piss off the people she's already working with to get to the other ones she wants to work with.

So who does shop here? Who is this for? Who falls for this?

I suspect this is all for the people moving into all those new houses that look just like the ones on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I think that show has held up quite a standard in contemporary home design; now I'm seeing so many siding-and-stone clad houses they're starting to look like what we called the "mushroom houses" of the 1980s and 1990s to me. Those houses the developers build on that TV show have become a powerful icon, one that people are grasping hold of right now despite having been lured to overextend themselves with exploding mortgages that they couldn't really finance unless everything continued going just as well as it had been, and we all know how that turned out for most people, don't we? Unfortunately, we don't know how it's going to turn out for a whole lot more people very soon, but foreclosures are on a scary-big upswing.

I think TV is still selling that whole package as hard as it can, though. If you can have everything paved, landscaped, a nice car, and a flat-screen TV, all will be well, right? People think they will be accepted if they look like the ones they watch on prime time nightly, or if they have that house, keep up with the fads. We don't watch much TV compared with the average Joseph P. America, so now and then I'm incensed when a movie or TV show tries to tell you that its people are quirky and charming and special yet all the stuff around them cries, "These people are total fashion victims, enslaved by what people think they should do and want!"

I see around me the minimum-wage workers who have jobs here at the mall and shop here because it's what they know. I recognize the parents with young children who are both bored silly by life in front of the TV and come here for the all-important activity of simply Getting Out of the House so the moms can say they "did some errands" by the end of the day and feel better about themselves.

My mother and I talked this morning about my deeply skeptical attitude toward this new "public space" and she reminded me of Frank Zappa's question, "Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?" No Sears stores here at the new mall, but Zappa's question still slices right to the heart of the matter after lo, these many years. Is this a real mall, or someone's idea of what you might want from a mall? Is this a real experience, or a made-up experience? I keep wanting to meet the people the mall designers had in mind when they developed this project. It is not lost on me that all those cool ideas about mixed-use this and that that people brought up during the open comment period before the new mall was developed simply evaporated. Now we've got a soulless outdoor mall (which is ok when the weather's fine but seems bleak and unenticing in the cold of winter, encouraging me to forget about the place for months at a time), filled with national chains selling stuff no one really needs any more, if they ever did. This outdoor mall has no connection with our older downtown pedestrian mall, a missed opportunity to link this with the real center of town if I ever saw one. Why there aren't free shuttles between the two places I do not understand.

So I'll skirt the mall and cash in my freebies now and then (California Pizza Kitchen sent me a free dinner for four just before their real opening but on my last visit they served me food with rancid nuts and I just haven't worked up any enthusiasm about going back there). And instead of buying Major Dickason's Blend for $13/lb. coffee at Peet's, I'll sip my $6/lb. organic, free-trade Italian roast from Lucky's Market and enjoy our own free wifi from my back deck instead. Malls like this one always remind me to look inward, closer to home, for the there I sometimes misguidedly seek out there.