Monday, March 28, 2016

Break by the Bay

I suppose I ought to tell you about my Spring Break trip to San Francisco. I did an awful lot! Good thing I took notes. And pictures.

Tuesday, March 22nd

I arrive in San Jose in the evening, and Ashley picks me up at the airport. After dropping off my stuff and saying hello to her dog-like cat Talbot, we drive to downtown Mountain View to have dinner at Steins Beer Garden. The beer I order, an Almanac Peach de Brettaville, is not advertised as a sour. It is a sour. Very sour.

Wednesday, March 23rd

We rise early so that Ashley can take me to breakfast with our corporate overlords. When we arrive at One Infinite Loop, Ashley has to sign me in, and I receive an Apple visitor's badge. I'm only allowed to enter the cafe, dashing my dreams of espionage. But what a cafe it is. The sheer amount of potential breakfasts is overwhelming, yet I eventually settle on a gigantic omelet, cooked fresh in front of me, for only $4. If I were an Apple employee, I'd never buy groceries again.

While she's at work, I have the honor of driving Ashley's car, Velma. I pull out my phone and type in the address of a place I've wanted to visit ever since seeing it on pretty much every crackpot hauntings TV show there is: The Winchester Mystery House. For 38 years, Sarah Winchester consulted with the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles, listened to their architectural preferences, and made those preferences a reality. The house is everything I hoped for and more--stairs that lead to nowhere, doors that open into walls. It has more windows than the Empire State Building, including one in the floor.

Wide unclasp the table of their thoughts / These same thoughts people this little world

I learn that Sarah Winchester was smarter than people give her credit for. She designed special floors in the conservatories that allowed for easier drainage when watering plants. She placed several columns upside down not at the spirits' request, but because she realized that they could hold more weight that way. I am unsurprised by the sexism that leads her to be labeled as crazy.

I Google the best place to get a sandwich in San Jose. The oracle recommends Freshly Baked Eatery. I order a turkey sandwich. It is the size of my head. I do not finish the turkey sandwich.

After lunch, I drive to Palo Alto to visit Stanford. Along with cemetery tourism, campus tourism is one of my favorite vacation activities. College campuses are like parks, but they have better buildings and more to do. Perhaps it's because I'm an architect's daughter, but I'll take architectural feats over nature's wonders any day. Stanford does not disappoint. I wander the wide paths of its main quad. I admire the mosaics on the front of its large church. I take the elevator to the top of the Hoover Tower--it is a clear day, and I can see San Francisco. I tour the library, sneak a picture inside the reading room.

No pictures allowed. I'm such a rebel.

On the harrowing walk back to the car, I am forced to dodge dozens of spindly caterpillars descending from the trees above me. This is why buildings are better than nature.

That evening, Ashley and I visit Palo Alto's wealthy downtown. We abuse the free samples at David's Tea. We eat at Tacolicious. We observe rich people. When we get home, we split a bottle of Bordeaux and watch 500 Days of Summer. Now you can all stop yelling at me for not having seen it.

Thursday, March 24th

Using Ashley's Clipper Card, I experience the wonders of Bay Area public transit. I take the Caltrain to the BART, all the way to Berkeley. Upon exiting the train, I am immediately accosted by several people demanding donations for charitable causes. This is what I expected of Berkeley.

I walk uphill to the campus--much of which resembles a nature reserve, there are so many trees and flowers and ferns. I follow all of Olivia's recommendations--except I am unable to take the elevator to the top of Berkeley's Campanile, as it's closed for Spring Break. I order a small chai at the Free Speech Cafe, and when the cashier learns I'm from Chicago, he gives me a large for no extra charge. I sneak a picture of their library's reading room, too.

Not a jungle. A college campus.

I turn down Telegraph Avenue, and I hear Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze." I have found the stereotypical part of Berkeley. I visit Moe's Books--all four floors of it. I resist the temptation of gourmet ice cream sandwiches.

I hop back on the BART and meet Ashley in San Francisco, at the foot of the Filbert Street steps: nearly 400 stairs that climb Telegraph Hill, through people's flower-choked backyards, up to Coit Tower. I have been on my feet all day. I want to cry. I do not cry. I climb the stairs. The flowers are beautiful. When we finally reach the top, I want to puke. I do not puke. At Coit Tower, the sun has already set. The city lights up all around us.

Hanging flowers on Telegraph Hill.

We grab well-deserved slices of pizza at Tony's. Back at home, we split a bottle of Italian wine and watch Save the Last Dance. We reminisce over K-Ci and JoJo

Friday, March 25th

I wake up only to discover that Ashley's had a family emergency. We both get on our computers and find her a flight that afternoon out of Oakland. We spend most of the day packing her things, readying her apartment for a brief absence. We drive to the Oakland airport--and just like that, Ashley's back in the Midwest, and I have an apartment, a car, and a cat to myself in Sunnyvale. Though I would have preferred Ashley's company to any of that, of course. Please send positive thoughts her way.

After the airport, I stay in Oakland and do some work at Modern Coffee. When my friend Jane meets me there, she informs me that it's her favorite coffee spot in town, and I'm glad I chose well. First we grab some iced tea at Sweet Bar Bakery and catch up. We discuss the importance of fan letters. Later her husband Jez meets us Mua, a trendy restaurant in a rehabbed loft space. So trendy. I feel like I'm on a TV show. Girls or something. I have the blackened catfish. It is delicious.

I drop Jane and Jez back at their place, and then, after a comedy of errors trying to find the right highway, I make it back to Ashley's. I watch Gone Girl. It's suspenseful, and I'm glad I have Talbot to cuddle with.

Saturday, March 26th

It is, sadly, the last day of my vacation. I take the Caltrain into San Francisco for a day of bookstore tourism, which is quite possibly better than campus tourism, and even cemetery tourism. It may seem redundant--how many books can you look at in one day? But by visiting several different bookstores, you're forced to visit several different neighborhoods. You can see a whole city that way.

First I must nourish myself. I stop in Chinatown and order some eggplant at Brandy Ho's. It is exactly what I wanted. I also wanted jian bing, but we can't have everything we wish for.

The historic City Lights Bookstore is located right next to Chinatown, and it is where I head next. Opened in 1953, City Lights was home to the beat poets--Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and the like. I browse from room to room, climb the stairs to the poetry room. There a man starts talking to me. People always start talking to me. I have one of those faces. He claims he's a poet. He claims he met Ginsberg. When I mention that I'm a fiction student at UNLV, he claims he knows Don Revell, my poetry professor. I suspect there's a little truth sprinkled in his claims. I also suspect the man's somewhat addled--but no harm there. He decides to call me Mrs. Robinson. Of course he does.

I tell myself am not allowed to buy any books. I purchase Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars.

Me and literary history.

I catch the bus up to Haight Ashbury. It smells like weed--the Haight, not the bus. I am immediately asked on a date by a man on a bicycle. Like I said, people talk to me. I have one of those faces.

I pop into The Booksmith, which is charming. I especially love how the store is painted so many bright colors. I am obsessed with bright colors. I am in need of stationery, so I buy a box of notecards with pictures of succulents on them.

I meander along Haight Street. I visit a vintage clothing store that is well out of my price range. I find an eerie store called Loved to Death, which is basically the Obscura of San Francisco. I consider purchasing a small animal skull, but I decide against it. I walk for a while in Golden Gate Park. The weather is beautiful, but I find the drum circles irritating, so I find the nearest bus stop and head north to Green Apple Books.

Green Apple is magnificent. It has new books, used books, comic books, magazines, literary journals, nicknacks, tote bags, records. It has so much stuff that it had to open a second location only two storefronts down to squeeze everything in. The design of the main location reminds me of Myopic Books in Chicago--several floors of books, shelves and tables pressed tight together. I resist the books--but I do buy a birthday present for Leta.

It's getting late, and I need to get back to the Caltrain. I get on another bus. A man boards the bus with a six-pack of beer. He seems a little out there. He stands and pulls a large knife from his pocket. I think to myself, this is not how I want to die. He laughs and puts the knife back in his pocket.

I make one last stop before catching the train: Chronicle Books' downtown retail location. A San Francisco-based company, they make lovely blank journals. The journal in which I'm taking these notes is, in fact, from Chronicle Books. Miraculously, I resist the books again--but I do buy a thank-you present for Ashley.

Sunday, March 27th

I take a Lyft to the San Jose airport, and I fly back to sunny Las Vegas, a wonderful Spring Break gone by too quickly.

***

In other news, this happened today:

Baby's first thesis!

Oh yes, it happened. All 235 pages of it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Jet Setter Life

Somehow it's already Spring Break, and unless I go on to get a PhD, or if I end up working in an academic environment, it may be my last official Spring Break ever! I was going to stay home and be diligent and work on my thesis, but some good friends talked me out of it. Instead I'm going to San Francisco! I haven't been since I was sixteen years old, so I'm excited to visit the Bay Area as an adult.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I'm going to San Jose. That's where I'm flying in, as the lovely Ashley makes her home in Sunnyvale, and I will be staying at her humble abode for the next several days. But I will certainly make my way across the bay to San Francisco, and maybe some other towns. We'll see. Hopefully I'll also get to visit Jane, lexicographer extraordinaire! I don't have any specific plans as of yet, but it's kind of nice when vacations are open like that. I can give free rein to my whims.

But my travel won't end with San Francisco--oh no. I'm the woman who took 24 separate flights last year, so I can't slack off in 2016. Of course, I won't be taking a flight to my next destination, but rather a car. On Wednesday the 30th I'll be driving with Austin and Olivia to Los Angeles for my third year straight at the AWP Conference. (Last year it was in Minneapolis, the year before in Seattle.) There I shall attend all the "what to do with your post-MFA life" panels, as my post-MFA life is approaching rather quickly. I'll be staying with Katie up in Los Feliz, and hopefully we'll be going to lots of wonderful off-site readings--as everyone knows that the after-hours, off-site readings are the best part of AWP.

I don't want to neglect the East Coast, so the weekend after AWP, I'll be heading to Florida with my mom for a miniature family reunion. The Boyds and the Kappelhofs will all be there. Lots of small children. Also humidity. I haven't been to Florida since 2012 (or perhaps early 2013? can't remember), so it should be fun.

In preparation for all the upcoming city-hopping, I've been working on my thesis furiously for the past week or so. I have to format it and print it and give it to my committee in the few days between San Francisco and AWP. And then the week that I return from Florida, I defend it! April 14th at 10:00 a.m., to be exact. And then...yeah. Like I said, post-MFA life. I'm working on it.

What else? I have a bit of event fatigue at the moment, as Black Mountain Institute has been hosting some amazing writers lately. On March 10th, Catherine Lacey came to read for the Emerging Writers Series. (You can read my review of her book Nobody Is Ever Missing here.) I was on the committee that selected her to visit, so I was lucky enough to introduce her before her reading. Visual proof of this, courtesy of BMI:

I make silly faces when I speak, but I rock vintage French dresses.

Last Monday BMI put on a fantastic panel called "Breaking Silence: Women Writers, Uncomfortable Truths," featuring investigative journalist Sally Denton, journalist/poet Eliza Griswold, and poet/nonfiction writer/recent National Book Critics Circle Award winner Maggie Nelson. It was a fascinating discussion, got me all fired up about writing. There was only one uncomfortable moment; Maggie Nelson was talking about gender fluidity, and then Eliza Griswold, who's spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan, jumped in to say that there was more gender fluidity in Afghanistan than people might expect--but the example she brought up was a warlord whose fourth "wife" was actually a little boy. I couldn't believe nobody pointed out to her that she was not talking about gender fluidity, but rather child abuse. There is a big difference between gender fluidity and child abuse. Other than that gaffe, though, it was an excellent panel.

On top of all that, Neon Lit was last Friday. I was almost late, however, because I was adding to my passport stamp tattoo sleeve! France and Morocco live on my arm now. We're already getting to the peeling stage of the healing process--but that means the itchy stage is not far off...

Alright. I have to hit the sack because my PMS is making me feel like I haven't slept in weeks. Not that you need to know that. At any rate, wish me a bon voyage!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Horror Stories

I've been attracted to the horror genre for as long as I can remember. The first chapter book I ever read was a children's adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. My best friend and I wrote a book of scary stories in the second grade titled Ghosts, Spooks, and Other Scary Things. At the age when other girls were playing with Barbies, that same friend and I were playing with Ouija Boards. I don't watch as many horror movies as I used to--the cheesy special effects aren't my cup of tea. But I still enjoy good horror stories, and I even use horror as the theme for my English composition course.

Lately I've been exploring the horror genre in the realm of podcasts. Something about the audio format hearkens back to scary stories being told around a campfire. I find it particularly effective--by which I mean frightening. If you're interested in freaking yourself out while you walk your dog or drive to work, here are the podcasts I recommend:

Welcome to Night Vale

Aside from a few NPR offerings, Welcome to Night Vale was probably the first podcast I ever listened to on a regular basis. The premise of the show is that it's the local radio station for a small, fictional desert town called Night Vale, where the eerie and abnormal is completely normal for everyone who lives there. Through the perspective of charming radio host Cecil Palmer, we learn all about the new dog park (where dogs are not allowed, and people are not allowed, and where one should definitely avoid the mysterious hooded figures), the scrappy station interns (most of whom suffer fatal accidents on the job), and the heated mayoral election between The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives In Your Home and Hiram McDaniels the five-headed dragon (literally). Though the show isn't strictly narrative--episodes can typically stand on their own--there is gradual character development. Many residents of Night Vale make multiple appearances on the show, and we learn a great deal more about Cecil and his life, of course. Many times this show is funnier than it is scary, but certain uncanny episodes have definitely put me on edge. The creators of Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, recently launched a new podcast called Alice Isn't Dead. They've only released one episode, so I can't completely vouch for it, but that first episode is much more frightening than Night Vale, and much more plot-driven as well. It seems promising, and I look forward to following it.

The Message

The Message is more on the sci-fi side of the spectrum, but no one could argue that it isn't scary.  It consists of the reports of Nicky Tomlin, who is helping a group of scientists and cryptologists decode a message received from outer space over 70 years ago. The trouble is that many people who listen to that message end up very dead very fast. I had a few problems with this podcast, which seems to be completely finished now, after only one season. It was produced by GE, so they surely had more money than most podcasts do when they're starting, but the episodes were only about 15 minutes long. With that kind of financial backing, I would have expected more. I also thought the ending of the series was particularly weak. On the other hand, the cast is pretty diverse--lots of women, and even one gender-neutral character. And it's undeniably terrifying that the sound of the message itself is fatal--the sound that you, the listener, end up hearing multiple times. It has a similar effect to the movie The Ring. Will you die seven days after watching that movie? Will you die after hearing the message? You'll have to find out for yourself...

Sayer

Another sci-fi story, Sayer is solidly in the space-computers-trying-to-murder-you genre. Think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this is a little different, because Sayer's talking to you. Literally you. A few episodes in you learn that you are a specific character, and eventually the show moves on to several different characters and storylines, but it is decidedly unnerving to have Sayer's too-calm robotic voice welcome you to Typhon, telling you not to worry, that the paralysis will wear off shortly. It's an effective hook, and the storytelling is compelling enough that I wasn't disappointed when it became less second-person focused. This one's funny-creepy as well, more like Night Vale. My only complaint is that Sayer ended too quickly! But there are still 44 episodes for you to devour, should you accept the challenge. The residents of Typhon have to accept lots of interesting challenges.

Lore

Lore is the only nonfiction podcast I'm reviewing here. In this show, author Aaron Mahnke delves into the histories behind our culture's most enduring horror tropes--vampires, werewolves, witches, and so on. But he also highlights real-life scary stories that are less commonly told--and some of them are really scary. The first time I listened to this podcast, I was home alone, and that was a mistake. Occasionally Mahnke's delivery is a bit cheesy--there are lots of repeated phrases with dramatic pauses, like "and he/she/it/they was/were never...seen...again." But most of the time, I enjoy the way he structures the episodes, even when they give me the chills.

Limetown

This is the first of three podcasts I'm reviewing that capitalized on the success of NPR's Serial. Just as Sarah Koenig unraveled the mystery of Hae Min Lee's 1999 murder week by week, so too does APR's Lia Haddock explore the decade-old disappearance of the residents of the small Tennessee village known as Limetown. Of course, Limetown is fictional, so it gets away with more suspense and drama than Serial ever could. Most reviews of the show call it "Serial meets The X-Files," and I think that's an apt description. There's a shadowy organization, dangerous technology, and eventually, a connection to the story for Miss Haddock that hits too close to home. When I listened to the season finale, my roommate ran into the room asking what was wrong--she was disturbed by all the screaming. The screaming on the show, that is, not my own screaming. I only screamed at the end of episode 2--I should never have listened before bed. The bad news: there are currently only 6 episodes. The good news: it was so popular that season 2 is on its way! I can't wait. (Pro tip: listen to the very end of each episode.)

The Black Tapes

If Limetown is Serial + The X-Files, then The Black Tapes is Serial + The Exorcist. Host Alex Reagan wanted to create a show that profiled interesting people, but instead she gets stuck on her first subject--Dr. Richard Strand, a paranormal expert famous for his skepticism of the paranormal. His institute offers a $1,000,000 reward to anyone who can provide him with undeniable proof of the paranormal, and so far he has disproved every offering--except for a small shelf of cases that Reagan refers to as "The Black Tapes." She ends up helping Strand try to solve these cases--most of which turn out to have a demonic connection. But Reagan is far less skeptical than Strand, and before long his rationalizations aren't enough. One of the best things about The Black Tapes is that none of the creators will acknowledge that it's fictional. No cast members are listed on their website, and they even built a website for Dr. Strand's institute where you can submit your own paranormal experiences. I was raised Catholic, so demon-based horror is the kind that scares me the most, even though I'm no longer religious. Because of this, The Black Tapes is truly one of the most frightening things I've ever encountered. Also, one time the power went out while I was listening. Trust me--you do not want the power to go out while you're listening to The Black Tapes. I nearly cried.

Tanis

Tanis is my latest podcast obsession. Created by the same team that made The Black Tapes (there's even some crossover), Tanis is about...whatever Tanis is. The point of the show is to uncover a true mystery in the internet age, when almost nothing is a mystery for long. Tanis is maybe a place, or an idea--even a person. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that when someone locates Tanis, they come back changed--often in horribly violent ways. Host Nic Silver has to search all over the place for what little information he can gather--the deep web via his hacker friend MeerKatNip, newspaper classified ads from the 1950's, the inner workings of the discreet TeslaNova Corporation (which also has its own website). The great thing about Tanis is that it blurs fiction and reality even more than The Black Tapes does. It constantly references real historical events and figures, real news stories, and ties them into the myth of Tanis, so much so that I frequently have to remind myself that Tanis isn't real--I'm inclined to see it everywhere. If you're a literature person, Tanis is Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 + Sebald's Austerlitz set in the modern Pacific Northwest. Surely that comparison makes sense to someone.

So why are you still reading this? Go listen to a podcast! Scare yourself silly!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Superbloom!

Normally Death Valley is a lifeless hellscape, beautiful mainly for its utter desolation. It's surrounded by the Black Mountains on one side and the Funeral Mountains on the other. It's basically a sunnier Mordor. But once in a great while, when the valley is pummeled by El NiƱo rains, the long dormant seeds beneath the cracked earth emerge...for a SUPERBLOOM!

Yesterday, Joe and I drove to Death Valley to take in this rare sight. Here is a selection of photos:

These are Desert Golds, the most common wildflower in Death Valley.

We thought this was a lot of flowers. We thought wrong...

Death and life, juxtaposed.

Pretty, but don't touch! This one will give you a skin rash. I'm glad I read the guide from the Info stand.

Hello, yellow.

This is a Desert Five-Spot.

A little cluster of Desert Stars.

The living dead.

Attractive humans!

My attempt to capture the salt flats ended up all watercolory.

The flowers were not our only adventure. On our drive in, we stopped at a gas station attached to the Alien Cathouse brothel. Yes, Alien Cathouse is its actual name. Don't believe me? Here is its website (NSFW, obviously). The sign for the brothel advertised "hot sauce." This was not a euphemism. The gas station had shelves and shelves of hot sauce. 

On our way out of Death Valley, we passed through Rhyolite, a ghost town full of crumbling buildings from the early 1900's. Then we stopped in Beatty for a bite to eat at the Sourdough Saloon, where we were approached by an old man with a curling mustache wearing a cowboy hat and a sheriff's badge. Unfortunately, he was not the real sheriff. He was, however, a professional cowboy reenactor, who told us all about a recent event he did involving the story of Virgil Earp, complete with "floozies" and "petticoats," which are apparently two different categories of women, though I don't quite understand the difference.

I'm a natural city-dweller, not outdoorsy in any way. I like being surrounded by people, events, noise. There's something disturbing about the desert, even though it is gorgeous--it's too quiet, too dead, and I get the impression that it would like to kill me, too. Nevertheless, I feel bad that I don't frequently take advantage of the natural world so close to me in Vegas, especially because it's so drastically different from the natural world I had access to in Chicago. I'm happy that I spent a day away from my computer screen, quite literally stopping to smell the flowers. It was lovely. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Camaraderie

I apologize for not blogging lately, but there's been so much to do! I've been running around, getting signatures on the many forms I need to graduate, and turning them in. It's 2016--shouldn't physical paperwork be so last decade already? On the bright side, all the other MFAs are in the same boat, so I have plenty of friends who can commiserate.

I have to defend my thesis by April 15th, which means I have to give my thesis to my committee by the end of March. Which means the edits I'm working on right now are probably the last edits I can make. So that's alarming. Cue relevant 80's power ballad. Honestly, if I had to hand it in tomorrow, everything would be fine. It certainly wouldn't be perfect, but it would be a coherent book. And yet, no matter how many times I remind myself of this fact--that everything is already fine--it doesn't make a difference. I'm too Type-A for my own good. I will work work work until the last minute. Cue other relevant 80's power ballad.

You know what? Let's not focus on the stressful things right now. Instead, let me tell you about last Friday's Neon Lit, which left me with veritable warm fuzzies. It was almost literally magical.

Shaun was hosting, and after a few brief, funny opening statements, he pointed at me and told me to look under my chair. I was, of course, confused. But there, taped to the bottom of my seat, was an envelope. Inside were a few lines of verse, which turned out to have been penned by Danielle, who was the first reader. And so the evening went, with random audience members introducing the next reader, and the next, and the next. The readers were all wonderful, but there were some definite highlights. Matt read a few letters that he wrote to his friends over the summer--and then he announced that he'd brought a box where people could submit their addresses if they'd like a letter from him next summer. Aurora read a story with multiple beginnings that's soon to be published in Glimmer Train. And at the end of the evening, Dan stood at the microphone--but instead of reading his own story, he read a story by his friend Kevin Randall, who recently passed away and had been applying to MFA programs at the time of his death. It was moving, to say the least. Afterwards, we commandeered the patio at Atomic Liquors, where we made merry well into the night.

I think I'm going to miss these people when I leave. Whenever it is that I leave. Wherever it is that I go.