My grandmother collected perfume bottles, a seeming whimsy for a woman of such plainness and ferocity. I have three of them, given to me when she was still alive. They lived in a drawer and then later, in a decorative moment, on the bookshelf, where I have since placed them higher and higher out of reach, as my daughter has attempted to climb up to play with them, a slow-moving game between us, until now they are so high up as to be out of view. I tend not to be sentimental about objects, but I at least don’t want them to break, this being all I possess from my grandmother, anything else guarded by her surviving daughter, who, having remained unmarried, still lives alone in the house in which she was born, that being the way in my family. The bottles are candy-colored glass—blue and purple twins with matching Bakelite flowers as the stoppers, and another newer, smaller one, with complementary hand-painted purple flowers with bluish-green stems and yellow pistils at the centers, and with a gold atomizer. They are not valuable—objects in my family become antiques only through accruing dust in the house they’ve inhabited, on mantles and in glass. I can still see the menagerie that resided on the heavy wooden dresser in my grandmother’s bedroom, which was covered with plastic and underneath it a lace doily. On top of the doily, viewable through the plastic, were black-and-white photographs: portraits of relatives, baby photos, and photographs of her late husband, who died when she was still a young woman with a young child, leaving her a widow until her death in her nineties, half-paralyzed from a stroke but still ruling the world from her dining room table, waving her grabber at her grown children, gleefully threatening to hit them with it for whatever crime committed, usually (her word) stupidity. The table itself was covered always with at least a cheap cloth-backed vinyl or plastic decorative tablecloth of garish pattern, frayed or cracking at the edges, and for holidays, a nicer, solid-colored linen cloth on top. Underneath was the heavy mahogany table, like all the furniture in my grandmother’s house, the immovable furniture of generations. My grandmother’s collection of perfume bottles crowded next to her jewelry, which was minimal and rotely worn, including not only her heavy wedding band, which my sister keeps asking for, but also her silver watch, which my grandmother must have had to wear to keep time while working the linens counter at Marshall Field’s all those decades after becoming a widow, having had to close up her husband’s butcher shop and store where she had previously presided behind the register, the calves widening from girlish into matronly, all those varicose vein decades, after suddenly becoming a single mother with a young child to raise, her older grown sons, the twins, away in the Navy, later returning in order to gather around their mother, one staying unmarried and in that house until his untimely death, the other moving away, but not too far, that other being my father, who accrued his own museum, having lived for his own decades in the state of the widower, although his savings account was never the subject of existential dread, he having been the one who made all the money in his marital life, my mother at home with the children, as was the way. She was a saint, an angel, both my uncle, my grandmother’s son, and my father, my grandmother’s other son, said about both their mother and my mother, respectively, at their funerals, one having died of an astonishing old age, and the other, at a sudden and tragic middle age. I didn’t recognize who they were talking about. All I recognized was the empty monologue of Catholicism, which serves to erase by anointing the woman at home, who only exists in service to others but not to herself. Does she even exist, I often have wondered, to herself? Writing this I have no idea why my grandmother collected perfume bottles, were they gifts that her sons brought home from overseas, and they began to unthinkingly accumulate, over birthdays and Christmases? My grandmother cut her ridged nails with the kitchen scissors, she never wore makeup, let alone perfume. I have no idea what my grandmother, or my aunt, or my mother, thought about at night in their empty houses, in the solitude of caretakers. I have no idea if they were unhappy, whether they thought of their girlhood, or when the children were young, whether they had regrets, and if they could, what would they confess? I have no idea because I never asked, and they would never have said. It would have been an impossibility. Their inner monologue would have been closed to me. Read More
People were drinking wine out of plastic cups. The chairs were pushed close together. Bags were tucked under feet. I sat on the bookshop stage with two other writers, ready to read our ghost stories. Before we began, the moderator asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” After a pause, we spoke of doubt. Creepy incidents were related. I found myself saying that perhaps the dead might be watching us.
I’ve never seen a soul move through the air. I am not sure that we are anything more than a skin-bag of electrical impulses. But ghosts are different from the other uncanny citizens. They are only one step away from the known. To become a ghost, you don’t have to be bitten by a vampire or receive a curse or encounter a mad scientist or fall under the spell of a full moon. All you have to do is die.
Still, I imagine the first days of ghosthood would be tricky. There are so many different hauntings, so many ways to do it. In a way, it reminds me of puberty. The unpredictable shifts. Sudden changes in weight and the way people see you. Unexpected blood. Puberty was a process I did not enjoy and, unluckily for me, it was nothing I could google—or more accurately “Ask Jeeves,” the search engine my IT teacher recommended. It was a time when strange men’s penises appeared in my Hotmail account and were not caught by the junk filter. I didn’t trust the internet. And so I found myself flipping to the back of the magazines my classmates’ mothers bought. The paper was always wrinkled from the girls’ hands that had come before. At the back would be a quiz or a decision tree to tell you what sort of person you were or would become. Sometimes there was the freckle of a biro mark, or an initial to mark the previous reader’s path. It was reassuring.
Playing around, I tried to devise one as an introduction to that stage of life yet to come—our ghosthoods. Read More
When I talk to people in the city about whether they come to Oakland, be it 2007 or 2019, the answer is a resounding “never,” followed by redundant stories of car break-ins and not wanting to take BART at night. No matter how many East Bay, Marin and Contra Costa County, or Central Valley residents head through the Transbay tunnel or across the Golden Gate or Bay Bridge every day to San Francisco, going to Oakland is a seemingly annual trip for city dwellers, who usually make the pilgrimage for city-sponsored art crawls or like-minded Fox Theater concerts or, at one time, a Warriors game. The lack of streetlights and noticeable foot traffic for years made people fear downtown Oakland compared to the more geographically concentrated city by the bay. Despite the similar amount of crime in the two cities, it’s Oakland where everyone assumes they’ll be shot on sight or that the ghost of Huey Newton will greet them at the Twelfth Street BART with a shotgun and a toll for Whites Only.
Downtown Oakland is changing in many ways, but my habits on Fourteenth and Jackson aren’t one of them. A smoke by Lake Merritt and some quarter snacks from the bodega next to the Ruby Room lead to nuggets from the fast-food dispensary next to my old building, Peralta Apartments on Thirteenth and Jackson. Eating and smoking under the ground-floor tree, three floors below the apartment that housed me, my books, my desk, my box spring, and mattress twice the box spring’s size beginning in June 2007, a year after I graduated from UC Berkeley a few BART stops away.
Downtown was feared when I first moved to the East Bay in 2002. It was the small businesses of Seventeenth Street’s previously tree-lined lane between Franklin and Webster and Chinatown that held up downtown for years, most of the money leaving around 2 P.M. when the business class went home early. Vacant lots and dilapidated car repair shops dotted Telegraph across from the Oakland Black Box, where I first performed poetry in the Town as a teenager. Read More
Once upon a time, five people with strong opinions were invited to view an old tree and offer their thoughts.
The first one said: “I’m a big-picture person. At first glance, I can say this tree is too big for its own good. We need to lop some limbs off.”
The second one said: “It’s not the architecture of the tree that bothers me but the parts that make up the whole. Anywhere I direct my attention, I can see ten or twenty imperfect leaves.”
The third one said: “This tree is much too old to be relevant. Its life began when the world was wrong in many ways: patriarchal, despotic, undemocratic. Why should we care about something growing out of that history?”
The fourth one said: “The world is still wrong in many ways. A tree like this does little to solve the political, socioeconomic, and environmental issues of today.”
The fifth one said: “I am not a tree person. Roses and nightingales are worthy subjects of my attention, and I consider it an insult to my talent to be asked to look at a tree.”
Anytime one talks about War and Peace, one is reminded of the tree’s critics. Fortunately, a majestic tree has no need for a defender. Read More
Jim Jarmusch’s small, eerie collages are all about faces. And about the bodies attached to those faces. And about what happens when faces get switched off onto other bodies. You could say that Jarmusch, ever the director, is engaging in exploratory casting. He wants to see Stanley Kubrick in the role of a golfer, and Nico as a Vegas crooner, and Jane Austen winding up on the mound, and Albert Einstein as a rock star, and Bernie Sanders as a dog. Andy Warhol, meanwhile, just goes ahead and casts himself in every role, turning all of them into “Andy Warhol.”
Personalities can transfer their qualities to other modes of life, and you are invited to imagine the results of the ensuing cognitive dissonance. When there is little discernible personality, or when parties have abandoned their personalities in favor of a position—political or legal or corporate or academic—they simply become their blather. You imagine that those thumbprints of text, sitting above shoulders, are excerpts from an endless gray ribbon of rhetoric that unspools continuously. And then there are those humans whose heads are empty, the same color as the mount. Since some are villains and some are heroes, that does not seem to carry a moral implication. Maybe they represent all those who suffer from stomach troubles. Read More
Such an odd thing, packing a rucksack. It’s an act of austerity that liberates even as it frustrates. For every item to earn its place on my puny shoulders, it must be life-preserving in some way. I limit myself to 26.5 pounds, casting out the frivolous, the inessential. I check weather forecasts, tear spines from books, put things in—paints, camera lenses, walnuts—then throw them out. Every time I toss away an item, I feel a swift stab of anxiety followed by a ripple of lightness. So that even as I shunt the pack onto my back, I experience a sense of weightlessness. I have become disencumbered. Free. My life whittled down to the bone.
Simone de Beauvoir’s rucksack invariably contained a candle, an alarm clock, a copy of the local Guide Bleu, a Michelin map, and a felt-covered water bottle filled with red wine. She hadn’t always walked with a rucksack: when she arrived in Marseilles, age twenty-three, to take up her first teaching post, she’d walked with a basket. It was here, among the mountains, valleys, and cliffs of Provence, that a passion for solitary rambles and “communion with nature” first took hold of her. “I derived a satisfaction I had never known in all the rush and bustle of my Paris life,” she wrote in her memoir.
But the funny thing is, no one thinks of Beauvoir as a backpacking hillwalker. We think of her sitting in smoky Paris cafes, a string of pearls at her neck, a chic turban wrapped around her head, Jean-Paul Sartre philosophizing at her side.
This is not my Simone de Beauvoir. My Beauvoir—the version I unearth from her letters, memoirs, journals, and books, and in whose footsteps I walk—is a compelling, courageous, often reckless hiker. A lover of bare hills, forests, mountain ranges. A woman who walks as audaciously and rigorously as she thinks. A woman who shows us how walking can return us to our bodies. A woman who is nothing to do with Jean-Paul Sartre. Read More