Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dirty Angels/ Angels in Tar

I came to LA to give a conference paper at Oxyfood17. My trojan-horse reason was to read a book in the place it was written. This is my travel thing to do, "Invisible Cities" in Venice, Watership Down on the beach where Lost’s Sawyer read it & so on.

LA is different: My first favorite book—the one that made me examine my own emotional landscape—is Francesca Lia Block's Dangerous Angels. In a brazen gesture of fandom, I reached out to her. Told her what I was doing. Like the kind and lovely person I believed her to be, she wrote back with a picture perfect itinerary from a blog with the places that had inspired the book.

I went back in time and stayed at the Culver Hotel . During the 1920’s style happy hour, in one sitting, I read all bits of the 479 page collection. With plenty of freely flowing champagne, of course. I definitely cried on that velvet chaise. Of course.

When I first read this, in 1996, I was 14. That’s 21 years ago. A whole person ago. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the role the book had in putting HIV/AIDS on the radar for white, straight, suburban America. It rewrote the narrative of ‘the gay disease,’ or ‘the junkie disease.’

She was also on the forefront of explaining (to the same demographic) the ridiculousness of immigration/deportation policies, and homophobic attitudes. She made young, white, America ask how could people be illegal? How do we live in a world where people are illegal and love can get you killed?

I plan my pre and post conference adventures around re-reading this book in certain places. I plan around food that features as prominently as any character in the book, like Canters pastrami and pink champagne.

Arguably, The Oki-Dog is the food most widely familiar to Block’s readers. It’s legendary! Yet… 2016 came around & a big old Trump sign went up, and stayed. I can’t give my money there. It isn’t 1996 when Dangerous Angels first came out.

STDs/STIs are much more complicated, and we’re bleeding money for education and treatment. ‘Refugee’ is in ‘the immigration conversation’ in more complex ways, too... increased rates of murder/violence against LGBTQ individuals. It’s not 1996. Many of us live in nightmare bubbles.

I walk by the Le Brea Tar Pits. I see tar (but it is not actually tar) bubbling up through the sidewalk. “They are trapped there forever, it breaks my heart!” (FLB). I walk through The Original Farmer’s Market. I am hot and sleepy because, in a fugue state, this city replaced all the trees with palm trees. Jacarandas are the only shade.

The soil looks like my grandmother’s hands. The layer of concrete on top of the “tar,” or “on the river,” or forever holding the hands of entertainment gods and goddesses… It’s a porcelain tectonic plate. In a town literally and figuratively built on artifice, it is easy to project magic onto this ground.

I ended up doing 9 of the things on FLB’s 50, or so, item list. Some, due to running out of time, and some were closed—pointing again to the ephemeral nature of this place. I didn’t get an Oki Dog. But I sat by this damn pool and reread the words that shaped me as a young thing, back in 1996.

“Believe in your own magic… look stuff right in the eye… All the ghosts and demons are just you…. Look stuff right in the eye” (D.A. 361-362)

“Find kisses about apple pie a la mode with vanilla” 
and have a lot more of those kisses after that. (D.A. 29)

Or, at least, pick up the phone and tell someone you love them. Life is short for us mere mortals. 

Many thanks to Francesca Lia Block for your kindness, your dedication to storytelling and love. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Ground Beneath Her Feet 2/2

In part 1 of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I discussed the palimpsest of me with new tattoo plans. As the proverb goes, I made God laugh. My tattoo artist gently steered me away from what I wanted. Her exact words might have been "will look like unicorn poop," or "bad postcard." Cringe.

"Give me the book." She reached, flipped through it. "What exactly do you love about it so much?"  Reading this book in Venice across from someone I was falling out of love with while Venice was sinking into the sea and I was soaking into thin wine and the sun was falling into me. That.

No mortal can explain this, and that's why it needs a whole book. My exact words might have been "Very Good Really Special Love so much YES." She's looking at me like they let you teach college?

"Okay. Is there a passage you really like?" Is there? "Ok, I'm gonna go look up a couple things. Mark some of your favorite passages, and we'll work from there." She scooted out. I limited myself to a dozen passages. I ranked them. It took less than 3 minutes.

She read the first, talked to me about it. "We can just do these." A humanoid woman was just going to create the worlds Calvino created Marco Polo to create. This was just going to be a thing, like any human can just have it. I'm falling in love with the memory of you already, lady. Two months later, I came back, and it got real.

First and foremost, there is Fedora.  There is always Fedora. 

"In the center of Fedora... stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe." (2: Cities & Desire 4)

Zemrude is the first city that is imagined in such a globe. Partially Zemrude, at least.

"It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form.... For everyone, sooner or later, the day comes when we bring our gaze down along the drainpipes and we can no longer detach it from the cobblestones. The reverse is not impossible, but it is more rare: and so we continue walking through Zemrude's streets with eyes now digging into the cellars, the foundations, the wells." (4: Cities & Eyes 2)

And memory melts Zemrude into Ersilia.

"In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the cities life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade authority, agency." (5: Trading Cities 4)

And in the midst and middle of these sunsets and cities we have the thing that holds it all together. I have changed the noun to protect the innocents who have not yet read this novel. And changed the text, too, in general. It's necessary.

the Khan: "There is still one of which you never speak."
Marco Polo bowed his head.
Marco smiled. "What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?"
The emperor did not turn a hair. "And yet I have never heard you mention that name."
And Polo said: "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about it."
"Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am afraid of losing It all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities I have already lost it, little by little." (pp.86-87)

The things of which palimpsests only dream. Forgive me, time. 
Onward and upward. 
We continue the climb to Zora. 

"Zora has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in its succession of streets, of houses along the streets, and of doors and windows in the houses, though nothing in them possesses a special beauty or rarity. Zora's secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered...." (1: Cities & Memories 4)

At the top of the tower sits Tamara. 

"However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant..." (1: Cities & Signs 1)

Other than the passage with Fedora, and a lengthy talk about elephants in Tamara, we didn't discuss much about the text. I didn't really want to know how she was interpreting what I had marked. Who knows if she was even working off what I read into now. I don't care. 

In the beginning, about Isadora, Calvino writes that "Desires are already memories" (pp. 8). That's a thing I find true. Seems applicable for tattoos, too. This wonderful woman gave me the most beautiful thing I could ever have. Look at that tiny chimney! Look what she did with that writing. Look

She also gave me the best reason to get students to do non-required reading. When they ask, because they inevitably will, I will give them the title and a refusal to discuss until they show proof of reading. Tattoos as pedagogical catalyst. Will research, and report back in one year.