Hemingway

I’ve been reading Hemingway again, the short stories in particular. When I was a kid, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was one of my favorite novels. I must have read it three or four times before I finally moved on. I’m not sure why I stopped reading Hemingway. I read “A Farewell to Arms” but wasn’t as taken with it as I was with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and that ended my interest. In high school, I read some sort of writing book in which he was cited. His advice was to cut down the sentence to nothing. I kind of wish I knew which textbook it was that we read. I distinctly remember it being in an AP Language and Literature class during my junior year, but I could be mistaken.

For some reason, his advice stayed with me. I suppose this was mostly because I had loved “For Whom the Bell Tolls” so much, and revered him for a time.

The story that stays with me now is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” as well as “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In each of these stories, there’s a wonderful sense of tension that is not necessarily resolved. I think Hemingway’s talent is letting the story end without making it end. So many modern stories have an ending instead of being open ended, which takes something away. You can’t often really say what Hemingway’s stories are about, which is what makes him so great to read.

Happy holidays.

Cool leg, cute dog, hot mom, great family

On Halloween, I was in Westwood with my buddy Chris, eating at a place I had gone to in 2006. I hadn’t been to Westwood for about two years, and considering I used to go there every day to see my girlfriend (a two hour commute one way), it was a pretty important place for about a year.

Chris and I went to a really funky thrift store called the Thank-You Mart and bought a bunch of stuff for our Halloween costumes (read: bought ultra glam clothes for him, pink ultra tight girl’s shirt, beret, sunglasses, and bandana for me), and then we walked around the UCLA campus for a bit. Between our shopping (I also got an awesome purple polka dot tie for $4) and our excursion on campus, we went to this cafe. We probably should have gone to the place next door, which looked more expensive but also looked like it had better service and better food, but what can you do when nostalgia strikes?

It turned out to be a good thing that we ate at this cafe, because right as we sat down, I saw the coolest family. A woman and her husband and their two sons sat down next to us, and the older son, who was about five (I’m notoriously bad at gauging kids’ ages) had a prosthetic leg. The amazing thing about his leg was that it looked like a multi-colored robotic leg, like something you would build out of Legos when you were a kid. It was so awesome. I wish I had taken a picture. It didn’t even try to hide the fact that it was a prosthetic leg – even the joints were super visible, so it totally looked colorfully makeshift (it was purple, I think). I ended up telling his mom (who was gorgeous, by the way, and looked like little running water), that the boy’s leg was cool, and she asked him, “What do you say to that?” He ended up saying thank you. I don’t think he was mad at me for bringing it up. At least his mom wasn’t.

What’s nice about this experience is that this kid’s mom and dad are treating him like a normal person and taking away the stigma of disability. I mean, who wouldn’t want a robotic leg!? If I’m jealous of this kid’s fake leg, the parents are doing something right! I watched a great TED talk about prosthetics and disability by Aimee Mullins (who had both of her legs amputated below the knee) recently, during which she elaborated on her twelve pairs of prosthetic legs. She told a great story about how she has legs made that can make her taller, and that when she wore them to a party, her friend said that it wasn’t fair that she could make herself taller at will. I think that’s an important thing – that we’re no longer seeing disability in a negative light, that we’re no longer projecting negative stereotypes onto people who are wholly capable of functioning in our society, even without legs or arms, etc.

While we were eating, the little boy kept running around his father, who was holding his younger brother, playing peekaboo and generally having a really good time. They also had a really nice black poodle, whom the mother, in response to my “Is that your dog?” described as, “Well, it’s really his dog,” referring to the boy with the super amazing leg. She was also super hot. Did I mention that?

I was totally jealous of how happy their family seemed to be, even in the midst of what could have been something really negative. It’s not often that I see such a well adjusted family. To be honest, I rarely see happy families, which made this encounter all the more amazing. I guess I’m also reflecting on my own lack of family, or at least my own lack of caring, stable, happy family. Let’s not even try to bring in the inevitable Tolstoy allusion.

I was thinking about LRW a lot that day, seeing as we were in Westwood and all. I told Chris that she looked like the hot mom, and he was impressed (although I don’t want to play to assumptions about how I want to potentially show off this whole age difference, which I don’t care about), but I obviously was not telling the truth. I mean, sure, they look kind of alike, but not necessarily so. LRW is paler and has nice eyes and never calls, but that’s just the selfishness talking right about now.

Little running water is also a stupid codename, because it has no relation at all to anything, but I like it. Don’t you?

Writing as vocation, not entertainment

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve come face to face with what it is I am doing. Because I’m not in an MFA program and I don’t have any deadlines, the act of writing has to be one of voluntary immersion, not forced acceptance. There’s a great pleasure in the realization that this is my work, and that I cannot excuse myself from it. If I want to be a writer, I have to write. Like many people, I think I believed that I was a writer, but I never acknowledged it to myself in a self-affirming way. I didn’t think of it as a job. The importance of placing writing on a level with work places it in a position of power. I’m not just a guy who writes; I’m a writer.

That said, I’ve been spectacularly failing myself. I’ve done some work, but it hasn’t been enough to achieve what I’ve wanted. I keep reading really bad pieces in respectable publications like The Kenyon Review and Narrative, and I think to myself that I can do better, but I haven’t done anything. I haven’t sent out submissions since January. At some point in time, I’m going to have to actually do something. No one likes a critic who can’t back himself up.

I’ve been noticing that I can differentiate writers who have been writing for decades between those who’ve been writing for a much shorter time. I read an article somewhere recently (can’t remember who wrote it or where it was) that discussed the style of writing intrinsic to younger writers. Younger writers, this writer said, were only concerned with the self – there was no description of scene or setting. He said that young writers were writing about their feelings instead of what they saw, about how they felt instead of what made them feel. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, he said that there’s an enormous preoccupation with the self that has become clearer recently. To me, this is most evident in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation.” It is also clear in Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” but Eggers work is, in actuality, a piece of genius, while Wurtzel makes me laugh.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many good writers lately, because everything I read in publications just seems horrible. There are too many people who are writing, and frankly, I can’t see how they are chosen for prizes and publication. It’s like they’re playing at being writers, but only doing it halfway, so that the end result is a story that gives only half of what it should. I’m instantly bored with most writers under the age of thirty, which makes me sad because I should be supporting them, but I just can’t handle their work.

Here’s a good example of a story that was literally painful to read: Shark, by Rachel Yoder, which was published in The Kenyon Review. Does she actually need to punch us in the face with the fact that the narrator is discovering his homosexuality? There’s an enormous lack of subtlety in that story, and it grated on me.

That’s all I got for now.

The MFA application season is upon us

Time is going by so fast. I just graduated, god damn it. It hasn’t been nearly six months. Today, Seth posted a new post on the MFA Blog about where people are applying, which prompted me to think back towards what I was doing this time last year.

All I remember is the Honors Thesis class, and the brutal workload of taking six classes, being in class for 23 hours each week. My relationship was dead. We barely saw each other. I learned how to think. I impressed people with my writing. Bharati Mukherjee provided excellent commentary on my essays and treated our class like professionals. That was refreshing. I made progress. Some weeks I only saw J once in seven days. I wasn’t yet starving. I wasn’t yet alone.

Etcetera

My father returns from Russia today. He’s been gone since June 20th. I hope things improve, but I’m not sure how that will happen. Apparently, he’s been receiving more messages about work here in LA, so if all goes well, we’ll be working on a production within the next three or four months. My tutoring hours have been steadily dwindling, partly because the students are lazy and don’t show up. I’ll get new students next week, and I’m also doing more work with an individual student on his application essays.

Still working on that essay for the Narrative submission. The going is tough.

A list of inconseqential irrelevancies and trivialities

It’s midnight and I’m thinking about the past, about things that must be done before I go to bed. For what must be the fourth or fifth time, I’ve gone to school to find the office I need to talk to closed. I’ve gone to Borders too many times instead of going home to get some work done. Although reading Margaret Atwood is always enjoyable, I haven’t been writing or revising, I haven’t been workshopping. I have residency applications due in less than two weeks, which means I have to send them out in about a week, and I’ve yet to come up with a cohesive set of project ideas, much less a writing sample.

Then there are logistical things to worry about: how am I going to pay the application fees, should I considering reapplying to MFAs this year, why haven’t I submitted anything to any publication in over six months? I really have only myself to blame, for all these problems, so I’ll stick to that.

A lot of these posts are strictly for me, though some are for others. I have no idea how many days my hair has been growing. 130 days seems like it was a long time ago. My hair now curls at the back of my neck and flows over my ears.

Brief post – 16

A couple of days ago I went to my old community college to put up tutoring flyers. I forgot that the office closes at 2pm, and I think I got there at 3pm, so it was a waste of time. I decided I’d go to the Borders bookstore at the mall to read for a few hours instead of heading home immediately.

The bus service in this town is very bad. I think I must have waited half an hour for the bus to come, and then there were so many people on the bus that I got the last open seat. Interesting fact: no one likes to sit next to you on public transportation here or in Los Angeles, whereas in the Bay Area, sharing public transportation space is welcomed and not stigmatized.

The last person to get on the bus after me was a girl whom I should have given my seat to, but didn’t. I felt bad for a moment but rationalized it by thinking that the transfer station was only a mile away. In retrospect, it was a good idea to stay in my seat. She was standing in front of me, by the front door, and right next to her, a Latina girl, maybe three or four years old, was playing with her purse. The Latina kept looking at this girl, who happened to be Asian, and smiling, and I swear to you, the older girl smiled back and it was like that extra bit of goodwill you need once a day. I could look at that smile all day.

I sat there for the remainder of the ride, looking at the two while they interacted. The little girl kept asking questions and shyly smiling at the older girl, and the older girl kept giving her these huge grins of the whitest teeth I have ever seen. I sat there mesmerized for the whole seven minutes. It just made me happy to see someone interact with a child in that way, by being open and kind, and most of all by smiling. I really wanted to talk to her, but then I got off the bus and walked past her on the way to the bookstore. Coward!

In my last post, I talked about how I don’t ever talk to anyone I find attractive. I ended up standing outside the bookstore for a good five to ten minutes, deliberating whether or not to go back and talk to this girl. It’s hot, I’m standing on the sidewalk, turning both ways and walking one way before turning around and walking the other way, and finally I decide to go back and get on the same bus she’s going to get on, because it will take me home.

Turned out the bus wasn’t there on time because, as usual, it was late. I actually walked past her again, because I was such a nervous wreck, and went to the bathroom at the station before walking back and starting up a conversation.

Turns out she’s also an immigrant, from Vietnam, and her name is Duan (pronounced Juan, as in Don Juan, as in the Lord Byron satiric poem, the title of which is pronounced with an emphasized J), and she’s only been here for a couple of years. We talked for about five minutes, and I asked about school and tried to keep up a conversation. In the end, the bus came, and right when she was about to head off, I asked her how old she was. I had this strange feeling in the back of my head, you know, like I needed to make sure. She’s sixteen.

I felt really awkward for a moment right there. Awkward and really old. This isn’t about getting laid though. I saw some sort of goodness in this girl when she was talking to the little one on the bus and it struck me that she’s so young and perfectly idealistic and not jaded. I needed to talk to someone like that for a moment. I think we lose our sense of idealism and romanticism, and although I still have those to some extent, I hadn’t seen much of those qualities in anyone around me for so long. I don’t want to believe that idealism disappears once you grow older.

I doubt I’ll see her again, and that’s fine. I’m sure she’ll make somebody really happy in the future. It’s one of those things I think about a lot – does age matter? You see people fifteen, twenty years apart in age, and you wonder, how? But here we are, nine year difference. Here I am, thinking about someone who is younger than anyone I’ve ever dated, someone who is still in high school, taking college courses, probably on the way to a great school, a great future, a lot of good things. I wonder what it would be like to be in a relationship with someone at this stage in her life.

It’s a strange thing, I thought to myself. I’d be 30, she’d be 21. But how would that play out in the meantime, in the five years it takes to get there? People go through extreme changes during this time. I wonder how that relationship would play out. Don’t you? In some ways I know I would feel left out when she’d go off to college or whatever, but I also think about the idea of being there for someone during that time. It doesn’t make sense. It’s all stuck in my head and I haven’t slept for thirty one hours and somehow I’m still making some meager amount of sense. This was supposed to be a short entry.

What am I trying to get across here? That I’m a Humbert Humbert, salivating over some nymphet but unwilling to see her transition into a fully fledged reality? Or maybe I’m just seeing the beauty in someone who hasn’t yet been damaged, a small piece of life.

I found ya!

Please read this article

Two weeks ago, Newsweek ran this article, by an undocumented student who was forced to drop out of Berkeley after one semester because of financial hardship. I wish there had been more interaction between undocumented students at Cal. While there was probably nothing anyone could have done for her, at least she would have had support from those of us who were in the same situation. I know what it’s like to want something so badly and then to have to let it go. I did spend three and a half years at community college before transferring to Berkeley.

The good thing about this article is it shows how driven undocumented students are. We are not here to steal your wages or destroy your country. We’re here to make a life for ourselves which includes the possibility of going to college, falling in love, getting married, and everything else Americans take for granted, including the right to a driver’s license and federal aid. I’m sure that this girl will eventually return to Berkeley to earn her degree, and that she will succeed.

Every immigration related article or post or youtube video that has enabled comments inevitably receives comments from people who are afraid of immigrants, notwithstanding the fact that most Americans are descended from immigrants. How ironic. Most of these posters know few arguments besides the argument of “invasion” and “ILLEGALS ARE TAKING OUR JOBS!!!!” It’s disheartening to see so many people swayed by fear. I’m definitely going to get some bigot commenting about how I should stop stealing his job and go home, much like I did when I posted something about the DREAM act a couple of months ago.

Then there are those who think that becoming “legal” is as simple as following some sort of quick, painless, but expensive process. Most of these people have no idea how much time I and other “illegal” and undocumented immigrants have spent trying to figure out this supposedly “easy” process. Think before you speak, that’s all I ask. Look through immigration procedure and tell me how easy this process is. Tell me that if you were in my situation, you’d have already figured it all out, or would have gone back to your country. It’s easy to say something like that when you don’t have to make the hard decision.

The value of education

Graduating from Berkeley gave me no special skills. I’ve come to the conclusion that the two years I spent there have not benefited me as considerably as I would have liked to believe earlier. Whatever prestige I receive from its name recognition, the school has provided little advantage, not only in the job market, but in my estimation of the skills I learned while being a student there. The two most important skills I learned at Berkeley were how to think critically and how to avoid ending sentences with prepositional phrases (which I still do, ironically). You might find that surprising, but the combination of those skills has engendered greater benefits than anything else at school.

I’m ambivalent about college degrees in general. What is the point of having an English or Russian or Spanish or Religious Studies degree? Maybe I should be asking, what is the point of a humanities degree? After graduation, I’ve been doing what I love, writing. Did I need a degree to write? I don’t believe so. The only thing I believe is that the friends I made at Berkeley and the mentors I got to work with influenced me in ways I could not have imagined. The degree itself, the idea of going to “Berkeley,” is overrated, but the experience is not. Am I the only one who sees a slight distinction here?

I went to Berkeley for several reasons: I wanted to impress someone, I wanted to go to the “best school,” I wanted to be able to get a good job after graduation, and right before I chose to apply there, I wanted to go there to be an English major. None of those reasons are good reasons to do something, except maybe perhaps the desire to be an English major and to write.

The one reason having a degree from Berkeley (and particularly an English degree) is good is that when I advertise my tutoring services, I can advertise that I am a Berkeley grad. This is my biggest selling point, besides my 800 score on the old-style Verbal portion of the SAT. I don’t think that having a degree from a well-respected institution automatically gives you credit for being a good teacher, and I always try to live up to that standard.

I made good friends, and I think I became a better writer through reading the writing of those friends, and through their feedback. Compared to the writers I met at community college, the writers at Berkeley were far better, which is also ironic because we were all transfer students. In general, I think writers at community colleges will not impress anyone but themselves, with the exceptions being those writers who move on to be serious in their art.

Sadly, there were people at Berkeley who didn’t care about writing. These people took up valuable workshop space and wasted the time of those of us who had tried to do our best in order to improve our art. These people viewed workshops as “easy grades,” no more, no less. Let me put it this way: for them, writing was a form of entertainment, something they could do on occasion, not something they’d work at every day for the rest of their lives, like some of my classmates.

The same goes for people who took part in the English Undergraduate Association on campus, and some people who participated in the Berkeley Poetry and Fiction Reviews. They thought it would be “cool” and would enhance their resume.

Arguments? Opinions?