Archive for July, 2008


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Tralfamadorian Novels

I finally read Slaughterhouse-Five. Anyone who has harassed me about it can now get off my back. I do see what all the fuss is about, though, and in retrospect I’m glad to have been pestered.

Billy Pilgrim learns a lot of great things from the aliens who abduct him, perhaps the greatest being the circular, seamless and holistic nature of time that we fatalistic humans will never understand (myself especially, though I wish to). This temporal reality in which they live is reflected in the many layered novels they enjoy – far more complex than our simple words-on-a-page storybooks; a Tralfamadorian novel is a thoughtful collection of messages.

There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

I like to think of one of their novels as the collective of one person’s reading choices over a lifetime. Do we not, after all, read one book to see the marvelous moments crafted therein? An image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep? We may not be able to see all these moments at once, but instead maintain the patience and interest to see one moment at a time, one word, one page, one chapter, one book, until everything has been stored away in our mental catalog, waiting there to serve that relentless human need for meaning, purpose and connections. After a lifetime of reading, surviving and watching the world spin and tumble around us, we can look on the many marvelous moments that have become our consciousness and take a sigh of solemn gratitude because it is – it will be – beautiful and surprising and deep.


Adverbs are Ridiculously Overused

The Vons grocery chain and I have something in common, I’ve observed. A generous professor recently used some of his summer hours to review the senior thesis paper I wrote to help me improve it for graduate school applications. He suggested some restructuring and pointed out that I use too many adverbs, throwing any credibility or authority I might have had right out the window. I’ll admit I often turn to them as an easy way to emphasize a thought, but I try to be creative about it and I wasn’t aware it was such a problem.

Shortly after he alerted me to this – suggesting I comb through the paper and simply pluck each adverb out – I was driving to LA and noticed a couple new Vons billboards for their current ad campaign. The first is a close-up of some nice red cherries, next to a picture of cheesecake with cherry topping. It looks delicious and all that, but it’s hardly noticeable behind the giant and absurd description the Vons marketers placed over it: BRAZENLY SCRUMPTIOUS.

I scoffed, rolled my eyes, wondered who comes up with this stuff…then I realized with terror that my paper is like one enormous Vons ad! I could have written that line! Because I had to turn to marketing slogans because I never got into a literature program at a graduate school because my writing sample was littered with adverbs! I’ve been pulled from a horrible downward spiral from which I might never have escaped on my own.

Having made this brutal realization, I calmed myself knowing that it’s not too late to change my ways. On my way home from LA I saw another billboard: slices of watermelon that are LUDICROUSLY REFRESHING. Ludicrously? Are they kidding? I vowed once and for all to rush home and revise my paper immediately. I would go shopping down every line for all the adverbs, tossing the rotten “immensely’s” and “enormously’s” out, and keeping only the ripe stand-alone adjectives and verbs in my cart.

While cherries and watermelons might be must-have summer favorites, somebody should tell Vons that ridiculous adverbs are not ingredients for life, and certainly don’t make fruit sound any more appealing.


D’Il Mio Libro Piccolo: Dickens’ Venice

When I was in Venice in October, wandering the rainy streets aimlessly as though trapped – and with no desire to escape – in a very beautiful and perfectly unique maze, my travel companions and I came across a truly delicious book shop called Charta Venezia. Their merchandise is comprised of incredible works of art: old editions of classic texts bound, in the “art of new Venetian bookbinding,” in the most ornate and gorgeous covers I have ever seen. They run anywhere from 200 euros to 5,000, so all I did was drool (doing my best not to get that or the rain from my jacket sleeves onto any of those antique, leafy, full-of-wonder pages).

I did find a little handmade journal that had been marked down, so I decided to buy it and use it to record all of my favorite passages from the books that I read. My own personal collection of beautiful literary treasures to be admired and enjoyed on a smaller scale. I thought it fitting to start it with a chilling description of the city of Venezia from Charles Dickens’ 1846 Pictures from Italy:

“But close about the quays and churches, palaces and prisons: sucking at their walls, and welling up into the secret places of the town: crept the water always. Noiseless and watchful: coiled round and round it, in its many folds, like an old serpent: waiting for the time, I thought, when people should look down into its depths for any stone of the old city that had claimed to be its mistress.

Thus it floated me away, until I awoke in the old market-palace at Verona. I have, many and many a time, thought since, of this strange Dream upon the water: half-wondering if it lie there yet, and if its name be VENICE.”

A magical little passage that, when I read it still, makes me feel like I’m back in that mysterious, almost unreal place, standing over a canal on a little bridge under my umbrella watching the gray water dance and swirl about the ancient sinking bricks.

Since purchasing il mio libro piccolo, and writing down the Dickens passage, I haven’t been the best about keeping a faithful record of all of my favorite lines as I find them. I have this problem when I read that I get too excited and don’t want to stop reading to get up, find a pen and my little book and write anything down. As a result, there are many sparkling and colorful and deeply, personally affecting bits of writing that I will never see again and will doubtfully ever remember.

So, I will begin sharing here some of what I find, in part to motivate myself to continue recording them, but mostly because I love to bring attention to these little gems. Those moments when you come across a collection of words that makes your breath stop for just a second, and you have no choice but to read it a few times over and let it cover you, become you, change you and brighten the colors in which you see the world – these are why I read.

And it’s nice to keep those moments in one very beautiful and perfectly unique little book.


Small Fish in a Big Pond

I find that the beach is a good place to go when in need of what we like to call a reality check. I usually go for the obvious reasons, and leave with some fresh life reminders to go with my fresh sunburns. The beach is one of the few places that still clings to the simplicity, purity and romance that many recreational activities have lost in today’s over-stimulated and highly charged culture of technological entertainment. We take it for granted because it’s always been there, but it really is a wonder that people of all walks of life will gather in one place just because it’s where water meets sand. They all just go, lay around on their towels, and play.

Most of these people do this without much clothing on, and this is where some of my reminders come from. Some people remind me that I am actually in much better shape than I give myself credit for. Others, especially here in Orange County, remind me that just because it’s summer that doesn’t mean it’s OK to overindulge on frozen treats and forget I ever learned how to use a rowing machine.

Though I do enjoy studying the fascinating showcase of the human body to be found on a summer day in Newport, I like to think I spend more time pondering the meaning of life than the meaning of stretch marks and undersized swimsuits. It’s easy to do a lot of profound life-thinking, because another thing the beach reminds me is that silence is golden. Or perhaps a nice shade of sand. I remember that it’s OK – no, vital – to just be sometimes, with our without a friend, a book, an iPod.

So, while I’m at the beach just being, I can’t help but think about that giant thing called the ocean. I am drawn to it, in part, because it reminds me of how small I am, how insignificant. And I know it’s a tired metaphor, but it’s refreshingly humbling to compare oneself to a grain of sand. If this is accurate, it means that our overwhelming fears, anxieties and seemingly unsolvable or unending problems are actually nothing. Dust, specs, molecules, atoms. Minnows swimming around meaninglessly in the stormy, surging world we live in, leaving nothing but a few unlasting bubbles in our wake. This is a comforting thought.

Unfortunately, it also means that our accomplishments, loves, hopes and dreams are nothing. Minnows and tiny bubbles. I love to think that my problems are meaningless in the greater scheme of things, but I don’t so much enjoy diminishing everything that I live for to the relative importance of small fish.

Is it possible to have both? To maintain a healthy perspective on our problems while still seeing our proudest moments and greatest achievements as things that truly matter, that give meaning and beauty to the world? Isn’t it cheating to see the bad stuff as unimportant and the good stuff as momentous and great? Is it better to see everything we do and think and have and lose as trite and insignificant, or to see it all as seriously consequential? Which state of mind can better keep us going every day?

Here is when I leave the beach. I remind myself that while just being is an important thing to do from time to time, sometimes it’s better to get myself to the gym and spend time thinking about nothing but my score on the erg – however big or small the number is.


The Color Game

Color is something that I think a lot about – whether it’s the topic of race, trying to keep my eyes open to find art in the everyday, or just selecting my accessories every morning, it’s frequently on my mind. In any context, I prefer a bold combination of brightly contrasting tones – not one thing (or person) matching with anything else – rather than a flat blend of similar hues. I recently made my first visit to the Getty in LA, and spending a whole day alone surrounded by a myriad of stimulating art, color, and people, I got to thinking about how important the awareness of art – and by extension, color – is to a healthy and enriched understanding of the world. Color makes things vital and striking, prompts us to feel in ways that we don’t notice or understand. It brings the world to life; there is a reason, I might venture, that blood is red.

I play a game with the little girls I babysit where we take turns listing every color we can think of. It started with the 5-year-old wanting to name the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (though, I think one of those has been voted off the spectrum since I learned ROYGBIV in 1st grade) – and when she started to realize how much farther the list can stretch, it turned into a game, a challenge. We began with the obvious additions like brown and black, then got a little crazier with colors like magenta and turquoise. After a little while, her limited knowledge of color names had run out, and my mental catalog of Crayola’s inventory had been exhausted. (Fortunately, the 3-year-old was content recycling the few pinks and purples she could think of.)

Because I’d been channeling my elementary school coloring fests and tossing out crayon names like “robin’s egg blue” and “granny smith apple,” I was accused by one very skeptical kindergartener of cheating, of making things up. I told her those were real colors, at least according to the company who holds the monopoly on the industry, and then realized that if Crayola can do it, then we should too. I wanted to see her consider every object, image, place she’d ever seen and remember the color of it, turning whatever it was into its own special shade, removing it from the absolutist, over-simplified umbrella colors that make up our rainbow or any basic box of markers.

She took to this with great enthusiasm, embracing the challenge and appreciating the endless scope of possibility. I shared her excitement and we would congratulate each other with each clever suggestion. “Moon silver!” she would shout victoriously. Despite her fervor, however, she would pause and question the validity of almost every color she offered, asking, puzzled, “Does that count?” Yes, they all count. As far as we know, with our weak human vision, everything is it’s own unique color, and may as well be labeled as such.

When our imaginations began to drag, I suggested we look around the backyard for different colors to use. She’d been collecting big fuzzy caterpillars all week in a small, blue plastic bucket with the little mermaid on it. She peered into this home-made sanctuary full of dead flowers and abducted insects and her face lit up – she announced with bright zeal her crowning achievement, her proudest discovery: Caterpillar Brown. I was delighted and intrigued by this, because although caterpillars come in dozens of different colors, the ones in her little pail were brown, and so this becomes the defining color of caterpillars.

But here is where this game gets risky. It is important that we differentiate between a Caterpillar Brown that refers to just one type of caterpillar that is colored with just one type of brown, and a Caterpillar Brown that assumes all such insects are this one color. I was reminded of the other day when she’d been watching me color a picture for her. I used the Peach crayon, and she observed out-loud that I was using the “skin colored crayon.” I told her that, well, yes, this crayon is similar to the color of my skin, but it’s very different from the color of many other people’s skin, including her own – a perfect soft blend of browns from India and the Philippines. She acknowledged the truth in this, but maintained that it was still the skin-colored crayon because that’s what everyone else in her class calls it.

So, we can have a brown named after caterpillars, but not one named after her beautiful skin, because that is already taken by the Peach crayon – already deemed by her fellow 5-year-old California kindergarteners as the only shade worthy of being both a fruit, and the color of, well, humanity. Before the 1960s, this crayon actually did carry the official Crayola label of “Flesh.” Fortunately, the company volunteered a more politically and ethically correct option. The trouble now, in the 21st century, is getting those impressionable minds who actually use the crayons to recognize and understand the colors that are all around us, to appreciate and enjoy each one uniquely.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
July 2008
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