Monday, September 3, 2012

On the Nature of Home

At various points in my life, home has encompassed everything and nothing. Up until age of 6, home started and finished within the my bedroom walls, a universe where reality was merely a stumbling block on the road to infinite possibility. I enacted elaborate and passionate scenes in which I played both hero and villain: sometimes an impoverished orphan relegated to forage in barren forests, other times a tyrannical queen tasked with punishment through violent words and the occasional hurled object. Whether I was accompanied by my solemnly obedient 3-year old brother or a handful of imaginary friends did not matter; I was company enough for myself.

As I grew older, home expanded to include vast stretches of Hyde Park and Daisy’s house. Daisy’s house was 4 stories of crash and clutter a full 45 minutes drive away from my family’s apartment (and therefore in another world entirely). Proud black lettering above the front door declared it a “Symposium Institute,” which imbued a sense of authority simply because I didn’t know what it meant. It is her home and not mine that I recall with English fondness; her home with its “lottie” (the allotment, or vegetable garden), its parakeets in vast cages, its apple crumbles and milky tea. The make-believe of Symposium Institute more closely mimicked reality than my former childish play: an enduring favorite of ours was “shop,” a game that involved rearranging all of Daisy’s belongings into elaborate storefront displays. Whereas my curation always resembled the local corner store, Daisy assembled veritable boutiques, and I both loathed and adored her for it. Symposium Institute and its acres of shops were where chaos and order co-existed perfectly to conjure a warmth that was, to my 10 year old self, the very essence of Home.

By age 15, home appeared to have shrunk quite unexpectedly to tuck itself into the smallest of pockets beneath my ribcage. I spackled my eyelids with peacock shadow and wandered London’s streets eyes downcast, crossing perpetually cold fingers that my teenage armor would nurture a latent home of sorts. In the quietest hours of morning, I curled into window ledges and chain-smoked cigarettes, scouring my wrist, my neck, my chest for a thudding beat. Home seemed an aching black hole that made me wonder whether I existed at all.

And then the departure. I orchestrated an elaborate London goodbye that involved a picnic, nightclubs, and watermelon margaritas. I clutched at school friends and vowed to visit, write, and return, embarrassed by the tears to which I could muster only an apologetic stare. Later that night in my empty bedroom, I threw myself onto the carpet and sobbed uncontrollably -- mourning in part the loss of those glorious women, in part the loss of my childhood home, but mostly the sheer absence of any sense of loss at all. Ironically, I would re-enact this scene 7 years later following the sale of my childhood home, and feel profoundly in that moment that I had lost everything.

On a California college campus, home is nowhere to be found. The memory of that place oceans away softened with distance and time, and for years I clung to it as a rosy talisman of comfort. I return to London intermittently where I’m forced to acknowledge that I Am Grown,  and Real Life must be accommodated as more than a slight inconvenience. I seek refuge on the empty stages and black box spaces of the Drama Department, sometimes alone, other times in an awkward rat pack of players, each of us uniquely homeless and heartbroken.

It’s around that time that I discover and relish the freedom of feeling uprooted. Homelessness becomes an integral part of my selfhood, and my ever-changing state of mind a refuge. I study the novels of Virginia Woolf, and Home is a gossamer evening in The Ramseys’ garden. I attend a lecture on Magical Realism, and Home is invisible cities and ancient curses. I throw myself wholeheartedly into the absurdity of a Ionesco play and lose enough of my grip on reality that I sink into a post-production depression. I spend hours alone in ghost-lit rehearsal spaces poking at each corner of a 2 minute monologue, always reluctant to leave come midnight. Home became everything I allowed into my consciousness, and I therefore anything I chose it to be.

And then 22: Home is a man, and his name is Daniel. Our first makeshift apartment has an air peculiar to the perennially homeless and transplanted: fevered and clutching; every single object and event is imbued with epic significance. Breakfast making and laundry become life-or-death activities, where a sideways glance or misinterpreted comment could lead to threats of abandonment followed by dramatic pleas for forgiveness. Home is both teenage passion and painfully adult, and I ebb for years between states of euphoria and despair. In intermittent moments of peaceful calm life stands still: I am loved, and I feel like I am everything.

And now, 27. Home is the bottom half of a Victorian building that I have inhabited, alone, for nine days. It is the imposing photograph of Big Ben that guarded my childhood bed and now presides over my empty living room. It is the mattress purchased with and slept in by the man who was my home for my early twenties -- and retains to me still an unparalleled sense of safety and comfort. It is broken dresser-drawers, books whose pages I inhabited for weeks at a time, and leaky pens -- the ghosts of jobs past. It is the clackety armchair I purchased for 50 dollars from my neighbor's garage sale. It is a stranger’s chandeliers and fridge, and my mother’s blue and white china. 

I carry these homes with me, and all I am now is everything they have ever been.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Il faut chercher le bonheur: November in Paris

Saturday morning: find yourself au 18eme and meander with an air of aimlessness until you reach le Marché de l'Olive. Purchase copious amounts of charcuteries and a small bottle of le Beaujolais nouveau (bien sur il est arivé le 15 novembre) along with a sizable loaf of country bread. Begin your hungry trek up Montmartre towards the Sacré-Coeur and, upon arriving, admire la vue before giving a few centimes to the young man proudly demonstrating his soccer-ball skills. Plead ignorance as you ignore those forbidding signs and park in the middle of the greenery where it is interdit de s'asseoir sur l'herbe to enjoy your petit feast.

Continue on your wanderings through the cobbled streets of Montmartre, where you'll find plenty of cafés to prendre un citron pressé, a puckering drink of pulpish lemon juice mixed with water. Stop into a few p'tits magasins and browse cheesily laminated Parisian prints and gaudy jewelry before stumbling on that carefully hidden souvenir parfait. If you're willing for a moment to abandon tout respect pour votre santé, purchase a little pack of Galoises and a book of matches for une expérience authentique de bohème.

Ready to do some major sightseeing à pied? Make your way down to the Place de la Sorbonne and lose yourself in the crowd of effortlessly geek-chic jeunes françaises spilling from pillared buildings and lingering outside bookstores. If you're feeling bold, make eye-contact with that floppy-haired spectacled young man and smile. He does not know, after all, that you are not une femme Parisienne.

Le Metro is one of Paris's most valuable sightseeing tools: at less than 2 euros a trip, you can run amock over this beautiful city while affording yourself some quality people-watching. Take time to notice the young women boasting la mode Parisienne - complete with red lipstick, scruffy ankle boots and, bien sûr, plenty of denim. Be sure to pay close attention to the stations as they flicker by: you need change trains at least once before you arrive at Hôtel de Ville, au 4eme.

Continue your wanderings along the cobbled streets of the Seine, taking your time to rummage through the scores of weathered books and records manned by impishly smiling old french messieurs. If you're a musical walker, treat yourself to a headphoned soundtrack of folksy french music (Sexy Sushi and Louise Attaque are personal favorites) as you amble. Sneak glimpses of wrinkled elderly couples holding hands and kissing à coté de la Seine, even though it might make you feel a little bit pervy. As sunset threatens, make your way towards la Place de la Concorde and alternately rest a few minutes surrounded by the greenery of the Tuileries or brave your way through the crowds that line Les Champs Elysées, depending on how exhausted you're feeling. If you're a true Francophile, of course, you'll do both.

Surely you weren't planning to waste time sleeping in the city of lights? Et, bien sûr, even seasoned visitors of Paris need to catch a glimpse of la Tour Eiffel, surtout la nuit when she glitters and winks like a golden siren of the city. Don't even think about braving those lines and paying a heft fee pour ascendre. Stealing a glimpse under its enormous base is experience enough.

You're done. Treat yourself to a mojito a la champage (just like a regular mojito, except rather than waste space with soda water, the rum is champagned-down to taste) and amble homewards, preferably stumbling into a cheesy discotheque along the way.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Spoke Art and The Royal Tenenbaums

I have a neighborhood art gallery. It's called Spoke Art.

It takes some effort to deliver such a statement flippantly in conversation, as if it were no more remarkable than having a neighborhood coffee shop or convenience store, because the very existence of said gallery just steps from my front door makes me feel irrationally, inexplicably cool.


For the past few months, however, my relationship with Spoke Art was merely a feeling of coolness-by-neighborhood-association. That is, until Spoke Art announced a new exhibition: "Bad Dads: An art show tribute to the films of Wes Anderson." And yes, call me a huge wannabe-hipster cliche, but I do have more than a soft-spot for the awkward honesty of Anderson's characters.

And of all those characters, my heart will forever belong to Royal Tenenbaum and his bizarre family of miserables geniuses. I defy you to find a young girl in her twenties who didn't at some point try smoking in her bathroom with a fan tied to the radiator, thimbled finger tapping the porcelain tub, a la Margot Tenenbaum. Who wasn't madly in love with both suicidal, lovesick Richie and egomaniacal, drug-addled Eli Cash. Who didn't seriously consider buying a red Adidas tracksuit and sporting a mop of dark curls after seeing how cool it looked on Ari and Uzi - or, for that matter, who didn't consider naming her firstborn Uzi. Who didn't alternately channel Margot's deadpan eccentricity and Ethel's graceful composure and occasional spectacular outburst. Who didn't blast Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" at exasperated families, teachers, and boyfriends for the better part of a year.

To my chaotic sixteen-year old self, the Tenenbaums were a reminder that even the most miserable, twisted families (however one chooses to define them) have a peculiar charm and their own brand of happiness. Despite the fact that realizing said happiness might require one to fall in love with their adopted brother.

Margot: You probably don't even know my middle name
Royal: That's a trick question. You don't have one.
Margot: Helen.
Royal:  That was my mother's name.
Margot: I know it was.
She was known for her extreme secrecy. For example,  none of the Tenenbaums knew she was a smoker, which she had been since the age of 12. Nor were they aware  of her first marriage and divorce to a recording artist in Jamaica. She kept a private studio  in Mockingbird Heights under the name "Helen Scott." She had not completed a play in seven years.

Among the few possessions he left to his heirs was a set of Encyclopedia Britannica in storage at the Lindbergh Palace Hotel under the names Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum. No-one spoke at the funeral, and Father Petersen's leg had not yet mended, but it was agreed among them that Royal would have found the event to be most satisfactory.

Richie: I think he's very lonely. Lonelier than he lets on. Maybe lonelier than he even realizes.
Ethel: Have you spoken to him about this?
Richie: Briefly. And he agreed that...
Chas: I'm sorry, maybe I'm a little confused here. What are you suggesting?
Richie: That he come here and stay in my room.
Chas: Are you out of your mind?
Richie: No. I'm not. Anyway I think he'd be much more comfortable here than at...
Chas: Who gives a shit?
Richie: I do.
Chas: You poor sucker. You poor, washed up papa's boy.

Eli: How's Richie?
Margot: I don't know. I can't tell.
Eli: Yeah, me neither. He wrote me a letter. He says he's in love with you.
Margot: What are you talking about?
Eli: That's what he said. I don't know how we're supposed to take it.

That's 72 unforced errors for Richie Tenenbaum. He's playing the worst tennis of his life. What's he feeling right now? I don't know, Jim. There's obviously something wrong with him. He's taken off his shoes and one of his socks and...actually, I think he's crying.

If anyone out there is wondering what to get me for Christmas, I'll take Margot in profile with trenchcoat and cigarette. Please.

Spoke Art Gallery is at 816 Sutter St, between Jones and Leavenworth. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, 12-6pm. "Bad Dads" is on view until November 22nd.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book Musings: The Happiness Project

When it comes to books, my mantra is usually Fiction Or Die, maybe with the odd play or Gladwell-esque polemic thrown in for variety. If I find myself in the "self-help" section of any bookstore, it's because I'm lost, since the very idea of reading a stranger's recommendations on how to better myself goes against just about everything in which I believe. I hated myself for reading Eat Pray Love and loathed sitting through the movie (in transit to Indonesia, no less) even more. Maybe it's an English thing?

But, while wandering around Browser Books, I picked up a book that has caught my eye a few times over the past month: Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project." The $15 price tag was hefty for a book I knew would never find itself, dog-eared and coffee-stained, on my shelf of favorites, but evidence suggests I've been working on my own Happiness Project of sorts, and, if nothing else, I figured it might make for an interesting blog post.

Rubin's unabashedly methodical approach to the cultivation of her personal happiness is researched and reasonably charming, if a little reductive and overly rational for my taste. She begins the project by establishing 12 Commandments, overarching principles that shape the Happiness Project and guide each of Rubin's 11 Resolutions. To each Resolution she dedicates a single month, yet the project is cumulative, so that by the end of the year she is practicing all 11 Resolutions simultaneously in the pursuit of a holistic and near-complete personal happiness. Along the way, Rubin stumbles upon Four Splendid Truths, key happiness principles that ring true across all commandments and resolutions. By the end of the year, yes, she is happier.

My personal concept of happiness is elusive enough to make it near-impossible for me to set about seeking happiness in such a regimented, methodical manner. But the very existence of this blog is testament to the fact that I've thought about happiness in terms that might be articulated. Sock monsters and Skittles are just some of the things that make me irrationally, ridiculously happy. This blog is a way for me to explore, record, and remember the others. And while any personal Happiness Project might not condense itself into such neat commandments, resolutions and compartments as Rubin's, as I closed the book and took inventory of the things that, truly, contributed to my personal happiness, I was left with what I shall call my 8 non-binding imperatives (non-binding because if I had to do all of them, every day, I imagine that they would prove more anxiety-inducing than uplifting).

Amanda's Eight Non-Binding Imperatives
1. Be curious
2. Create your own calm
3. Foster creativity
4. Feel good tomorrow
5. Go outside
6. Make things
7. Don't shoot fish in a barrel
8. Stop saying "OK"

This blog shall, by no means, be dedicated to any sort of formal Happiness Project, nor shall it orbit these eight imperatives (they are non-binding, after all). But Rubin's experiment certainly inspired me to make a more conscientious effort to actively pursue and document those things that I know without fail make me grin with careless pleasure.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Letters from Cartagena

"Cartagena is an old city on the Caribbean coast, sheltered by a magnificent old stone wall, into which is set frightfully grand and cosmopolitan old restaurants and bars. The food is a mix of greasy fried and cheese-filled deliciousness and fancy ceviche sit-down establishments for the rich folk, and during the day the streets are filled with vendors pushing cut tropical fruit and coconut water, sipped straight from the husk. I have greedily sampled just about everything between walks, museum visits, and dips in both our house pool and the warm Caribbean. I never want to leave."

"The problems that command my attention stateside and the culture of "I" to which I so often subscribe is so shamefully undermined when one is far, far away. You said I talked so often of running away - here in Cartagena where it is impossible not to confront muddy, sweaty, sun-beaten life as you wander the streets, I almost feel like a return to the states where everything is so manicured and comfortable is a running away, of sorts."


"Every morning i've taken to practicing my bikram poses naked on the roof in full witness of this beautiful city, simply because it feels good. I sip my rich black coffee with my ankles dangling in the pool and a book in hand and grin at the sheer thrill of doing absolutely nothing at all."

"Casual Observations in Colombia:
1. Nivea lotion is the smell of summer
2. Ham and canteloupe must be the most glorious breakfast known to man
3. I could survive luxuriously with less than half of my current possessions
4. Coconut should never be ignored
5. Must be naked as much as possible"

"The house is part dream, part palace,  part movie set: all bright yellows and blues, enormously dripping candles, melancholy creepers hovering over balconies, multicolored marble and vast candelabras. I feel like I'm in the South American version of some great vampire castle."

"She simultaneously craves and fears the chaos of life - its brutal grittiness, its ethereal beauty and ebbs and flows of euphoria and despair. When she embraces this chaos she is...happy, yes...but like a baby giraffe on shaky twigs of legs she fears the tremble, the fall and the break."

"I'm grateful for the time to read, write and think, and amble aimlessly through the cobbled streets. Needless to say, i find myself lost in the old city on a regular basis, yet it's always a comforting kind of lost, since i have no commitments that demand that I find myself in a hurry."

"In the early evening I stroll through the Plaza de Los Dolces, so called because of the thousands of vendors touting their sugared wares in ancient glass jars. Most of the candies involve coconut or some other sort of dried fruit, and are puckeringly yet reassuringly sweet. I refuse to spend $5 at the supermarket on some American sugar fix."

"I wish we had had the opportunity to have this type of travel adventure together, full of magic and daydreams and arresting beauty and sadness. Perhaps some day when we are old and have families of our own we shall travel and bask as rich artistic people do."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book Musings: A Disobedient Girl

Alexander Books is one of my favorite bookstores in the city. That it is lovingly independently owned is evident in the purposeful haphazardness of its layout and the cursive charm of staff recommendations that punctuate its shelves.

When I worked South of Market, this store was my Corporate American Refuge, where I logged hours upon hours browsing shelves and clutching discount paperbacks. And what discounts they were! From shiny self-help books to shaky fiction debuts; from obscure biographies to pulp-filled mysteries - and, if I was lucky, the occasional lesser-known Oates or Lessing novel - I culled and amassed until I found them spilling off shelves and creeping their way into my kitchen cabinets. Some moderately thought-provoking, a few magical, most utterly mundane - but each an experience, in and of itself.

It was in this mess of discounted paperbacks that I found Ru Freeman's "A Disobedient Girl," which oscillates between the stories of Latha, a young servant with a charming sense of entitlement, and Biso, a mother who flees her abusive husband for the refuge of the Sri Lankan coast. As all respectable contemporary books do, the novel explores "issues": the institution of family, socio-cultural and gender politics, love, and violence - political, domestic, and symbolic. Said issues were mostly unremarkable - after all, most novels have them. What piqued my interest were the teasing glimpses of war-torn Sri Lanka and the further investigation those glimpses demanded.

Latha's story takes place in Colombo, a trade hub well-known to the Ancient Romans, Arabs and Chinese for its position along Asia's silk passage. Along with the rest of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known until 1972, Colombo was tossed between Portugese, Dutch and British rule until the country achieved independence in 1948. For Latha, Colombo is a place of oppressive convention, explored through the relationships between mother and child, servant and master, and male and female. Whom one may or may not marry; what one may or may not do; to whom one may or may not belong are vitally important distinctions within her world and Colombo's boundaries. For Latha, opportunities to escape her caste come only intermittently - and always demand of her both sex and pregnancy.

Ptolemy's map of Caylon, 1st Century AD
Biso's story Freeman punctuates with warfare. Arising from ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations, Sri Lanka's civil war lasted 26 years as the Tamil Tigers fought for independence. Their assasinations and suicide bombings prompted 32 countries to denounce them as a terrorist organization, while many condemned the Sri Lankan government's defense methods as civil rights violations. War's brutal violence killed over 70,000, devestated the country's economy, and all but destroyed what might have been one of Asia's most prosperous tourism industries. Biso's journey to the coast, set against a backdrop of political unrest and domestic abuse, is itself punctured by 3 acts of violence, all of which destroy only the weak and vulnerable: young children, subservient women, fractured families, and the elderly and impoverished. Biso's greatest threat, however, lies not in the violence of civil war, but in the symbolic West with its disposable wealth and hypnotizing power.

The novel and its protagonists are undeniably charming, and almost as intriguing as those snippets of country, war-torn and West-infected as it appears in stolen glimpses. Intriguing enough, one might suggest, to add Sri Lanka to one's list of countries to visit.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Love for the Loin

Over the years I've heard colorful and varied explanations of the Tenderloin's wonderful name. Most often delivered is that the neighborhood's crime and corruption earned it the title of San Francisco's "soft underbelly." Older residents twinkle and recount stories of police offers receiving "hazard pay" bonuses simply for being assigned to the neighborhood - bonuses that allowed them to afford the pricier cuts of tenderloin steak. My favorite attribution is the reference to the not-so-tender loins of the prostitutes that walk the streets - in full daylight, no less.

Yet the neighborhood's storied past and chaotic present have a uniquely San Franciscan charm - one that I feel a kinship to, perhaps unsurprisingly. It is, in essence, a neighborhood of performance:
Of ACT, Curran, and Orpheum, San Francisco's most expensive prosceniums
Of the Warfield and the Great American Music Hall whose jaws descend upon veneered crowds for hours at a time before spitting them out, wizened and exhausted.
Of the brothels and whore houses of the late 1800s, and the heartbreaking day-glo strip clubs of today.
Of speakeasies it harbored when prohibition made it necessary; of those it advertises now that nostalgia makes it good for business.
Of The Maltese Falcon's Sam Spade and his (and Hammet's own) apartment at 891 Post Street - just steps from my studio.

And of its inhabitants - its glorious inhabitants - addled by drugs, ravaged by poverty and mental illness, jaded by prostitution, addiction and despair. They mutter and shout and laugh maniacally and stare, and while one might easily dismiss their ramblings for madness, after three of four strolls down those ravaged streets one can't help but be rattled by the raw truth of their despair.

This is my Tenderloin: the one whose streets have been decorated by the likes of graffiti royalty Banksy and Twist:

This is my Tenderloin: the one where hipsters rummage next to Vietnamese grandmothers for beets at the Heart of the City farmers' market (and aren't these just the most enormous beets you've ever seen?):

This is my Tenderloin: where a row of trees outside City Hall can remind me of the streets of Paris:

This is my Tenderloin: where a sense of humor is not required, but it certainly makes aimless wanderings a little more entertaining:

And this, too, is my Tenderloin: The Tender, a glorious website about a glorious neighborhood.