Category Archives: Life

How Not to Write An Obituary.

I use to read the obituaries every week in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. I’d look for the oldest person to die and then read their obit for inspiration. Where did they come from? What did they do with all that time they had? And, there was also a tinier voice asking, “How do I get to where they were? How can I absorb so much of life too?”

Then there were always the sad obits. They were of people of my own age, my parents’ ages, friends’ ages. There were the little annual memorials to kids lost far too early; reminders that the memory of them continued to age, though they did not. It was these obits that started to bring me down. I started to identify a little too closely to some stories, some timeframes. In the older obits any form of identification was a bonus, but with these young departed it was too real a reminder of what obituaries signify: someone has left the building.

2016 has been a rough year for death, and particularly for music fans, as several well-known and loved lumnaries of the profession have passed on. On Thursday I found out that my Great Uncle Jerry moved on. He’d been sick for years, in a slow, slow decline that gradually robbed him of the ability to do many of the things the able-bodied take for granted. He wasn’t a musician, but I did learn very recently that he enjoyed photography.

It was almost a funny thing to learn that he liked photography. I knew he worked as a truck driver for years, as he’d tell stories from the road. In all non-obit-like honesty, Jerry presented himself as a tough trucker guy from rural Oklahoma. He’d sit around the house, smoking away, and puffing out homophobic, sexist, and racist things in a loud voice (when he still had a volume dial to turn up on his vocal cords). I never knew anything about him acting on any of his words, but the words were still tough to hear sometimes.

Is this speaking ill of the dead? It is at least speaking truth. I don’t aim to rob him of his humanity by glossing over the way that he presented himself. At the same time I don’t aim to portray him negatively either. I don’t aim to portray him in any other way than the very way he portrayed himself.

I think where this becomes complicated, is that the public presentation of self is often conflated with things that reside outside the self, or roles we are trying to play in society. Depending on the person it can be easy to be consumed by the reflection you’d like to see, rather than drawing on an internal well. It’s tough.

I think there are lovely things about Jerry that I never knew. There was something in him that my Great Aunt saw, and I adore her. He had a good wit, though it was often misdirected to social baggage better left behind in the 20th century. I don’t know enough about where he grew up and what formed him in his early years. I want to know more, I want to better understand.

In the meantime I will remember Jerry. I can’t bring myself to honor the dead by distorting the past, but I can respect the context in which people lived, and strive to better understand all angles of humanity. And sometimes I still sneak a peek at the obits page, and sometimes there is still beauty and inspiration in death.

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That time I had a hometown.

Stuff cool nerd kids liked in the early 2000s./Corner of my high school bedroom.

Stuff cool nerd kids liked in the early 2000s./Corner of my high school bedroom.

Sometimes there is sadness embedded in a present place. It’s too rooted in the sweeping movements of the second hand and no longer able to be the thing it was many pages of the calendar ago.

I grew up in a 1960s suburban ranch style house in the East Bay in Northern California. The house still sits on the same suburban street, but it’s now a much more expensive neighborhood with houses priced only for the very affluent tech workers of Silicon Valley.

It had a driveway, a decent sized front yard and a big backyard with a lemon tree and an orange tree. There was also a jungle of ivy along the side of the house and a lollipop tree. My parents were never very fond of the landlord, who delivered rent increase notices at Christmas, but to me he was just a slightly scary older person who left suckers in the lollipop tree on occasion. One time when he backed out of the driveway he took out the last bush in a row of front yard shrubbery. The little plant stuck to the back bumper of his car and bobbed along in the breeze as he drove away.

The things I remember about living there are very rooted in the physical space. We’d always tell newcomers to look for the house with the “bright green trim.” The bulk of the house was painted an off white color, but the almost neon green paint that framed the house really made it stick out. (Clearly no HOA forcing bland paint colors on the neighborhood.)

When we first moved in the carpet was a brown, ancient almost shag carpet. The kitchen countertops were a chipped mint laminate. In the decade plus of living there the landlord did eventually replace the counters and carpet, but he hired cheap day labor and orchestrated most of the “improvements” himself. Nothing ever quite lined up right.

Nothing quite lining up is also an accurate descriptor of my feelings about my childhood home. My parents always had some resentment toward me considering this my childhood home, but it was. Most of my growing up memories center on the place.

My departure from the Bay Area as an adult-in-training was shortly followed by my parents’ exodus from the place. I use to always make a pilgrimage to the house when I would go back to the Bay to visit friends. Strangers rented it by then, but my mind erased the foreign cars in the driveway and imagined summer nights running through the front yard grass (getting eaten by mosquitos) or days drawing chalk roads and traffic signs on the sidewalk.

My weirdo drive-by visits to my childhood home made sense the first couple years. I’d drive by and little things would change. The neon-y green trim color was toned down. The plants in front of the house were altered. More strange cars parked in the driveway. But still, this is the filter I saw the world through for so many years as a child. This was home, this was a place that made sense. Or at least I fought for it to make sense in my head.

I stopped driving by my childhood home a few years ago. I started realizing that I was assigning some sort of false sense of security and identity to a place that no longer existed. I even feel off telling people I’m from the East Bay. My childhood was there, but beyond that my family historically only dipped their toes in California. We aren’t Californians, though I am a Californian. It’s such a weird disconnect to have in the relationship between people and place; between family and individual identity.

In driving past the old rental house I was trying to have some sense of belonging or roots in a hometown of some sort. In the early years of leaving home that worked to some extent, but now I see the construct I built for myself and the functional role it filled. It did its job and then it retired. It always was someone else’s home in truth, but now it’s also someone else’s home in fiction too.

The place lost its meaning, and with it I’ve had to let go. It use to make me sad, but now I focus more on the bright points of child memory over jarring adult reality. It was there for all the doll soap operas and school lessons, the fake perfume making sessions, and the backyard burritos assembled from fallen lollipop tree leaves and blossoms. I’ll always have the memories of sunny days of running through the sprinkler, roller blading around the concrete slab patio, or having elaborately themed birthday parties. I don’t need a physical touchstone to remind me of these things – all these good things filtered out of the more expansive memory pool.

Momday

Always thirsty - for knowledge, for beverages.

Always thirsty for knowledge.

From an early age my Mom instilled in me the idea that “haters gonna hate.” In grade school she put a little laminated clipping in my lunchbox with a picture of Albert Einstein and his quote, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Kids can be really mean to each other, but my Mom made sure I had perspective and understood that things other people say about you or to you explain a lot more about them than you. I think this is one of the most valuable things my Mom taught me. That it’s ok to be your weird self. That being quirky and creative is a value, even if others react to it negatively.

Now I surround myself with a bunch of openminded wonderful people or “great spirits” and mostly only encounter mediocre mind attitudes on the internet. There’s a lot of ugly out there in the world, and I don’t ignore it, but I feel like you need to be secure in yourself first. Like the airplane safety instructions that tell you, “You must secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else.” Then it’s easier to have compassion and perspective because your own negative feelings aren’t getting tangled up in your reactions. Often easier said than done, but not impossible.

One lesson of many, thanks Mom!

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MLIS

The future is a way harder concept to grasp than the past. At the former Acres of Books in Long Beach, 2008

The future is a way harder concept to grasp than the past. Acres of Books in Long Beach, 2008 (RIP)

I started out the Master in Library and Information Science program super-enthusiastic (new program syndrome), but quickly realized that taking multiple classes and working full time was a recipe for a time crunch. I made space for things here and there – the occasional outing and wedding things. Overall it’s been an endurance test, but now that I’m closing out on my first (successful) semester I’m feeling a little more confident about time management and sanity. I can do this!

I definitely had a breaking point about midway through and turned into a hermit with a lot of repressed stress that I think I pretty successfully hid from everyone around me, aside from the occasional whiny sorry excuse for why I couldn’t go to happy hour or couldn’t go on a hike or couldn’t [insert activity here]. I’ve gotta remember that this is a marathon, and not a sprint. That would probably be my #1 advice for anyone starting an online graduate program while also working full time.

#2 is don’t feel guilty if you need to go home from work and watch five episodes of Daredevil while having popcorn and beer for dinner. Because those nights are an important counterbalance to those ridiculous days where you have a bunch of meetings at work, projects to jam through, and then you have to come home and search databases, read articles, and produce some sort of writing piece that doesn’t sound like gibberish.

History is my true love. I came to it via writing (the two are practically conjoined twins sometimes), and I will always love history the bestest. Library science is a more practical skill set. It has its mumbojumbo like any discipline, but it is the tool that delivers my love. The pizza delivery guy that brings the Pacific Veggie (which BTW is great fuel for writing a 28 page research paper in one weekend).

As a special collections library person I can work on saving the past, which is cheesy but true. Just call me indoor Indiana Jones. (“It belongs in a museum!” or: “I belong in a museum!”) Now if I could just get better at embracing the present and not stressing about the future I’d be all set.

The One Where I Go to a Wedding

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I don’t know if I’m creating connections that don’t exist, but I feel like Mad Men made a sly Game of Thrones reference last week. When Pete Campbell’s kid got rejected from an elite preschool, the guy doing the rejecting said the MacDonald clan he hails from would never let a Campbell kid into their school because of an old feud. Well, that feud (according to Wikipedia, which is of course the end all be all of knowledge these days) reportedly was one of the inspirations for George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones red wedding scene. Apparently in 1692 Clan MacDonald told Clan Campbell: come on over and hang! And then the Campbells became the worst houseguests ever and slaughered 38 members of the MacDonald clan.

Coincidence? Conspiracy theory? Hommage from one great show to another? I was in one of my closest friend’s wedding the other week, so maybe I just have wedding on the brain.

It rained during my friend’s wedding ceremony, even though it was in Southern California and we’re suffering through a massive water shortage. Their love conquered drought, and even more significantly (from my incredibly cynical perspective) their love conquered all cheesy, cringe-inducing wedding cliches. It was incredibly heart felt, moving, and lovely. The rain drops that fell down onto the wedding party were definitely camouflaging some serious eye watering action.

My friend jetted off to Costa Rica with her new legal beau, and I slogged back to Los Angeles to start poking at an end of semester paper for the first semester of my second go-round at grad school. Now that the wedding’s over and I turned in 28 pages last Sunday I’ve been feeling a little listless. There are still a few loose ends to tie up in school and I have several trips on the horizon that should turn into some new Roadside posts (and work is hoppin’ as usual). Though I’m feeling really bad that my Arkansas trip is stopping me from going to another friend’s wedding in Vegas.

Before the flutter of near-future travel I’ve been turning my attention back to traveling through my closet. I’ve been hitting the black eyeliner hard lately – Mad Men’s return has me all retro-lovin’. I went to my favorite guilty-pleasure-purchase-place (Playclothes, what, what) and got a Joan dress. Time to go threaten someone with an ACLU/Newsweek/Ladies’ Home Journal lawsuit!

Peanut Butter and Romanticizing the Past

The beverages I drink don’t usually have words like “win,” “athletic,” and “epic” wrapped around the bottle. Thanks to a stomach bug I’ve been on the crackers and Gatorade diet for the better part of this week, drinking epic athletic liquid with artificially colored win.

I graduated to crackers + peanut butter on Friday and that was pretty exciting. Eating peanut butter spread on crackers always makes me think of one of my favorite people-from-the-past-I’ve-never-met-but-like-to-romanticize.

I have a soft spot for writers. My undergrad and grad school theses were both on 1930s film fan magazines. While I spent a lot of pages analyzing the contemporary context, consumerism, and content, I also spent a decent chunk of time looking at the writers and editors of the publications.

Some of the writers had prolific enough careers that they also wrote for other publications, leaving a big trail of evidence behind them. Others are a little trickier to track, though Anthony Slide’s Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine does a really fabulous job of profiling many of the writers that are tougher to track elsewhere. When I was writing my undergrad thesis I took a lot of information from an issue of Picture Play, which had a great two part feature on contributing writers written by Samuel Richard Mook in the February and March 1930 issues.

I would definitely want to do some fact checking before taking anything in the article as fact, but there’s always that non-factual value  – the mood and message that it conveys. One of the anecdotes that’s always stuck with me is about Myrtle Gebhart. Early in her career before writing for fan magazines, she bounced from one writing job to another and worked addressing envelopes at a rate of three dollars for every thousand. According to Mook, her diet at that point “consisted chiefly of peanut butter bought in bulk and spread thinly on crackers.”

So now every time I have peanut butter spread on crackers I think of Myrtle Gebhart, this writer I have very little knowledge of and have definitely never met (she died in 1958 according to Slide). But I have a soft spot for Gebhart and her Mook portrait. As he notes, “there is something splendid about a girl who has been through the mill as Myrtle has.”

In my thesis I got all analytical historian up in the article about the portrayal of women and the rags to riches angle, but that and fact checking aside, there is just something completely enchanting about these little writer portraits in Picture Play.

Mook himself is author of one of my all time favorite quotes: “I prefer dives to palaces, as I feel that in dives you see life, and in palaces you look on an artificial glitter.” True that.

Today I think I can finally eat real food again (hooray), but the brightside to my downside week was the thought of Myrtle and me eating our peanut butter crackers, decades apart but together in spirit.

Three year anniversary.

This is the three year anniversary for me and my current apartment.  It’s the longest I’ve lived in the same place as an adult.

Part of me wonders if I should be disappointed that my old wanderlust was replaced by moving and shaking of a career variety instead of a new-city-new-neighborhood variety.

But everytime I ask that question I say no.  I like who I am and where I am and I feel like what I’m doing is worthwhile.

Everytime I help researchers find what they need, whether they are 10 or 65, I know I’m in the right place.

Yesterday I helped middle school aged kids locate online resources for their National History Day projects.  One student was researching a mid-20th century TV program’s impact.  She was incredibly articulate about her subject, though her mother said multiple times that they picked a “light” topic this year; as if there was some unspoken need to excuse the choice of a pop culture topic.

She didn’t need to excuse her students’ project, especially to me.  Everything is important.  Everything has meaning and value.  It’s all connected in the domino run that is life.

When I first moved to Los Angeles I went to AAA and asked them for all their Los Angeles maps.  I cut them up so the maps fit against one another where one ended and the other began.  I wanted to master the roads and freeways – as a child of the suburbs I was programmed early on to view places through windshield glass.

I don’t have any LA maps on the wall anymore.  There’s still uncharted territory in my mental map of the city, but this is home.

I’ve found my corner.  I feel a mix of delight and disgust that I’ve settled into my routine and that I like it.  I am right where I am suppose to be – at least in this very moment.

The sublet room I lived in when I first moved to Los Angeles.  Full of someone else's furniture and not very well decorated, but what was important made it on the wall.

The sublet room I lived in when I first moved to Los Angeles as a 21 year old. A tiny box of a room right off the living room.  It was full of someone else’s furniture and not very well decorated, but what was important made it on the wall.