learning languages

A friend's recent post on libraries got me thinking about my own early book-borrowing trips. Our neighborhood branch was not the most glossy or glamorous; in fact, it was probably the least of them, with its unwashed, yellowish facade and cavernous interior. Surrounding the library on all sides was a jungle of a garden, full of tangled weeds and unkempt trees. Usually, a homeless man or two could be seen adrift in the dry grass. But we were there for the books. My brother and I trailed Mom through the peeling doorway before dispersing to our aisles of interest, armed with the cloth tote bags she'd passed out in the car. We filled them all the way up, three or four bags each--you didn't want to have the two of us ahead of you in the checkout line. I remember the feeling of opportunity, of overwhelming bounty, that hit when we returned to the car. Deciding what to open first was never easy, and sometimes I had to read the first page of each of the top contenders to make up my mind. Our enthusiasm for the library was fervent, but unsurprising: for kids who'd grown up without television, books were as good as it got when it came to entertainment. 

Plus, the library had other perks. In the northeast corner of the front yard sat a rickety, tumbledown play set my brother and I were crazy about. Its offerings included a splintering balance beam and a tremulous little slide, but to us the most extravagant of them all was a two-person tire swing, held up by long rusting chains. From June until August, the library had a Summer Reading program, in which prizes were awarded for the number of books one read. These were modest things--library pencil sets, multicolored erasers--but the pursuit of them was thrilling. I was never a sporty kid, and I avoided trips to the local park, mostly for fear of embarrassment. I'd tried and failed twice at sleepaway camp, unaccustomed to the peculiar traditions and flash friendships. During these summers I felt most comfortable spread out on the floor, paperbacks all around, taking breaks to get lost in the neighborhood's alleyways or work on something of my own. 

Later, I graduated to library's second floor. Gone were the miniature tables and fraying area rugs of the children's section; on the top level there were computers and adults and shelves that reached higher than my head. One year I became obsessed with the language section and took out teach-yourself books on Ukrainian, Japanese and Yiddish. None of it stuck, but I enjoyed the experiment. Somewhere between Yiddish and Nabokov, I started to buy books, as I'd begun to annotate in the margins. Now I write so many notes that getting my own copy is an unfortunate necessity. It's also nice to curate my own little library, although it is growing very slowly, as said annotation habit makes me go through books at a snail's pace. Still, a big part of me misses the days when nestling into a corner of the Richmond branch was so satisfying. 

The other night, I went home to my Mom's house for dinner. A bunch of family friends were over, fellow bookish people, and the conversation turned to Tobias Wolff. I'd read his much-anthologized short story "Bullet in the Brain" for a writing class and was floored; now I'm about halfway through the spectacular Old School. To me, the novel is just about linguistically flawless, but what he's writing about is equally captivating. Here the narrator describes the allure of the English professor (I hope my reprinting of it isn't illegal...):

"The other English masters carried themselves as if they too were intimates of Hemingway, and also of Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Donne. These men seemed to us a kind of chivalric order. Even boys without bookish hopes aped their careless style of dress and the ritual swordplay of their speech. And at the headmaster's monthly teas I was struck by the way other masters floated at the fringe of their circle, as if warming themselves at a fire.

How did they command such deference--English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our  math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They'd stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too." 


all i want for christmas is


The good news: I got the internship! The bad news: I'm outta a (paying) job. The store where I worked just closed. Two steps forward in the direction of North Beach, many paychecks back. Need an assistant? A fast typist? A hand-knit scarf, for a reasonable price? I'm your girl.

Busing through the city, I've seen a lot of decorated houses, but nothing quite compares to the one I came across last year in Poughkeepsie. It seems as though it would be difficult to make it to the doorway.

Made dinner with Mart and Elana on Tuesday. Yum! We battled our way to Safeway in the cold to buy ingredients. The thermometer in my house says it is 40 degrees out, but I think it's lying. First we had salad. Martina brought peppermint bark for dessert. In-between pasta course not pictured:

Shaun had a Christmas party last night. Lotsa people, lotsa strobe lights. The combination of sugar cookies and a keg felt somehow appropriate.



Now that it is WINTER BREAK (hallelujah, mazel tov, etc.), I have started to make a mental list of productive things to accomplish so that my time off isn't just spent watching Jon and Kate and eating gingerbread cookies. So far, I have 1) a stack of book recommendations, 2) seeing friends who will be returning to SF from all parts of the world, and 3) spending time with my little brothers, perhaps during tailor-made field trips: the Academy of Sciences for Jordan, a Sinatra movie viewing for Ty. Also competing for a spot on this list are Things I Wish I Enjoyed But Just Don't, which include tidying up the apartment and getting through Dickens novels.

All I wanna do, though, is read. I am hun-gry for raw sentences, dialogue that reads like sound. Chomp. Got time? This is wonderful. You have to get the full issue to finish it, but I promise it's worth it. (And if you are broke like me, reading it curled up in the back aisle of a bookstore is both satisfying and financially prudent.)

Today I had an internship interview in North Beach, which is the San Francisco neighborhood I am least familiar with. I got there an hour early, so I explored the area to pass the time (and calm my nerves). North Beach opens up out of Chinatown without warning, and suddenly the streets are all paint and wide boulevards and art deco shapes. And more Italian restaurants than you can count. And strip clubs. It is an odd mixture of elements, but I was really into it.

Potential place of employment:

 Got Mayan food for dinner with Dad at Mi Lindo Yucatan. When I came back to the apartment, it was freezing. On cold nights in December, there is nothing more enjoyable than 

1) planting your body right in front of a heater,

2) slowly rotating, and

3) getting warm.


this morning

          I had my headphones in as the 24 Divisadero wheeled from Castro and 16th to Duboce, so what I noticed first was not the sound coming from the back of the bus but the way that every head had turned toward it. I put away my iPod; the bus slowed to a halt.
          "She won't wake," yelled a voice, gravelly and uneven. "She won't wake up."
          In one of the rear-facing seats a woman had slumped toward the window. She wore a brown sweater and house slippers. I couldn't see her face--only her dark hair, which had been wound into a bun, and the small rectangle of cinnamon-colored skin underneath.
          "I said she won't wake up," repeated the speaker, a middle-aged black woman in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. She placed her hands on either side of the unconscious woman's head, rolling it back and forth. She let go; the head bounced and hung heavy, unsupported as a stuffed animal's.
          "Stop the bus!" someone shouted.
          "Don't touch her!" cried another.
          "Is she breathing?" asked a white woman with blonde hair and braces, standing.
         "There's a pulse," said the first woman, "but she won't wake."
         "I volunteer at a halfway house," the blonde woman said, clattering down the aisle in a pair of high heels. "I see this type of thing all the time. I'm calling an ambulance."
          The woman in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt pressed her hands to the unconscious woman's cheeks.
          "Wake up," she ordered. "Come on, now. Wake up."
          The blonde woman wedged a cell phone between her ear and shoulder, squinting down at the two seated figures.
          "Yeah, I'd like an ambulance to Castro and Sixteenth. It's an emergency. A woman is unconscious--black, mid 40s--"
          "Fifty-two," said the first woman.
          "Fifty-two, heavy-set, unresponsive--"
          "Has anybody got water?"
          A scruffy-bearded man in a Patagonia sweatshirt offered an aluminum bottle. It read, in block capitals, GO GREEN!
          The first woman shook water out onto her palms, then slapped lightly at the motionless woman's cheeks.
          "Don't do that," said the lady with braces.
          "Shut up," said the other.
          "I'm on the phone with the ambulance. They said not to do that. You should really stop it."
         Water droplets rolled slowly down to the unconscious woman's chin, where they grouped and clung like icicles before puddling on her pants.
          "I told you don't do that," repeated the blonde woman. She covered her mouth and whispered into the phone. "Listen, I can't stop her. Maybe you should send the police over here, too."
          "You sure can't. And you can tell them that, too. Wake up, sister."
          Outside a knot of clouds had bruised purple. The rest of us sat hushed and reverent, staring at the trio in back like people in prayer.
          An ambulance, a fire engine and a cop car careened around the corner, shrieking violently. They skidded to a stop in an open trapezoid.
          "Everybody off the bus!" shouted the driver.
          We all filed out onto the street. The blonde woman hung up her cell phone and left the bus next, picking her way carefully down the ridged stairs. The paramedics jumped out of assorted front and back doors, then ran up the steps with duffel bags full of resuscitation equipment. Only the two black women remained, their turned backs silhouetted against the window.
          We stood on the sidewalk, scattered like stars. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to watch the paramedics fit an oxygen mask's elastic band around the soft skin of the woman's neck.
          Beside me an elderly lady snorted. She wore a fur coat and held a small clasped purse.
          "When I was a girl," she said, "we were taught to ignore the homeless. If you saw someone passed out on the street, you were told to kick them in the boot. Just kick them to see if they'd stir."
          Her voice carried loud through the silence. A white man with a briefcase and large, rabbity teeth walked up to the bus and pressed his nose against the window. Inside the slumped woman's head bobbed unsteadily to and fro, then fluttered, bird-like, to an upright position.
          "She's awake," someone called.
          From the sidewalk the scene was a pantomine. A swarm of paramedic hands grabbed hold of her shoulders, her arms. The woman in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt was pushed out of the aisle as they pulled the patient to her feet, then walked her to the door.
          We all watched as she came out, controlled like a marionette by the arms of others. I don't remember the faces of the paramedics, or the sounds made by the passengers outside, or the way the woman moved. Only this: her eyes, stunned open, the whites round as twin moons. She didn't blink once. The lids seemed peeled back and pinned, like staked butterfly wings.
          She stared at us all with those eyes, even as they carried her up into the back of the ambulance. The driver reopened the doors of the bus. We filed back in, tentatively at first, and sat down in the same seats we had before. Everyone carefully avoided the back seat by the window. The blonde woman with braces sat down next to the old lady in the fur coat, chatting easily. The woman in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt had not left the bus. She walked back and forth through the aisle, then sat down next to the driver, as we all continued on to Duboce.


when blue...

Recipe for self-comfort: 

1. Cut fruit into bits; put in small bowl. (Types of fruit you have to peel, like mangoes or persimmons, are particularly therapeutic--but any kind will do.)

2. Sprinkle with cinnamon. (Or sugar. Or not.)

3. Climb into bed with something to read.

4. Eat slowly.



Last night I went to see my Mom in a play. It was an Albee production, put on by an experimental theater in a converted apartment building. Leah Garchik mentioned the show in her Chronicle column a few days ago, and the building was almost too small for the crowd that showed up. It was so surreal to be inhabiting the same space as the actors; I once caught myself holding my breath. One wrong move or too-loud laugh, I thought, and I'll throw Mom off! I didn't have to worry, of course. Afterward, I walked down Broderick and then took Geary to Divisadero, listening to Frank Sinatra and counting constellations of Christmas lights. This is the very best time to live in the city, I think; but then again, as a holiday person, I'm biased. Tomorrow we'll go to the Three Bees to get a tree. I will be on the hunt for a tiny one to bring back to the apartment. The challenge: to find something under two feet and ten dollars! Mission impossible?

A package from Ali came in the mail yesterday. I tore into it: a Florentine pouch, petite notes, a card with Pantalone! See if you can spot it in the storm of junk that is my desktop. 

Of concern: I am becoming disturbingly clumsy. It all started with the oatmeal incident, when I overturned Nora's Quaker's bin onto the floor. Since then, I've spilled a jug of olive oil, broken two teacups, and fallen in the middle of the street while J-walking. More than once. This morning I knocked my coffee pot onto the floor; it shattered. Something must be done. Maybe this is a sign that I should ballet again.

The past few days have been crazy--I always seem to forget how overwhelming finals week is until I'm in the thick of it. Papers and tests I can handle, but applying to internships is a whole new animal. There is a feeling of total, unavoidable responsibility. It is impossible to say: Well, I didn't really care. I met this morning with the editor of a literary journal, which helped to ease my anxiety. I left with stacks of books, mounds of advice and the warm, full feeling that comes with genuine conversation. And I felt amazed at the kindness in people, the way that can feel from a stranger. We should all give books away. And meet to talk about things--no emailing required. They're free, these words, in all of their forms. We forget sometimes: gratis! What better reason to write?


hello, goodbye

I have found the perfect winter coat. It is turtlish* in both form and function, providing optimum insulation and the potential for facial privacy.

* Turtlish is probably not an actual word. However, it is listed on urbandictionary.com as meaning "Like a turtle; having to do with a turtle." (Accompanying sample sentences: "That turtle is so turtlish. You are so turtlish.")