Writing Exercise: Friend from the Past

The other day, I got caught up with a friend—someone I used to talk to every night on the phone for an hour or two.  It had been three years and, somehow, she had dropped out of the scene.  There were reasons, of course—none of it acrimonious…you just drift away.  So, I was happy to get back in contact with this person and sift through some of the surprising updates, the personal baggage, the professional losses.  A lot happens over the course of three years.

It got me to thinking about reunions in general, both in life and literature.  And my mind drifted to other reunions—less pleasant—where people from your past show up and you discover that they have taken a totally different path:  My best friend in elementary school, for instance, is someone whom I remember with much fondness.  He just showed up at my house one day on his bicycle and asked me to go bike riding, and after that, we were inseparable.  He will always be frozen in my mind’s eye as that chubby kid on a bicycle.


But when I finally saw him again a few years back, I realized that he was an altogether different person, that life had been hard for him, and time had not treated him well.  I knew that even as we sat at the dinner table, exchanging pictures, that we would never be more than friends in the past tense:  the bike of our lives had taken us in such different directions.

Literary reunions are interesting because they function like a deus ex machina—they can move the plot forward, they can introduce new information, they can bring about complication, they can develop antagonisms.  Literary reunions distill the vague disquiet—the subtle joy—you might feel upon catching up with a long lost friend and turn it into a fruity, full-bodied cocktail:  a Moscow Mule that will knock your socks off and kick you in the groin.


The conventional literary reunion comes in the form of the long-awaited friend who is the final goal—the repository of sentiment.  We see this in the Color Purple, for instance; Celie is waiting for her sister’s return and we are waiting right along with her; and her sister’s return is about love and loss; it is precipitated by a series of lost letters; then, a triumphant return.  This is followed by an embrace and a good long hard cry.

This is a formulaic way to utilize the reunion and it can have its limitations:  it can lend itself to cliché.  Why?  Because this is how our mind is programmed to see a reunion: as the end point.  So only in the hands of a great master—someone like Alice Walker—can we have a reunion fall at the end and still be rescued from the mine-field of the stereotypical.



So, here is your task.  Find a story where you’re stuck, plot-wise—a story that has stalled.  Then, have a figure from the past knock on the door, write an e-mail, send a telegram, drop a note.  What does that character want from you now?  What will she impose upon the landscape?  What crazy bike ride will she take you on?

Prince: Dearly Beloved–Nothing Compares 2 U

Everybody has observed it:  It seems like all the great musical stars of our age are dying this year—David Bowie, Glen Frey, Merle Haggard and now, most recently, Prince.  The deaths cuts deeply for people of my generation, because many of these musicians are no longer distant figures in the past.  They are celebrities we came up with, those who made their name when we were still learning what our own would mean…and so folks of my generation feel it extra deeply, as we enter the slip stream of middle age and become unmoored from our wayward youth—a lighthouse in the distance.


I couldn’t bring myself to grieve the first few days.  I was in that stage called denial.  Maybe the news organs were misinformed.  Maybe the corpse in the elevator was a bodyguard.  Maybe this was one of those popular PRINCE IS DEAD rumors that surface periodically on the internet, like a giant squid from the bottomless depths attracted by the lights of passing ships.  My friend—a musicologist—informed me of the purple one’s passing on Facebook, but I told her that I would not be posting any of this news until it was confirmed on my Wall.  And even though I now know his death to be true, even though the autopsy is done and the body cremated—the memorial held—I can’t bring myself to create that digital tombstone.

Last night, I had dinner with my friends and celebrated his life:  tri tip smoked with apple wood, potatoes, grilled vegetables, a bottle of fine Pinot—a simple, unfussy meal.  I’m not sure if that would have been his meal.  I hear he was a vegetarian.  But it was great to listen to the hits that made Prince our own personal star—a light that guided our way when we were lost in the ocean of puberty.

Tri tip

We set up a large screen MAC at the head of the table and, amidst the groaning board of clinking cutlery and the precussion of tinkling glasses, played selections of his classic music—snippets of his videos, his live performances–the music of our coming of age; and yes, we were startled to realize that Prince had produced so many of the songs that fueled that muddled time of jumbled lust and desire and rebellion and nonconformity—that time that would give way to orderly adult lives:  Erotic City and Darling Nikki, Purple Rain and Nothing Compares 2 U, Little Red Corvette and I Wanna Be Your Lover.

A classy tribute from the makers of the automobile that Prince immortalized.

A classy tribute from the makers of the automobile that Prince immortalized.

At some point, we played 1999—a year that floated in the horizon like the monstrous head of an uncertain future…but which, now, is the mile marker of a distant era.  Maybe it was the wine or the company.  Maybe it was the good music.  But we all agreed that our music was the best music—that the young people of the next generation were unlucky to be born into recession and mediocrity.  We had our Prince and this felt like, all our lives, we had been eating like Kings.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

Viet Thanh Nguyen—my good friend—just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  This is awesome news on many levels.  He is the first Vietnamese American writer to achieve something so grand.  He is also a friend of over twenty years.  And for some reason, when friends make it, the cake tastes sweeter; the coffee, ever more rich and deep and layered.


Viet is a professor of English & American Studies at USC—a literary critic by training.  But ever since I knew him, he harbored the ambition to write a novel.  And I’ve watched him over the years self-consciously try to move out of the jargon-y world of literary theory and into the alternate dimension in the time-space continuum that is Creative Writing.

His debut novel, The Sympathizer, is what got him this year’s Pulitzer.  It tracks the confession of a spy–half French, half Vietnamese—who follows the Vietnamese exodus after the Fall of Saigon, the exodus of Vietnamese citizens that were aligned with the USA, citizens that were fervently anti-communist.  The spy is a double agent–a communist—sent by the upstart regime to keep tabs on the newly minted refugees who form the first great diaspora that would include among its numbers people like my parents, my siblings, and me.  This is a diaspora that will still remain politically active, one that will still support the overthrow of the communist government, even as the war has come to a close.


The narrator of The Sympathizer is forced to give a confession from his prison cell and the opening lines capture the arresting quality of his voice:  “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.  I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.  I am simply able to see any issues from both sides.”  The lines really suck you in and are involved in a game of resonances that are the mark of someone who has read widely and deeply.  We can hear echoes of the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the classic of African American literature.  This is no accident:  Viet’s son—Ellison–is named after that towering figure of twentieth century American literature.


And this is what is so interesting about Viet’s novel—the way that it is constantly interested in fitting its voice up and against, in concert and in harmony, with other voices in the American literary canon:  an awareness of himself operating within a grand tradition and taking his place within a literary conversation.  Of The Sympathizer, Maxine Hong Kingston writes:  “A Magnificent Feat of Storytelling, The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.”

I’ve always been in awe, a supplicant at the burnished throne, of writers who win big awards—the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Nobel.  And I have been blessed to find myself within the disco strobe light of their dance floor company at certain points in my life.  But it is a new sensation—one that I will cherish—to actually know a writer who has made such a big splash.  It is a singular prize, a gem you can keep under your mattress, to know that a writer of this level has shared his work with you, even before it has seen print.

Hennessey & Ingalls: New Arrival in the Arts District

I decided to stop by the Art’s District at high noon this Saturday to check out a bookstore I’ve been frequenting since junior high:  Hennessey & Ingall’s.  Hennessey & Ingall’s used to occupy a storefront in one of the most expensive sections of Santa Monica, just a few blocks from the cliffs that overlook the beach.  Before that, it was in Westwood, near the university and the grand old theaters.  Each time it’s moved, it’s moved because the rents got expensive.  And each time, I’ve followed it… by bicycle, by bus and now…by car.  I’m a loyal customer.


The bookstore itself is that rare creature:  a specialty shop that offers a trove of Design, Architecture, Art book.  It also boasts a staff of long-time employees who know their selection inside and out.  It’s not the kind of bookstore where you buy a souvenir mug or a tote bag with the effigy of a writer that you will never read.  The only magazines on the racks are for the trade:  real designers.  And you’ll see designer-y people there with their chunky glasses, their improbable avant-garde fashions and their gaunt tans that come from being bathed in the synthetic sunlight of a computer screen.  Back when me and my artsy-fartsy friends were no-account kids with very little money, the staff at Hennessey & Ingalls let us sit and read for hours on end without chasing us out.

The irony of the Art’s District—the bohemian enclave at the Northeast border of downtown Los Angeles where Hennessey & Ingalls has relocated—is that it no longer houses artists.  The first exodus happened over a decade ago when the “revitalization” of downtown slipped into overdrive.  Before that, downtown had almost no traffic, no grocery stores.  There were homeless, indigents, artists–all of which made it feel almost like the stage set of an apocalyptic futuristic movie.  The artists took over a warehouse or factory and then they developed their make-shift lofts.

Then, developers swooped in right when I was finishing graduate school–just around 2003.  And within less than half a decade, “lofts” were no longer DYI spaces but simply mass-market condos with exposed brick and concrete floors, geared toward the prosperous professionals–the dentists and accountants and pharmacists who imagined themselves to be week-end warrior bohemians.  The rents–the thing that attracted the people who brought order to the world–shot through the roof. Many of the people who left were my friends—friends driven out by high rents and congestion.

Shingo, a Japanese Buddhist priest and painter—a holy man who was known on more than one occasion to chew a tab of ecstasy–was one such friend:  he finally realized that downtown was no longer a location that could foster true art.  So he left his impeccable  white-on-white loft, which was within striking distance of the cluster of grand temples in the heart of Little Tokyo.  Shingo supported himself for a few years as a janitor when he first came to the United States; his loft reflected that hand-built orderliness–the tidy compartmentalization–that is so quintessentially Japanese.  He moved to the jungles of Big Island, Hawaii.


Shingo seated in front of his abstracts

Just this last year, my friend Yahnoo—a fiber artist who learned his craft among the tribal people of the Amazon—built himself a house in Baja, Mexico.  Life is cheaper there and he can ply his craft, which is both time and space-intensive; he needs room to weave his gargantuan portraits.  But he will be sorely missed, not only for his great art, but also for the fact that he was a node in an ecosystem—a man whose humongous loft provided housing for hundreds of artists and hippies and drifters passing through.  A man who hosted yoga-potlucks and large-scale rave parties.

Among his many house guests, I count my childhood friend who used the space to practice the art of mime and who ultimately founded an acclaimed theatre troupe in Paris:  Pas de Dieux. I probably will see Won one day, though he will probably never be able to move back to his home town.  I will miss seeing Yahnoo–the Korean man with the dred locks and flowing African gowns.  And I doubt I will see any of his friends again–all of whom are notable artists attached to major galleries but still struggling to live small lives despite their outsize reputations.

The Arts District is now thoroughly developed.  There is a huge complex at one end that charges $4,500 dollars a month to people who like to think of themselves as “creatives”—that adjective that has somehow become a noun.  The building is designed by some noteworthy architect but it has the modular look of a futuristic prison concocted by IKEA.

One Santa Fe

There are now bus tours filled with Midwesterners who get dropped off at the very fancy new beer hall put up by a developer who must have spent close to a million dollars just to build it out.  The tourists–they try their best to look like Angelenos.  But true Angelenos don’t dress like that—their informality and studied casual is still just too formal:  a copy of a copy of a copy.  They must have spent months researching their look.

Van Leeuwen is the ice cream of the attractive alternative crowd

Van Leeuwen is the ice cream of the attractive alternative crowd

Hennessey & Ingalls finally found a storefront in that famous complex where the “creatives” reside, taking its rightful place near the Vegan Ice Cream shop with the Dutch name from Brooklyn, New York.  I hear the vegan ice cream tastes almost as good as real ice cream, despite the lack of any actual milk…but I’ve never tried it.  The press releases have championed the resurrection of the dearly loved bookstore as a sign of the artistic bona fides of the area.  But I don’t ever remember Hennessey & Ingalls ever doing a full-court-press publicity campaign ever.  And for me, the fact that there are press releases and a systematic publicity campaign makes me wonder if the bookstore is the same thing—a community bookstore—or something altogether different.

The New Season of Daredevil: Can You Love to Hate a Character?

The new season of Daredevil—the Marvel franchise—came out on Netflix, and guess what I did:  I spent the past week lying in bed, binge-watching it.  I watched it on my computer screen–the machine going on for so long late into the night that it left a warm spot on my bed.  How I loved that warm spot.  I would curl up on it and drift off to sleep.

Daredevil is a comic book series that chronicles the escapades of Matthew Murdock—lawyer by day, superhero by night—who patrols Hell’s Kitchen to dole out vigilante justice in a world overrun by violence.  Murdock is an extraordinary superhero because he is an ordinary man, and one, in fact, hampered with a disability—blindness.  But his disability also gives rise to enhanced sensory perceptions and superior fighting abilities.  He can hear heartbeats, the sound of a man breathing in another room.  And this makes the young esquire both ordinary and extraordinary, human and relateable.


Daredevil first arrived on the scene in the 60’s, but the comic book enjoyed its greatest revival in the 80’s when comic juggernaut Frank Miller took control of the franchise.  The television show recasts Miller’s version of eighties New York—a time of extreme violence–somewhere in the nebulous zone between then and the here-and-now.

The 80’s is significant for the themes of the show:  vigilante-ism.  This was a time when Bernhard Goetz, a meek mild-mannered subway rider made national news and came to be known as the “subway vigilante” by gunning down four muggers in the rat-infested subways.  This is not the slick gentrified New York of Russian Oligarchs and Chinese playboys—the New York that has been polished and spit shined like a pair of banker’s wingtips.  This is the New York that is grittier—the New York of white flight and urban decay that spawned vigilante groups like the Guardian Angels:  ordinary citizens in red berets who took the law into their own hands.


The show is definitely worth the viewing.  There’s a lot of action—a ton of violence.  The introduction of the Punisher and Elektra—two other superheroes with their own comic book franchises—means that there’s a lot of guns and stunts and acrobatics and martial arts.  Oh yeah, there are ninjas.  Did I tell you there are ninjas?  A whole lot of them.

My take-away from the show rests on this one interesting issue.  You see:  Daredevil has this one quirk.  He is a vigilante but he is not like Bernhard Goetz:  he has a code.  That code is to never take a life.  And he’s really uptight about it.  So he’ll beat the bejeezus out of a ninja but won’t actually follow through and kill him.  And he’ll bend over backwards to avoid killing anyone, as if he were some Honest to Goodness Buddhist monk.

Given a choice between saving twenty hostages or saving the world, guess what Daredevil will do.  Yup, he’s that shortsighted.  He will always go for the idiot choice:  saving the people who are immediately before him, the people in need.  It’s as if he were Charlie Brown–always running toward that football.


The paradox is that, quite often, this means that a lot of people actually end up dying because Daredevil doesn’t dare kill.  Ninjas keep waking up from getting punched and, like characters in a video game, they’re back into play.  Or Daredevil will command one of his superhero cronies not to kill some random ninja…that stops them in their tracks…and then the ninja sticks a sword into them.

It makes you get really annoyed at the masked man in the red suit.  So much so that I started screaming at Daredevil to stop it already.  But at the same time, I wonder if that’s the mad genius of the show:  that Daredevil has a clearly defined through-line and this through-line is the source of dynamic tension.  The fact that we hate Daredevil because of this very predictable quirk also means that we feel for Daredevil…and some emotion is better than none at all.

What do you think?  Is making you hate a main character an important part of engaging an audience?  Is wanting to throw things at the computer screen a sign of getting a little too caught up?  Have you ever found yourself in a relationship with someone you can’t stand because they exasperate you?  Have you ever wanted to leave that person but decided to stay because, you know, at least you’re feeling something…and at least they’re keeping you warm in bed?

Crossing Borders: A Trip to the Yucatan

I’m about to take a trip to the Yucatan, that peninsula chock full of Mayan ruins, colonial cities and white sand beaches.  One way I do my tourism in Hispanic countries is to engage in a slightly tedious, focused task that will force me to hone my Spanish.  And I decided that the task on this occasion would be to get my favorite hat repaired.

I’m kind of a fledgling hat collector, and the Borsalino is an antique felt fedora–brown and battered–that looks like the sort Indiana Jones might have set upon his noggin.  It is a classic: the quintessential detective hat–the hat of manual typewriters and damsels in distress and bottles of whisky in a filing cabinet.


But the hat has seen better days:  it shrank a bit from a week long stay in Mexico City where heavy torrents pummeled the mountain city every evening during the rainy season.  The embossed leather sweat band, which was once in cherry condition, deteriorated upon contact with water.  And the grosgrain ribbon, which is a silken oddity in a world that has gone full polyester, bears the powder white traces of the salt that comes from a decade of sweat.  I also probably shouldn’t have packed it in my check-in luggage.


Embarking on a project like this does take some research.  You don’t want to run around the city with your hat in your hand.  You want to identify a reputable hat dealer who either offers those services or can send you in the right direction.  And you want to dispatch of the task immediately so that the artisans have enough time to perform the job properly.  You’ve got to do your due diligence.

So this leads me to the topic of this post, which is not so much about hats as it is about feet:  you see, the other day I was googling for hat leads and I came across an advertisement on a Mexican website for a pair of knock-off Toms shoes.  Toms shoes are those cruelty-free, vegan shoes that are supposed to make the NPR set feel less awful about themselves as global citizens living in the consuming-est corner of this planet:  for every Toms purchase, a child in deepest darkest Africa gets a pair of shoes, too.

So, in purchasing these shoes, you are also involved in a humanitarian cause:  helping a kid avoid all sorts of foot borne diseases, like parasitic worms.  Perhaps you are enabling a budding young scholar to get to school on those undeveloped roads, or allowing a mother speedy access to the only source of clean water for miles around.  One thing is certain:  you are making sure that animals are not harmed in the process.  What could be better?


The curious thing about this advertisement came in the fact that the shoes were available either in fabric OR in leather.  And they were marketed not as a humanitarian item but as a symbol of Westernization—of wealth, of status.  So the vegan element, so crucial in the merchandising of footwear to the NPR set, became irrelevant to the aspirational Mexican upper middle class consumer.  And the promise to help the Third World–a promise that is always front and center–was nowhere to be seen.  This shoe was now simply a status symbol—a way to get something that remains difficult to procure (because of distribution and tariff) from the ever-elusive West, which lies far across a nearby border that is, increasingly, impenetrable.

By no means is this an attempt to make fun of well-heeled Mexicans.  Rather, this is to call attention to a phenomenon that I have encountered over and over again:  Third World products that imitate Western goods often seem a bit wonky.  And as I sat there in the dead of night, looking at a pair of shoes I would never want, I realized it had a lot to do with this simple fact: the act of translation often means subtle shifts in value and meaning.

This makes sense:  Imitation is not simply faithful reflection but a kind of distortion.  Put another way, nothing is the same once it crosses borders–not people, not ideas, not material objects.  For instance, a hat is a noteworthy object in Los Angeles where it can be seen almost as if it were a dandy affectation–the stuff of rock stars and movie actors–but in Mexico, a hat is a common item…so much so that it is taken for granted.  I suspect that people don’t even see hats anymore in that part of the world; they are so much embroidered into the quilt of the expected that all but the most outstanding ones are filtered out.

johnny Depp

Johnny Depp is known for his hat game and he favors Borsalino…

Encountering the Fake Toms made me think of the time I spent in Northern India in the tourist-heavy state of Rajasthan, which is colorful and bright.  The fancy hotels pay local young men to perform folk dances and music in traditional costumes–turbans and scarves and gowns that catch the light with their metallic threads.  But as soon as the performance is over, those guys rip off the costumes and put on machine-woven sweaters.  And on all these sweaters appear the words NIKE, drawn in magic marker:  crude, sloppy, counterfeit.


It is in the imitation that we can learn a lot about the original–our prejudices, our hidden expectations:  the things we take for granted.  For these young men who must earn their upkeep somehow, the classic clothing of the Rajasthani musicians is simply a costume–a tourist-act.  It is this cruel hoax of life that, in making their way from the provinces to a tourist center with mighty hotels–an actual city–that is the center of modernity, they must pose as the backward native people that they thought they left behind…in order to get by.  And it is in the crude imitation of the Nike logo that we see the true selves of their best dreams spelled out.

The same phenomenon can be seen in so many tourist zones.  In Brasil, the music that tourists come to listen to is Bossa Nova.  It is played in the swank hotel lobbies for a mostly white audience.  But the real music that the blacks of Brasil love is Rastafarian fare.  That’s what is played in the backstreet cafes where only locals hang–those places where you set your hat down and smoke a joint with a sweating bottle of beer.

In Brasil, I once met a Rastafarian from Ghana.  He was spending time in the Northern Brasil stronghold of Salvador—a place that was once the land of plantations and is now filled with freed descendants of former slaves.  The Rasta had a British accent and excellent English, most likely because his country was at one point a British colony.  He invited me to his apartment, not far from the tourism center.  “You are a very trusting man.  And I appreciate it.  Not many tourists would go so far to this part of town with someone he just met.”


Most people think that Rastas are the sign of a deep African-ness and indeed there is definitely a “back to Africa” element in the Rasta culture.  So it can seem a contradiction to see a true African attempting to return to African and free his mind by adopting the clothes and music of a people who had once been enslaved in Jamaica.

But my new friend had a good laugh and agreed with my assessment:  For me, a Rasta is the sign of the West—the sign of a person who has had a profound encounter with colonialism that he will spend a lifetime erasing and, paradoxically, reinforcing.  “When I come to a new place like Salvador, it is the Rasta who owns a cell phone,” I said.  “It is the Rasta who understands the international exchange rate, and the way the internet operates.”  It’s never the local people who quite often are oblivious to the way a global world works.

These were the thoughts that scuddered like rippling pebbles through the pond of my head as I trolled through the internet–pleasant memories of past travels–that interrupted my search.  Looking at those shoes–an imitation of a Western product flickering back at me through the pixilated images–made me wonder about the desires that come from the hat I put on my head–a hat that originally came from Italy, a hat that I encountered in a small shop in Chicago, a hat I carried with me to Los Angeles, a hat that now I was ferrying across the border to get fixed.