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Meet the Beatles
May 26th, 2012 by alexfaye

 

My first love outside of the tight ring of family was Ringo Starr.

In 1964, I went to first grade at Saint Michael’s Academy, dressed daily in a grey jumper with white blouse, a white undershirt (my Navy dad, out on destroyers for half the year, called them “skivy shirts”), with black and white saddle oxfords on my feet, and clean white socks. My mother held my hand as we walked to school together, and I remember her quick kiss at the gate before she ran back up the hill to catch the bus, headed downtown to her job in a commercial laundry.

So it wasn’t the parish priest, Father Frederick, or my beloved teacher, Mother Conception, or my parents who brought Ringo Starr to my attention.  It was my sister, Vicki, 19 and just graduated from Cathedral High School.  Vicki wore mascara and a bra; Vicki had a boyfriend.  She talked on the phone for hours with her best friend Gloria, and together they played guitar and sang songs by the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez.  It was Vicki who brought the aptly titled LP home:  Meet the Beatles.

The cover art featured stark black and white photography of John, George, Paul and Ringo, dressed in black turtlenecks and with identical mop top haircuts.  They are each lit so that half of their face remains in shadow. My handsome father sneered at their appearance, mocking their long hair and doleful faces.  And the music — it was incomprehensible, silly.  A few months earlier, President Kennedy had been shot right out of his Dallas motorcade.  My father did not approve, and my mother never, ever broke ranks.

It slowly began to dawn on my blooming first-grade mind that liking the Beatles was going to separate me from them, my beloved parents, who knew everything and who ran the world.  To like the Beatles (when they did not) was a small, rebellious act for a Catholic girl in the first grade — a girl just learning to read, learning to add and subtract.  Add the Beatles; subtract my parents.  A tiny equation, secretive, and a little dangerous.  I tried it, and nothing happened.  They didn’t even seem to know that the Beatles were mine, and not theirs.

It was clear, even then, that Paul was the pretty one, and Ringo, not even in line with the others, but positioned below, by himself, was the one with the saddest eyes, and a big and irregular nose — my father had a big nose, too — so it seemed to me that he was not going to be adored, like the others, who sang and played guitars.  On stage too, he was behind the others, alone, keeping the beat.  I don’t remember deciding to love him.  It was more like I had to love him, because if I didn’t, who would? I lit a torch for Ringo Starr and carried it quietly, hot inside my heart.

The Beatles broke up in 1970; I was in junior high.  Love for the now-defunct band matured and ripened through high school, and I plastered my walls with images from their short career, in various incarnations: a painting of the four as members of an ancient British court; the boys joyously leaping in the air in their promo shot for “Help!”; Sergeant Pepper (the band clad in elaborately decorated, neon-colored military jackets with fat brass buttons); the pen and ink artwork from Revolver; the puzzle of the Abbey Road cover (the theory that Paul was dead allegedly confirmed there in the symbolism of that photo); the four glossy head shots from the White Album; the Beatles as desperados from the single release of “Get Back;” and finally, a shot from that final, heartbreaking rooftop concert, Let It Be.  The images surrounded me, entered me somehow as I listened to the albums again and again, and although I’ve been smitten hundreds of times since then, the boys are still there, 48 years since Meet the Beatles, embedded in my psyche, the soundtrack of youth, first rebellion and first love.

Going the Distance
May 19th, 2012 by alexfaye

Rode my bike to school again today — it’s 17.6 miles, round trip — and experienced the same thing I did the other day, my first day: disbelief. At the beginning of the ride, the whole idea seems preposterous, and I start thinking of bail out options, just in case.

The trip can be broken down into chunks; each little leg of the trip is its own small journey. And as I ride, through the neighborhood, and then across big busy Katella, back behind Maddy’s old middle school, over the little footbridge behind the big athletic fields behind Oak, with the 605 freeway just beyond, then south to the beach, over a suspension bridge that dumps me onto the San Gabriel River Bike Path, and then up that long path to South Street, I have nothing but time to think and listen to whatever is burbling up within me. My mind begins to bore me, that yakkity yak Lucy Ricardo stuff, and I want to be at my destination – but at this point, I still have a long way to go. So I have to break into another mind, or go bonkers, watching the tiny hamster run the hamster wheel.

I see that persistence and patience are key. That the end gets here faster than we expect. Alex, the end gets here faster than we expect. Are you getting this down? The end. Gets here. Faster.

The first place I come to that means I am really out of the neighborhood is El Dorado Park. This used to feel like a big fucking deal, but it’s so easy now that I don’t even think it’s all that noteworthy. I drive by it with aplomb. And sure enough, I see people down on the sidewalk with their bikes, sort of cruising along, and little kids wobbling on training wheels, and double-seater strollers with some beleagured mom or dad pushing it along, sometimes walking, sometimes running, sometimes the kids asleep, and sometimes, no kids at all in the stroller. What is that about? That reminds me of Wenzel, pushing the stroller at the AIDS Walk in Hollywood back in 1989, while I walked beside him, carrying Her Highness Miss Madeline the Baby Who Prefers to Go Everywhere Carried by Her Mother, and Wenzel said, “Pushing this empty stoller feels like I’m making a political statement.”

The next part, El Dorado Park, Part 2: I pass by this part of the park with a little sense of longing. I like riding around in there because it is still mysterious to me in many ways, and I remember this is where I got my very first impression of Long Beach, driving up from San Diego to meet my parents who were at a picnic hosted by my dad’s new job at Terminal Island, and my dad got drunk and my mom got mad because my dad appeared to be flirting with some cheesy Filipino woman who was actually throwing her legs around, and gee whiz, it was just like being in high school again, feeling trapped with two drunk people and all kinds of sublimated violence and emotion, and a slight subtext of sexual infidelity. Yay! This is where I meet my friend Erich. He enters the bike path at Wardlow, which is called Ball Road in Cypress, where he lives. I am SO glad I don’t live on Ball Road. I don’t want to live on any street that makes me think of testicles: Ball Road, Nutwood, Gonad Way, Wrinkly Sack Street. This part of the park is still surprising to me, and every Mexican picnic seems to have its own little cadre of Mariachis. And I once confronted an entire pack of geese and ducks that looked like they should have had been wearing little leather jackets, with switchblade knives tucked inside their boots. Except they weren’t wearing boots, but you know what I mean. They stood in the road and stared me down, like Greasers.

The next big street to pass is Carson, and you know you’re there because there’s the big goddamn WalMart, and what is there to say about that, except you can get stuff there very cheap, but I feel it’s necessary to don a simple disguise before entering, lest anyone recognize me, and then upon returning home with sacks of cheap goods, sit down and write a check to some nonprofit working with the indigent. Today as I passed by, I heard something like gunfire. I glanced down at my watch, 10:05, and said to myself, check the internet later, because somebody is getting gunned down there in the Walmart parking lot.

This is what happens when I pass the equestrian center. To get up over that hump beyond Carson Street, I have to climb a brief but steep hill, so I have to ramp it up, stand up in the pedals, so when I hit the top, I am breathing hard, but I’m immediately confronted by the problem of horse shit. And I think of this fact: the little molecules that I am breathing that are giving me the message, “horse shit,” were recently up in some horse’s ass. And I don’t like that idea, so I try to hold my breath, but I’m already out of breath because of that dang little hill, and obviously I have to breathe, so I breathe shallowly and pedal faster, to get beyond the equestrian center faster, and as I start to get dizzy, I think, gosh, this reminds me a lot of teaching.

The Del Amo tunnel comes next, and the whole idea of going down into a tunnel at a pretty good clip without being to see what is INSIDE the tunnel first makes me nervous. Are you thinking “Freud”? Well, stop.

OK I hit my word count, so it’s time to get in the shower, and get to the bar where all of my friends are. Hurry up! It’s past 9 already. And I’m at 997 words, come on! Who needs that many words? Three more: 1000!

Life is unfair; man up
May 1st, 2012 by alexfaye

My friend recently reported that he received this terse bit of advice from a friend he admires and respects, which got me to thinking about passivity and cynicism (and the phrase “man up,” which means what, exactly?)

I cannot deny that there is a certain truth in this line of reasoning.  The people we deal with every day rarely behave in ways that we’d like them to; we acknowledge that there is a weird justice embedded in the purely random way that the world will just slap a pretty face, at any moment, for no reason.  Nice people get cancer;  idiots win elections; dedicated teachers get t-boned in intersections; criminals live in spacious beachfront homes; young college students are robbed and shot dead while sitting in their cars; beautiful babies fall asleep every night, hungry and alone.  Damn, don’t tell me that life is unfair.

These examples are extreme, I know, but they are honest, demonstrably so.

My personal injustices might not be so big, yet telling me that life is unfair/deal with it, is equivalent to telling me to shut up,  that I have no power to change my circumstances — the grip that injustice has on my life is real.  Beyond personal injustices, I share in the larger ones if I just observe them and do nothing, apply the “life is unfair” dictum, and so accept them as our lot in life.

And telling me to “man up” is to suggest, in some perverse way, that acceptance of this bitter truth is mature? masculine? It certainly elevates “masculinity” above all else, implying that to talk about injustice, however small you perceive it to be, is somehow weak, whiny, or “feminine,” perhaps?  Counselor, I must object.

I do not understand why this line of thinking is not more transparent than it is, why strong minds do not see the oppression packed in this small phrase.

On the other hand: I get the futility of enumerating the opportunities and the breaks that we did not get, or perhaps lamenting the fact that we are just not good looking enough — and not rich enough, not intelligent enough, and not lucky enough either.  Boring.

THIS IS WATER.  It is easy to fall into a pattern of criticizing the world — and taking the time to bitch about it when it’s merely your turn just spreads misery around.  It’s like the “I’m so busy” game.  You complain about your to-do list, and suddenly two or three friends are standing in a circle, commiserating, trying to outdo each other with tales of how tall their stacks are, how little sleep they are getting, and so on.  When I find myself in those moments — well, first, I secretly think that no matter what anybody else says, my stack is probably bigger, and second, although those conversations may be relief for some, they make we feel worse.

Did I just write myself around in a circle?  Am I suddenly seeing the wisdom in “shut up”?  Maybe. “Life is unfair — deal with it” is a way of acknowledging that this narrative is not the only narrative — quit complaining, take a breath, and share the world with the other folks who occupy this scintilla of history with you.  For god’s sake, shut up.

(But I still won’t say “man up.”  I just cannot.)

 

 

My cat, Jeofrey
Sep 26th, 2011 by alexfaye

Of course, you know I don’t have a cat.  Terribly allergic.  I am referring to Christopher Smart’s cat, and the lovely poem he wrote in tribute.

In class the other day, when I was speaking to my students about the writing process, and I told them that although writing is fundamentally a solitary activity, it is also a social activity — that we write in order to share a piece of our inner experience with others.  I think James Baldwin said something like, “You think your pain and suffering is unique in the history of the world, but then you read.”

And when I was telling them this, my eyes welled up, and then my voice cracked, which immediately got everyone’s undivided attention.

Later, a very sweet and concerned student wrote me an email that essentially said, “I read the poem, and I can’t figure out why it made you cry.  Please explain to me what you are seeing.”

So I wrote back.

I found this poem in the most accidental, serendipitous way — in fact, I could not even tell you how I discovered it. It was not in a class or even in a book, or anything. It was just there, somehow in the world, waiting for me to find it. When stuff like that happens, I perk up. My attention is quickened.

I find Smart’s poem charming, and I will be able to read it without growing bored of it for the span of my life; I love the idea that an animal — in expressing its true nature — is expressing God’s will. (Does that mean that when I express my true nature, that I am expressing God’ s will? If so, what is my true nature? And that, my dear, is a question that we can ponder every day: Am I expressing my true nature today? Or am I expressing someone else’s idea for me?)

But what sometimes chokes me up is NOT the poem itself…it’s the knowledge that words live on longer than mortal human being, and that words retain the power to touch us and move us far longer than an ordinary human life span. Of course, we know this any time we pick up the words of any dead author…(I’ve been thinking of this often lately as I read David Foster Wallace, a brilliant writer and compassionate human being who committed suicide in 2008.) Black lines on paper EVOKE MEANING that transcend space and time. This never fails to amaze me.

And then I think of Christopher Smart in the asylum — what must an asylum been like in 16th century England? I ask myself, “Did he imagine that his words would reach a 20th century woman in Southern California?” and of course, the answer is no. What a ridiculous idea that would have been for him.

I wonder if he was cold, or if he was hungry, or if he was lonely.  I know he was alone, writing poetry, with nobody for company but his cat Jeofrey,

a “mixture of gravity and waggery…
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.”

And it GRABS ME RIGHT IN THE HEART.

“There is just no way you’re the pine scented air”
May 22nd, 2011 by alexfaye

I went to see Billy Collins read  the other night.  He’s a favorite of mine, and I guess most people who pay attention to poetry have heard something by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins — he’s straight forward, sweet, funny and observant.
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I had read this poem before, but I came to appreciate it more after hearing him talk about it and read it.  In the poem “Litany,” Collins is poking gentle fun of love poetry that (over)uses imagery from nature to describe the beloved.  Shakespeare did this too when he wrote Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”  So Billy Collins is continuing in this tradition, and he took the first two lines from a poem, and explained that he, “rewrote the poem, as a courtesy …something that poets must do for one another from time to time.”
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You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.

And now, the real reason that I am posting this here — something that will make me happy for the rest of my life.
——–
ADDENDUM:  Actually, watching this is a poignant reminder of impermanence.   It’s been almost 18 months since this child’s mother recorded that video.  This boy is gone — along with his unique, heart rending pronunciation of “grass,” “shooting star,” “moon,” “trees,” and “teacup.”  One reason I listen to this is to hear his voice say to me, “But don’t worry…”  And then I reflect on impermanence.
The green dresser
Apr 23rd, 2011 by alexfaye

Green dresser, circa 1944

My daughter Maddy moved out today.  She is 23 now, and moving into her first one-bedroom apartment is an important milestone.  And no roommate.  This is not college, where she is subsidized by savings and scholarships and loans – she went out and found this place, put a deposit down, and now must pay for it, month in and month out.  She has done the math a hundred different ways, and is sure she will be able to handle everything comfortably.  She has a good job in Pomona that looks like it will last for a good while.  Although…it seem as if this company may be acquired soon — the principal owner is eighty years old — and there is certain to be a shake up.  If she continues to demonstrate her worth, she may be spared and integrated into the new organization.  All this is new to her, but this is what I worry about.

But why worry?  That girl has always landed on her feet.  She’s smart, and resourceful.  And I don’t know anything about the company she works for.  I’m making it all up in my head.

I went to go see the apartment yesterday; it’s cute.  It’s on a quiet street, tucked in an older Fullerton neighborhood, within walking distance from the “action” of downtown — corners of Harbor and Commonwealth.  It’s exactly the kind of place a 23-year old girl should live in:  tiny, clean, with families all around, and a big avocado tree outside.  Today, she packed her room, loaded up her car and drove away, with very little fanfare.  She said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”  My eyebrows shot up.  “Are you sleeping there tonight?,” I wanted to know. She shrugged.  Maddy has no bed, no fridge, no gas on for the stove, no coffeepot, no couch, no table, no chair.  But she’s all dressed up, and anxious to go find her friends, haul her stuff upstairs, and then drink too much.

I face the emptiness of my house with a mixture of elation and grief.  I am going to miss her, but I don’t think mothers should have a front row seat to their daughters’ 20s.  It’s not a pretty decade.  There are bad decisions, tragic love affairs and ill-fated liaisons; there’s vomit in the driveway and cigarette butts spilling over their ashtrays.  I moved far, far away so my mother’s worries were vague and diaphanous; she couldn’t really put her finger on what troubled her, whereas I see it all, up close.  I’d prefer to see less.  I am banking on Maddy emerging from this decade alive, wiser, and appreciative of what it takes to keep a household together, day after day, month after month, for years following years.  It’s no mean feat.

I have little money to help her, so we are relying on her dad, who has been generous and accommodating.  Today, though — he’s depressed, and not up for shopping with me.  He’s been in a whirlwind of activity all week with his sister and her family down for Easter vacation; he can’t do too much before he falls into his morass of dark emotion.

I called a green dresser back into service — it used to belong to my sister, but it’s been the garage now for at least 25 years — so when I pulled it away from the wall in the garage,  I found black widow spiders, rat poop and mold.  I ran inside to get a mask to go over my nose and mouth, and a scarf to cover my hair, and then I started to methodically clean this piece of furniture that we surely had on Winchester Street.  This dresser dates back to at least the 1960s; Vicki thinks that it might be from the 1940s.  I remember my mother painting it that crazy green color, but which house were we in then?  Spain?  Morocco?  Petunia Court in San Diego?  It has big round white ceramic drawer pulls – very 1970s in appearance.    I dusted it off, killed the spider nests, took a wire brush to every inside surface, vacuumed it, sprayed it with Lysol, wiped it down with Clorox, and left it disassembled to air out.  It was a process, and during my work, I thought of my mother, and moving away from her house many different times.

When I was 23, I was already in the north, flailing around.  My mother was in this house, the one that I live in today.  I had abandoned my Southern California life, and that included her.  I didn’t think of it that way at the time, of course, but I am a mother now, and I know now how she experienced my departure.

It’s not that I want Maddy to stay.  In many ways, I am relieved to have my house to myself once again; I suffered one hundred little indignities as Maddy’s roommate.  But my heart is breaking anyway.  My child is grown, and her life belongs to her; I am no longer needed.  Well, I haven’t been needed as a “mom” for a long time, and I suppose she needs to remind me of that simple truth as a declaration of independence.  Providing food, shelter, safety and entertainment is a paltry thing compared with being somebody’s capital-M Mom.  There was a time when she adored me, but now, as she completes her separation, she must articulate all of the ways she does not need me, the ways that she exceeds me, the things that she knows better, the ways that I oppress her with worry or care.  She has to push me to the side, as I pushed my own mother aside.  As I scrub out the green dresser that my mother painted, I regret my part in this stupid cycle.

It’s off to Target for a dish drainer and a broom, a pot holder and a dish towel.  She needs everything.  I try not to think about the San Luis Obispo yard sale I sat at 10 months ago, when everything I had ever given her was up for sale for a song.  She sold it all and hit the road with Hannah for their WWOOF adventure.  Less than a year down the road, she’s a full time quality control chemist, starting a new life, and she needs a broom.  She will be fine.  I will be fine.  Life is not through with us yet.

“That’s so gay”
Oct 25th, 2010 by alexfaye

A short speech I wrote and presented at today’s faculty meeting

I am addressing you this morning on behalf of our students who are members of the Gay-Straight Alliance, and also for those kids who hang on the periphery of the club.

First of all, a little history:  the Gay-Straight Alliance started up here at Mayfair just last year, in the spring — although GSAs have existed in high schools around the country since the ‘90s.  There’s an enormous national network of GSAs.  Our little baby GSA will be participating in our 3rd club’s day this week, passing out ribbons and raising awareness.  We’re a club that is still finding its identity and its purpose — well, obviously, a Gay-Straight Alliance has a ready-made identity and a purpose on a philosophical or symbolic level, but on a practical level, the kids have been trying to figure out what they want to do, and how they can contribute productively to life at our school.

But then, unfortunately, the recent tragic suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi brought national attention to issue of bullying.  It also brought attention to three other teen suicides that had not really made national news: Seth Walsh, 13, in California; Asher Brown, 13, in Texas; and Billy Lucas, 15, in Indiana.  These teens, bullied by their peers for being different, decided that the best thing to do was to end their lives.

I have always been impressed by Mayfair’s diversity, and by how well we get along.  We don’t, as a rule, experience many of the social tensions that we read about on other campuses.  But, all the same, the students of the GSA have asked me to deliver this message.

As the adults on campus, please hold the line — in your classrooms and anytime within your earshot — on the phrase, “That’s so gay,” or any of the gay, faggoty, or queer quips that kids come up with.  These phrases may seem meaningless to some of us, analogous to saying that something is dumb or juvenile.  In fact, the phrase “that’s so gay” travels up with kids from the elementary schools, so in that sense, it is juvenile; it is also a phrase that many kids use, and are able to use apparently without being consistently challenged by adults.

But that phrase — no matter how benign it may seem to you — does two things for sure:  first, there are kids who hear this as deeply offensive – comparable to hearing the Lord’s name in vain, or the f-word, or the n-word, or any racist or hate speech.   But secondly, and more importantly, I think, is that it contributes to an atmosphere that accepts such speech and therefore accepts such thinking.

There is a young man on our campus who comes to the GSA meetings, and I don’t know his name.  (I tend to sit to the side, and let the kids run their meeting.)  And although he did not share this story with me himself, his friends have told me that because of his appearance and his demeanor, he is regularly a target of hostile speech that is delivered in the friendliest of tones.  Kids walk past him and say, “Hey, there’s that faggot,” or “Hey!  Aren’t you a faggot?”  Fortunately, this student has a strong network of support through his family and his friends, so he has developed the confidence and the necessary inner resources to cope with these exchanges, but why on earth should he have to?  And what about the kids who don’t have supportive families, or have only a few friends?  Or no friends they can really count on?

Now, kids are crafty, and mostly manage to hold back their worst behavior when adults are present.  I am sure that if any of us had heard anyone address this young man as a faggot, we would have stepped in and said something.  But we are not going to always witness the things that happen on this campus.  There’s the world we know about, and then, there is another world entirely.

I’d like to suggest that a campus that tolerates “that’s so gay,” is to some degree complicit when kids use more aggressive hate speech, like “hey, are you a faggot?”

So just like the frayed jeans rule, let’s not make it up to the kids to decide what degree of hate speech is OK.  Say no to all of it.  In the classroom, in the walkways, in the gym —hold the line on any form of hate speech, including the phrase, “that’s so gay.”

Thank you.

It wasn’t a cake
Oct 23rd, 2010 by alexfaye

McCartney (1970) featured cherries and a bowl of juice, not a cake.

I guess I was thinking of Let it Bleed by The Rolling Stones (1969)…

I am remembering music and art from 40 years ago.  How can that be??

How I got to 1000: a story told in tweets
Oct 23rd, 2010 by alexfaye

Scroll down to read this story from the bottom up.

3 Quotes from Nicole Krauss
Oct 23rd, 2010 by alexfaye

Went to Twitter just now, to report hitting my daily word count, and three quotes from Nicole Krauss were just sitting there, right on top of the feed:

“Writing is never really fun.  It is many things, but it is not that.”

“I’ve gotten used to the terror [of failure], but the terror never really goes away.”

“Writing for me is very hard work.  It is very sweaty labor.  I am always aware of blowing breath into my characters.”

I *heart* Nicole Krauss, and her amazing partner, Jonathan Safran Foer.  I just finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close this week.  I so admire his ability to really take his story to the bone of human sorrow and suffering — and then he manages to deliver us to another shore, to rest, to soak in the warmth of the sun, to fully absorb the effect of our arduous journey.  I may not understand the reasons we have to travel this way, but I know that I have done it, and will do it again.

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