The story of our time and the City of Ourselves

At Home in Venice, Los Angeles

In search of a suitable port for Spanish galleons coming from Manila, Antonio de la Ascension arrived on the island of Santa Catalina with Spanish troops in 1602. Ascension recorded one of the first written historical accounts of Los Angeles and it’s native peoples, who would later be called the Gabrielinos, after the San Gabriel Mission.  Antonio de la Ascension recorded the encounter in “Along the Coast, 1602” published in Los Angeles: Biography of a City.

The soldiers ran all over the island and in one part of it fell in with a place of worship or temple where the natives perform their sacrifices and adoration. When the soldiers reached this place inside the circle there were two large crows, larger than ordinary, which flew away when they saw strangers, and alighted on some nearby rocks. One of the soldiers, seeing their size aimed at them [the crows] with his harquebus, and discharging it, killed them both. When the Indians saw this they began to weep and display great emotion. In my opinion, the Devil talked to them through these crows because all the men and women hold them in great fear and respect.

Ascension depicted a very violent genesis of a city where cultures have always seemed to clash and collide. Today, over eighty languages are spoken in the City of Angels. Culture clash is a way of life. In his, inaugural address, “A City of Purpose” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa  affirmed, “Los Angeles is not only the one city that best embodies bold dreams. It is the destination of people’s imaginations, all around the world, whether or not they ever set foot here.” For some Los Angeles is a dream of promised American ideals and for others it is a nightmare of urban sprawl and catastrophe. In commemorating the death of Raymond Chandler, the LA Weekly also commemorates El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Judith Freeman in her article, “Raymond Chandler: 50 Years Dead,” writes:

He said he was the first to write about Los Angeles in a realistic way. To write about a place, he said, you have to love it, or hate it, or both, alternately, the way you do a woman. Vacuity and boredom were futile. L.A. never bored him. He found it banal, maybe, but never vacuous. He both loved it (when he first arrived in 1912) and hated it (by the time he left in 1946), until finally, he said, it became a tired old whore to him. Never mind that he, more than any other writer, helped to turn Our Lady of the Queen of Angels into a woman of the night. He got this city better than anybody else, its rhythms and rudeness, its gas stations filled with wasted light, the houses in canyons hanging in the blackness, the smell of the air, the feel of the winds, the very pulse of the place, which is why his novels never seem dated: He captured the essence of the city, not just its temporal surface…

Toward the end of his life Chandler said, “The story of our time isn’t the story of war or the atomic bomb. It’s the story of an idealist married to a gangster and how their children and home life turn out.” He could be describing The Sopranos.

Only it isn’t The Sopranos. It’s us. It’s the story of our time, just as he said, the unending and timeless tale of America, with its idealists on one end of the ideological spectrum, and its gangsters on the other, be they Wall Street crooks or your ordinary garden-variety thugs. We are the children he spoke of. And we are still waiting, 50 years after Chandler’s death — with ever more urgent concerns filling our minds — to see just how our collective home life will turn out.

Seismically fractured and infinitely diverse, the experiences Angelenas/os face are not strictly unique to the City of Angels but mirror the world. Chandler knew this and gave us to ourselves. His words still haunt a city that represents the very best and the very worst of our nation. Our City of Angels, the place that I called home for so long, will always be a reflection of ourselves and our inextricable links to [an]other.

Review of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism

From The GoodReads Review:

Pico Iyer opened his New York Times review of Yiyun Li’s latest novel, The Vagrants saying:

All the world’s stories are America’s stories now, and this constant glory of our literature; as never before in our lifetimes, so many histories flooding into America, and so many Americans going out to claim the world as an extension of their homes, that our imaginations are being stretched (one hopes) along with the words we use, the wisdoms we inhabit, the sounds and philosophies we can begin to reinvent. What Barack Obama represents on the global stage, those of his generation and younger (from Kenya, from the Dominican Republic, from Korea) are bringing to life on the planetary page.

From our Latino landscapers, to our South or South East Asian nurse technicians, to our U.S. Banks inextricably intertwined with international banks, as Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there” because “there” is here, and the other is us. The world is hot, flat, and crowded, so says Tom Friedmann. How do we stay cool, calm, and compassionate? Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a philosophy and world view in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which outlines how we can stretch our imaginations, why we should inhabit the sounds and philosophies different from our own, and how we can reinvent ourselves and our worldview while we struggle to co-exist on this shrinking, ozone-depleted, big, blue ball. Like our 44th president and like most people of younger generations, including myself, Appiah is of mixed race. His mother, English, his father from Ghana, Appiah was raised in his father’s homeland and currently teaches at Princeton University. In Cosmpolitanism he speaks compassionately and honestly about pluralism; his philosophy obviously and insightfully infused with his own multiracial, multi-cultural, and multi-national heritage.

Filled with critical examinations about how we are all inter-connected, whether we like it or not, debates on cultural property, evaluations of facts versus faith, and questions against our own prized rationalism, Appiah succinctly defines his philosophy of Cosmopolitanism at the beginning of the text as: “the one thought that cosmopolitans share is that no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilites to every other.” Though he warns at the beginning, “There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.” His philosophical treatise is crammed with enlightened and engaging anecdotes about his father’s tribe, the Akan, and stories he’s heard from colleagues or lifted from the news. Appiah, overall, makes a strong case in explaining his philosophical ideals, yet at the conclusion he problematizes his thesis when he tries to argue why we should be responsible for another life clear across the big blue ball.

In the concluding chapter he bookends his thesis with a reference to a Balzac story, Pere Goirot, and this fiction is his last scrap of evidence to reason a pressing yet stubbornly abstract argument. Why use fiction as support, especially when trying to convince us to make living, breathing connections across a very real and often volatilely physical world? As a fiction writer, I’m honored that a philosopher would turn to story-telling and invoke, therefore virtually vindicate a genre often excused as anachronistic entertainment. Appiah pays tribute to the magic that stories conjure. He praises how fiction allows us to imagine alternatives in what could otherwise be a cold and unforgiving world. Still, this nod to stories and their import is at the cost of his entire thesis, and, as a Composition instructor, as well, in the end, his case doesn’t hold water if he’s going to refer to the make-believe.

Students in my Argument & Research were assigned to read and write about Appiah’s book, and they grappled with complex ideas, seeming to be genuinely interested in the principles Appiah critiqued and proposed. Inspired by Appiah’s sincere and compassionate treatise, I was able to develop some very creative and urgently relevant formal writing assignments. As a class, we were all humbled by the complexity and diversity of humanity, and, as Appiah so gently nudged us to do, we actively felt more connected to the world at large. Mission accomplished!

A Gen Xer’s Comeuppance

Excerpt from article posted on Ruelle Electrique:

Holland Cotter’s recent New York Times article, “Passion of the Moment: A Triptych of Masters” on the Boston Museum’s latest exhibit “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice” is so brilliantly written, like a searing, soaring comet, we are urged to turn our gaze from our daily activities and pay closer attention to a specific corner of our artistic universe.

Titian first poked his head into our stunted and skewed Reality Bites in the 1990’s while we tripped through pseudo-scholarly undergraduate studies on the sun-beaten campus of UCLA. In Renaissance & Baroque Art, a survey class taken to fulfill our Humanities GEs, we snickered and yawned when our professor, whose name, unfortunately, is long-forgotten, tasked our ignorant Generation X for equating the great Renaissance artists with four ninja-fighting turtles. In a huge auditorium filled with some fifty to a hundred impatient and guileless students, over a scratchy microphone, she set us straight with a lecture about how Donatello pre-dated, by centuries, his supposed  contemporaries, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. And, if the TV execs really cared about the youth, they would have named Titian as the purple masked, bo-staff wielding, amphibian super-fighter.

To read more, click here:

“A Passion for All Time: A Generation Xer’s Comeuppance” | Other Bohemian Activities | Ruelle Electrique

The Ubermensch Pair

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Earlier this year, PBS aired Masterpiece Theatre’s latest adaptation of Emily Bronte’s hauntingly favorite story, Wuthering Heights. After the terribly dry and awkward rendition with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, I had my reservations about a new resurrection. WH is such an oddly abstract and metaphysical tale. In highschool, I didn’t quite fathom its complexity but just took it more as atmospheric.

Fifteen years later, I understand a little bit more of what Bronte was trying to do with her immortal characters. The characters are psychologically and psychically complex–and in their psychic connection they remind me of Clarissa Dalloway’s transcendental connection to Septimus Smith. Cathy and Heathcliff are two souls commingling on another plane. Part of their connection is spiritually inherent and tied to Nature and Place–and the other part is tied to their willful defiance of a society that has condemned and belittled them, most cruelly, for their lowly status, Heathcliff especially, of course.

The pair are essentially the ubermensch couple, a la Nietzsche’s Superman and they defy the codes of the day, the strict mores of their socio-economic status and turn both Egdon Heath and Wuthering Heights inside out into their own perverse reality of revenge. Together, as willful agents, they turn the shackles their family set on them against those who denied them  happiness, and end up dragging everyone else into the misery they were cornered into. Cathy becomes a businesswoman, in her own way, and attempts to raise her and Heathcliff from the confines of their life through the only means she had available, marriage to Edgar Linton. Marriage as business transaction in the most perverse sense, indeed.

Both Cathy and Heathcliff try to transcend their material roles, physically and economically, though I’d argue their spirits, metaphysically, are already soaring among heights that many of us can’t reach or fathom because we’re not the wild, free, willfully awakened spirits they are. Their story is Promethean. They are both Icarus vying for a greater glory– to be free and united as they were on the wild moors. And in their Elysian pursuit, in the face of reality and society–they are burned–but they’ll take the rest of us with them if they must go down. WH is Romanticism at its headiest and most ideal.

I could go on about Nelly, and the frame, meta-narrative told by the servant who becomes author and therefore authority to the tale. The MT production was not so much a disappointment since I armed myself with low expecations. Heathcliff, played by Tom Hardy, who was wonderful in MT’s 2008, Oliver Twist, seemed to have eaten one too many bangers and mash and pasties. And, as for Charlotte Riley’s Cathy, ever since I read Olivier’s biography, where he adamantly states that the only actor who could match Catherine’s fire was Vivien Leigh, I’ve been biased and second his sentiments. Though I have to give this adapation credit since all revelations listed above were borne from the 2009/8 Masterpiece Theatere production. Catherine & Heathcliff live again, and scour the earth like a doomed and fiery comet, leaving us as breathless and restless as they are.

Come on, Barbie, Light My Fire

Born March 9, 1959, the same year that graced us with Stephen Patrick Morrissey, another fantastical cultural icon,  the toy everyone loves to hate came into being. I have to admit, as a young girl, I was an avid Barbie enthusiast . I loved my Barbie Miko doll, the Hawaiian counterpart to our mainstream Euro Am heroine. Blessed enough to have the Barbie Doll Townhouse with pulley elevator, I fashioned a custom-built bay window for Miko’s living room, complete with a nook to sit and read in cushioned comfort. My Townhouse had an extended kitchen with a mini fridge and a regular-sized Barbie fridge. Miko and her friends enjoyed evenings in the Barbie hand-pumped spa, where I was once horrified to find a huge, grotesque beetle of palm-sized proportion. Sometimes my Barbies enjoyed a little California sun and fresh air in the cul-de-sac outside my house when Miko and Ken went out for a drive in Miko’s battery-powered convertible Corvette.

Yes, Barbie perpetuates an unrealistic and therefore dangerous image for young girls. Yes, she’s the Satanness of consumer culture and Diva of Mall Rats from Malibu to Macon. Because of Barbie we have Forever 21 and BeBe and anorexia, and bulemia. This afternoon, NPR aired an engaging segment on the founder of Barbie and the origin of our infamous and ire-raising toy. Ruth Handler, credited as the creator of Barbie, insisted that little girls like to play like they’re big girls. Though toy-makers, at the time, were concerned that mothers wouldn’t want to purchase for their daughter’s a doll so well endowed with buxom breasts.

Despite all the anatomical uproar from the start about Barbie’s controversial figure, she was borne fully formed like Venus from the sea, and in the mid-80’s, I spent countless hours entranced and immersed in her world–which was, in truth, my world. I was the creator, the storyteller and master mind. And from my dolls, I learned how to weave narrative, provoke conflict, and rake desire. My parents might have spent a pretty penny granting my Christmas list year after childhood year with Barbie accouterments, but I squeezed every enjoyable, fantasy-filled minute that I could. As a storyteller, Miko and her friends were just another elaborate canvas for me to play act and dream, and I don’t regret a minute of the Barbie-inspired fuel that ignited my childhood imagination.

The Wooly Mammoth of Literature

Newspapers are dying. Two weeks ago, the San Francisco Chronicles‘ break out story was its own possible demise, a week ago, the Denver newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News joined the ranks. I’ve been working on the literary blog, Ruelle Electrique, whose theme I’ve just changed to a crisp, clean, three-column design–which, ironically, follows the same longitudinal format as newspaper columns. The times are a changing–yet old habits die hard. The wooly mammoth of literature rears its head, electronically, but still can’t generate revenue from print to save itself from the sticky black tar pits of financial ruin.