Taking my Grandpa to the Cerritos Library

Grandpa reading.

The Cerritos Library employs a small army of vigilant volunteers who patrols the stacks with straight backs and stern expressions that become sterner if its bearer spies a prohibited Starbucks cup or neon bag of Cheetos. They interrupt the quiet yet unfocused studies of various sleepy, glum-faced students and say, “Sir/Miss, you’re not allowed to have that. Please throw it away outside.” It is no wonder the Library, though having been renovated nearly a decade ago, is still pristine. Continue reading “Taking my Grandpa to the Cerritos Library”

Because Other People Do it Better (Writing about New York Edition): Adam Gopnik

Very Highbrow New York

In my personal statements for certain schools, I’m asked to list authors who’ve influenced me – and even though I’m afraid of the admissions people reading my list and then reading my writing sample and saying, “Well here’s a shameless imitator,” I have to be honest. Influences are influences, and of the many essayists I read and love (David Sedaris, Betsy Lerner, Joan Didion, Joseph Epstein, et. al.), Adam Gopnik stands out above the rest.  Continue reading “Because Other People Do it Better (Writing about New York Edition): Adam Gopnik”

Barack and Genevieve

“The sexual warmth is definitely there — but the rest of it has sharp edges, and I’m finding it all unsettling and finding myself wanting to withdraw from it all. I have to admit that I am feeling anger at him for some reason, multi-stranded reasons. His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness — and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.”

From the 1984 diaries of Genevieve Cook, one of Barack Obama’s ex-girlfriends 

I don’t know who she is, but I respect and admire her tremendously. And I will buy this book in hardback and read it from cover to cover the day it comes out. If I could, I would buy Genevieve Cook’s diary.

This morning, I read this post in the NY Times, which led me to this article in Vanity Fair, a magazine I stopped subscribing to but will now pick up again. 

I thought about a lot of things: first, that I should be more serious about journaling, not because I am dating anyone on the verge of greatness (though, who knows… perhaps I am) but because, as Genevieve Cook’s diaries indicate, a lover writing of her beloved produces some of the sharpest, most lucid and beautiful prose. The kind that blurs the divide between poetry and prose.  There is no audience – let me correct myself – the audience is the writer herself. 

“How is he so old already, at the age of 22? I have to recognize (despite play of wry and mocking smile on lips) that I find his thereness very threatening. Distance, distance, distance, and wariness.”

Lucid does not mean accurate. Barack’s demeanor to her could have been and probably was completely different from what he showed others, but I doubt any biographer, reporter, or profiler could get as full an account of anyone – especially someone as reserved as the President is portrayed to be – than a lover who writes. Barack was a lover too, and he wrote, but I doubt his pen was as focused on their love as hers was. And even if the focus was tantamount, Genevieve, I think, saw more. She had foresight:

“I’m left wondering if Barack’s reserve, etc. is not just the time in his life, but, after all, emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience.

Not only could Genevieve see herself from the outside, but also she could see beyond them and see into two separate futures. I’d like to say this is a woman writer’s prophetic talent, but it has nothing to do with being male or female and everything to do with the nature of ambition and the limits of introspection. Barack loved her but more so he loved a long brewing idea of himself – a portrait he, a consummate artist, was still painting. 


Self Portrait, 1930 Edward Hopper Oil on Canvas 

This limited his view of her. The irony is that this period in our President’s life is seen as one of growth and development, of shape-shifting. He was contemplating the road less-taken (and truly, is there a road less taken?  Only 43 had traveled that road before he did), yet without knowing it, was molding himself into someone strangely predictable despite his perceived mystery, someone whose future partner could be found and fitted in snugly, like the missing piece of a moderately difficult jigsaw puzzle.  

And here is Michelle, succinctly drawn up even before Barack meets her

“Hard to say, as obviously I was not the person that brought infatuation. (That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!)”

 The young serious lover has a special perch, which, if I were asked to place it on the human body, would be roughly, where we as elementary school children pressed our right hands over our hearts during the Pledge of Allegiance. That is essentially where you stand as a hopeful young-but-serious lover: closer to his heart than his head, but not so far away from the latter that you can’t sense something stirring, some thought or ambition that could take him away from you. Sometimes it is a role so distinctly defined that once he assumes it, there is no looking back. The suit is buttoned, the tie tied tight, the papers signed and delivered that life stepped into, like a hot, steaming shower with a heavy glass door. Sometimes another hand turns on the faucet before you can say, “Life.” You are either with him or not.  

If not, you no longer stand on his breastbone. You, outside, can only put your hands on the glass and wonder at the figure shrouded in mist. 

“Barack — still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled.”

I have been a young lover, but never a young, serious lover. I have written seriously my
share of studies of real men I have come to know and then not know, my writer’s conscious crouched near my heart, in the hollow of my collarbone, at the base of my throat. I have turned real men into fictions and watched, with a calm acceptance that surprises even me, as the real men walked away or I away from them. 

This has nothing to do with being male or female but with a very different kind of role. Am I more like Barack or am I Genevieve? At what point will I say, I am who I am meant to become and find the missing piece? Perhaps never. 

So for those who are loved by writers, be wary. Don’t be afraid to love her back, but be wary. Know this: a writer will consume you with every sense at her disposal. From the moment you meet, onto paper, blogs, stories both true and not, and into her memory. You are being written.  

Jo Painting 1936, Edward Hopper Oil on Canvas 

My Father’s Stories

Somewhere in between high school and my second year at college, I stopped reading fiction. Not altogether – a small number of brilliant novels made its way into my hands via persistent recommendations from friends and family – but very, very rarely now, compared to my youth when fiction was all I would read. As a young girl visiting the library, I would make a beeline for the new fiction section. If it seemed I’d already gone through the choicest ones, I’d make my way to the back shelves. But I never wandered beyond the shelves marked “Fiction and Literature.” My memory is poor, but perhaps I have done that walk so many times this impression could not help but be ingrained: I remember one evening, hurrying past the biographies and wrinkling my nose in distaste at the thick tomes about real people. “Why would anyone want to read about real people when there is so much great fiction?”

My father was a hypocritical detractor of this mindset. He would shake his head whenever I walked in with a bag full of novels and say, “That stuff doesn’t grow your brain. It makes you dream,” and I’d roll my eyes and say that he had no heart. Fiction builds character, I said. Why do you think I’m so amazing?
I say hypocritical because my father grew up on a steady diet of classical Chinese literature – all of it fiction. You may know the most famous: The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Romance ofthe Three Kingdoms, and Journey tothe West – impossibly long and complicated stories written back then by people with plenty of time and imagination, for people with plenty of time and growing imaginations.

My favorite scene from “The Polar Express.” 

As a grown man with thoughts of career and family, he stopped reading fiction, but he never stopped thinking about it. I have often said that I remember little of my father from my childhood, though if I were to excavate the loose grey matter I hardly use, I would find him exactly where I needed him most.

He often picked me up from daycare and, if he came home later (though always in time for dinner), he would come bearing a large stack of children’s books from the palatial Cerritos Library. When we lived in the city, he took me there on weeknights or Sunday afternoons so that I could make my own choices and I will never forget that magical wing, designed to mimic a medieval castle with turrets filled with thin, colorful spines, each bearing a tale, not necessarily a lesson. But after we moved to a city some thirty minutes away, he often stopped by on his way home from work and picked out books with what he hoped was a discerning eye. To be honest, I don’t remember many of the books – The Polar Express, The Velveteen Rabbit and The Vanishing Pumpkin stand out (going online to see the covers of these books now, for some reason makes me cry) – but collectively, they comprised a lovely childhood.

What’s more, my father told us stories – at least, he tried to. It is a running joke in our family that my brother and I ought to know those stories by heart, at least the Journey to the West, because my father boasts of having played raconteur to us each night around bedtime. And he did, we do, but only parts. He always fell asleep after three or four lines so we never heard the ending. How did the sly monkey and pious monk get to the West? More than anything my brother and I know the sound of his snores, which now blend seamlessly with our perception of that tale. I know now, from Chinese school and later studies that the monk, the pig and the monkey eventually reached their destination, but it is vague to me, unlike my father’s introduction to the story, which still rings loud and clear. Indeed, you must be able to recall the fables and other bedtime stories your parents told you as a child – perhaps you never even set eyes on the words but you remember them and the images they evoke. It becomes innate – the stories as much a part of your genetic makeup as your hair and bones, your heart.

For years I rolled my eyes at my father, thinking he would never understand me because I loved novels and he seemed only to ever read business books and magazines, but looking back, I realize I had forgotten the source of this love. 

My Kind of Bookstore

Bookworks, Chicago  

I like to read. It follows that I like bookstores. I’m not picky: If it’s got books, great. My kind of bookstore. But if it’s got used books, oh my God banana pants, fireworks from my heart and eyes.

In New York there was Shakespeare and Co. right down the street from the building in which I took Astronomy 101 (my first and last F – in college!). I spent many a rainy afternoon in there, browsing through books about depressed lonely girls, knowing I looked like an advertisement for Prozac. It wasn’t a used bookstore, just an independent bookseller with wonderful dark, wooden shelves, warm lighting, and that smell only certain well-loved bookstores have.

Then in Berkeley, I discovered Moe’s, a four-story behemoth of used books. They had a small selection of diaries, postcards, and new and notable best sellers, but I loved Moe’s for the breadth of what it offered in terms of literature. I rediscovered the classics, only because there were so many versions, sold by English majors past – or perhaps those people from other majors that dabble in English courses and, unlike English majors, could actually bear to part with their books. Moe’s stands today because I, along with dozens of other literary hopefuls, bought ten books every other week. (I say dozens because we Moe’s frequenters often saw each other’s familiar faces). There is nothing I love more, in a used bookstore, than opening front covers and seeing a very affordable price, usually a 6.- with a dash, very euro style – on the title page.

If I miss ANYTHING about Berkeley, it’s that bookstore, and the other two I frequented – Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Ave., purely for browsing, and Half-Price Books and Pegasus in my final semester because Moe’s, on South Side, was simply too far to visit as often as I’d liked. But Moe’s – I carry the memory of its familiar red and white striped sign and its endless, bountiful shelves in my heart of hearts. 

I didn’t intend to go bookstore browsing in Chicago, but Alicia and I were waiting for an Improv show to start and wandered past this gem. I noticed it, but didn’t ask to go in, but was relieved when Alicia grabbed my arm and said, “HEY! Let’s check this out!”

You can tell a lot about a person by what they look for in a bookstore. Alicia called out right away, “Do you have any books on organic farming?”

I thought about the books I had yet to read at home and the pain I’d cause myself if I were to go on one of my usual book-buying binges and have to haul all the loot home. I love books. I love used bookstores and believe we should support them absolutely – all bookstores, actually – but my carry-on would stay a carry on. I wandered through the shelves and thought how much Bookworks reminded me of Moe’s.

I went up to the register and asked the man, “Do all you used bookstores know of each other?”

He shrugged.

I said, “Moe’s? In Berkeley? Have you heard of Moe’s?”

He shook his head and I was disappointed in him. But then he furrowed his brow.

“I know of Pegasus in Berkeley.”

I almost shrieked because it was like meeting someone in another country and realizing you have a mutual friend. I went to Pegasus, located on the same corner as a bus stop for the 51. I would stand on the corner and wait and wait, and the damn bus would take forever, and I KNEW I would miss the bus if I went into the bookstore, but I’d go in, start browsing, and two 51’s would ramble by. That’s life.

If I were a denizen of Chicago, Bookworks would be a frequent haunt, a good friend. 

Instead I was a tourist:

Not someone I’ve read or will read or look up to in particular (except while snapping this photo). His legion of thrift-store clad fans at my alma mater who felt like they were special because they understood/got through “Howl” sort of turned me off to him. But he has an interesting face. As does the chimpanzee (do you see it?).
I realize the filters I put on this photo make it seem like a haunted, prison library. (“And from that pipe is where ole’ Johnny Scarface hanged himself…” ) But it was much warmer than this. But I do like haunted prison libraries. 
Crazy postcards. If this turns up in your mailbox and someone writes “I’m thinking about you,” they are creepy, and also, probably me. 

“Practical Chess Openings,” vs. “Impractical Chess Openings.” Story of my life.

I kind of wish I bought this.
Here is the link that explains why they did not make it big. I’m no Jazz connoisseur, but 240 views on Youtube sort of means dead.

I don’t know who’s creepier: he (with his crazy receding hairline and half-assed mullet) or me, furtively snapping a picture from a stand filled with children’s books. Probably him. 


For your address book:
Bookworks 
3444 N. Clark
Chicago, IL, 60657

Quote of the Day

“Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love.”

George Eliot (1819-1880), British Novelist. Middlemarch, book 2, chapter 15 (1871).