Monday, February 28, 2011


So, it turns out that between pictures of my apartment/cat/flowers and meth-puffing carnies, you guys are more interested in the latter. Go figure. I am nothing if not obliging, so today I will tell you more about my experiences with the traveling carnival.

I chose the carnival as the subject of my photo thesis because, well, I was desperate. What I really wanted to shoot was Yooper life, but since the Upper Peninsula was a few thousand miles away from Berkeley, that was not an option. I had no idea what to shoot, and after a bungled week of misunderstandings at a women's shelter, my advisor told me about the carnival so I went to check it out.

The carnival was in Oakland that first day, and it didn't take too long wandering around the midway with my dad's old SLR before I was approached by the grounds manager, whom I will call Billy. He was curious and friendly, and after I'd explained that it was a school project, he gave me some free tickets to ride the big wheel so that I could get a good overview shot. He also got me a copy of their schedule for the season so that I could follow them around the Bay Area.

Wherever the carnival went that season--Hayward, Daly City, San Jose--there I was with my big camera. The more I showed up, the friendlier and more relaxed the staff became around me. I started printing out copies of my best shots to show them how things were progressing, and found myself with a few eager collaborators. Some of the workers were quiet while I photographed them, while others loved to chat. One of my favorites was an older guy who ran the rope ladder game. He told me that he had worked on a carnival in his youth, and that a few years ago his wife had kicked him out and run off with another man, so when his friend invited him to travel with the carnival again, he signed right up. There weren't enough bunks in the trailers, so he slept on the ground underneath one of the rides every night.

I wasn't allowed to see the bunk trailers, and although I can't say everyone there was a user, the drug culture among the crew was noticeable. A couple of the younger guys had the terribly wasted faces of meth addicts, and although they were friendly enough to me, they wanted nothing to do with my project, and I tried to keep a respectful distance. One women sat down with me one night during her cigarette break in a back tent, and told me how once she'd been a nurse and served in the military, and how her drug use had ruined all that. As much as everyone smiled and joked around with me, I could still sense a tense, defensive layer underneath--these were people clustered together on the fringe, in a life of perpetual transience where they could do their work, get paid, and be left alone.

Every time I visited, I would check in with my friend Billy the grounds manager. One night he invited me to come see his dog, so we walked over to his semi truck. I expected a German shepherd, or some sort of bulldog, with a name like King or Killer. Imagine my surprise when a scrawny little Chihuahua jumped out and raced in circles around us. His name was Mr. Pippin.

The last night I visited the carnival, it was at a school grounds in San Jose. Billy came over to say hi like he usually did, and then in a low voice he asked me, "Hey Rachel, you get high?" I don't remember what I answered, but after I took the last few shots I needed, I left and never went back. The carnival was a fascinating world, but the more I visited it, the closer I got to seeing the darkness behind the brightly colored lights. I felt that Billy's offer meant that I had crossed a threshold of trust, that he was letting me in one step closer to the hard life of a carnival worker. But I only wanted to watch from behind the guardrails, not take the ride myself.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cartier-Bresson I Am Not

I'm at a bit of a loss for intelligent content today, so instead we will have to make do with a photo essay. Let us begin with the creature that battles daily for control of my lap. This is Simon, feline extraordinaire. Pay no notice to the stinkeye he is giving us; he really is an excellent cat.

But what is that behind Simon? Looks like someone's been wasting time being productive by sorting and stacking the critiqued chapters of her WIP.

Too disturbing? Let's switch gears to something less stressful. How about a nice kalanchoe? This beauty was withering growing in my tiny garden, until I decided that it was taking up valuable tomato real estate. Now it's thriving in a nice pot.

Would you believe that I did my Masters thesis in photojournalism? Probably not. But I did; my subject was a traveling carnival. Here are some of the photos I took:

I followed the same carnival company around the SF Bay Area for a season. The pictures were all pretty tame, because the really gritty stuff that happens on a carnival crew: a) was off-limits for me to photograph, according to the carnival owners, and b) is scary. I do believe that it is important to document the destructive effects of meth abuse, but I am not the man for that job.

Whoa, Rachel, we're veering off on a tangent here. Let's get back on theme:

Mmm, my daily latte in my favorite mug. A kitchen is not complete without at least a couple of roosters, don't you think? No, just me? Well, I am from the Midwest. 

And here is a flower that just bloomed in my garden. Can you tell me what it is? Seriously, I have no idea what it is. 

Thanks for humoring me, now get back to work.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This Is Never Going To End

Hello friends, and welcome to my new followers! I'm so glad to have you here--thanks for coming along on my little journey.

I don't have much time for posting right now, between my Big Sur prep and getting kinda slammed at work, so I'll keep this brief. I am currently revising. And revising. And revising. I am revising stuff I thought was completely done, sections that I thought were polished to gemlike smoothness, only to go back a month later and find all kinds of ragged phrasing. What the heck?! Does this ever end?

In addition, I did the unthinkable and just rewrote my entire first chapter. Thanks so much to Cherie and Liz for their critiques and advice on this. I NEVER thought that I would rewrite the opening. It was exactly how I wanted it. Until...stuff was pointed out to me and, well...let's just say I didn't want it that way anymore. Folks, if you're not getting critiques--get on it. They are invaluable. You write YA sci-fi? Try me. I love that stuff.

Alright, that's all for today. I'm going to leave you with another video. This is the song that got me through most of my first draft--I love it! And now I'm going to go chase the cat off the curtains.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Best Hostess Ever

I don't usually post on Sundays, but tomorrow is a holiday and there is a chance I will be spending it staring at polar bears in San Diego. At least that is the plan for now. It's also a good time to post because I'm lying captive on a heating pad, having thrown out my back yet again. Oy.

I've tweaked my back rather frequently since I injured it last August (at the gym; I am a dummy), but last night's incident was kind of hilarious. We were hosting a little dinner for a few friends, and I was leaning over the table cutting slices of apple cake while our guests played Gran Turismo 5, because our dinner parties are classy like that. As I was cutting the last piece, my back went THWANG! and I threw down the plate and silverware with a clatter and fell into a chair. Then I spent the rest of the evening entertaining my guests from the floor. Actually that's incorrect--my charming guests gathered in a circle around me and entertained me, and fed me cake. On the floor.

Anyhow, don't feel sorry for me--I'm sucking down Advil like a champ and feeling better already. I even made it through a three-hour cheese-making class this afternoon. I already tried PT and it bored me to tears, so back to yoga I go, starting Tuesday. You know what else starts Tuesday? Another freaking SMACKDOWN. The Big Sur workshop is in less than two weeks and I am so not ready. I don't even know if I'm going to write up a schedule this time--I'm just planning to plant my tail in front of the computer as much as possible and write like bears are chasing me.

I'll let you know how that goes.  Happy Presidents' Day!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mingus Ah Um

So I was hopping around reading the different blogfest responses on Wednesday, and a few things stood out to me. For one, you guys are a bunch of pottymouths! Haha, just kidding. I think I saw just as many creative obscenity-substitutes as I did references to the f-word. But there were a few other things that I noticed. Many of you never want to work in the medical profession. Many of you enjoy the sounds of nature. And although I didn't get a chance to read all the blogs, in those that I did, I don't think I ever saw a favorite word repeated anywhere. Delightful!

The thing that stood out the most, though, is that many writers are turned on creatively by music. I've written a post on this before, but today it got me thinking about the history of music in my life.

Growing up, I had a mother who played us mostly classical music, and a father who played almost exclusively the Beatles. I think I could sing just about any Beatles song you name, even the most obscure ones. When I got to high school, two things happened: Nirvana had just hit the scene, and my family got cable. For four years, I lived and breathed grunge music on MTV. By graduation I had some new hippy friends, so I showed up for college wearing tie-dye and listening to Phish and the Grateful Dead. Oh, the joyful/embarrassing stage of trying to figure out who you are.

In high school, I had played piano in the jazz band, and so freshman year at Central I took History of Jazz to fill an elective, and soon my cd shelves filled up with jazz artists. I haven't listened to most of these in a while, but I still love jazz. One of my favorite artists is Charles Mingus.

Charles Mingus was a musician and composer who produced most of his work from the 50s to the 70s. His music was influenced strongly by gospel and the hard bop of the 50s, as well as classical music. He was known as a master of the double bass, although he was a talented piano player as well. He was a physically large guy and apparently had a violent onstage temper, and like many jazz musicians, he died fairly young. "Better Git It In Your Soul" is one of my favorite songs of his, so I'm going to share it below. Hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Culture Broth

Today I am participating in the Bernard Pivot blogfest, hosted by the lovely Nicole at One Significant Moment At A Time.  Here is a photo of Mr. Pivot himself, looking dashing:

I learned from my friend Wikipedia that the questions Mr. Pivot asks his interviewees are called a Proust Questionnaire, which came from the Marcel Proust's popular responses to an English-language confession album, which was a trendy thing to do in the nineteenth century. I love Wikipedia.

Here are my responses:

1. What is your favorite word? This week my favorite word is Delightful 
2. What is your least favorite word? Gum - the word and the substance both gross me out more than you could possibly know
3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Loud, powerful music
4. What turns you off? Conflict, aggression
5. What is your favorite curse word? The f-word (sorry Mom). Also, frack, which makes me a dork.
6. What sound or noise do you love? The squeaky noise my cat makes when he wakes up and stretches
7. What sound or noise do you hate? Fighting. Yelling. I am pretty non-confrontational.
8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Well, kind of attempting it right now...but otherwise, I think I might have made a good nurse.
9. What profession would you not like to do? Lawyer or anything that sounds similarly tedious to me
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? "Job well done."

I hope you found my answers halfway interesting. Please go to the master list and check out some of the other bloggers' posts!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Must Have Been That Puerile Archer

This morning I told my husband all about how American children celebrate Valentine's Day--selecting a box of assorted cards and filling them out with your classmates' names, and designing the bag or box to put on your desk for the free period where you get to walk around and deliver all your cards. He thought it sounded like a horrific early exercise in clique development. I don't know, I always thought it was fun, and I was not a popular girl.

I didn't date much in high school or college, but Valentine's Day never really bothered me. I had no sweetie to celebrate with until I was 21 and living in Munich, where I was entangled in a very dysfunctional relationship with a very dysfunctional Czech/German boy. It was the waning phase of our coupledom and I wasn't seeing very much of him, so I was surprised and touched when he dropped by my apartment with a little heart-shaped homemade cake that he said he'd baked for me. I later heard that he'd employed his sister to bake several of those cakes, one for every girlfriend he had. That still makes me laugh. What a tool.

I've been very lucky to celebrate over a decade of Valentine's Days with my husband, but we wouldn't have had any if we hadn't survived the first one. We'd been friends for about a year, during which he'd made it clear to me that he was interested. In return, I put up a giant wall that he persistently chipped away at, finally breaking through about a week before Valentine's Day. I knew he was a great guy, but I was fighting the idea of giving up my freedom and starting a relationship, and I'm ashamed to say that I was pretty mean to him on Valentine's Day. How mean, Rachel? Well...

He took me out for a cappuccino on my lunch break and brought me a red rose. I got irritated that we weren't having lunch and hid the rose under my desk. He made dinner plans for us to go out with my friends. I got irritated that we weren't dining alone. He misunderstood up the timing, so we sat around waiting for people who had already left and went late to the restaurant. I used this as an excuse to be a holy terror. He later told me that as we sat in the subway not talking to each other, he was wondering if he'd made a mistake.

Grissini, scene of the revelation that I was evil
When we got to the restaurant, our friends cheered. They'd been rooting for us to date all along, and knowing that we were running late, they hadn't even ordered the starters yet. As I sat down, I took a deep breath and mentally stepped back to look at how I was behaving. Then I gave myself a harsh scolding, told myself to stop being a shithead, and grabbed the hand of my terrified date and smiled my nicest smile. And that is when I surrendered to being his girlfriend, one of the best decisions of my life.

Thank you, sweetheart, for not running away screaming like you wanted to. We both know the happy sapfest that followed. And for all you other folk reading this, I'm really not that horrible. Promise.

Friday, February 11, 2011

One For the Action Fangirls

When my now-husband and I first moved in together, we were living in an apartment in Istanbul. I was just starting Turkish lessons, and so there were only a few channels that I could watch on tv in the evening. I owe MTV Europe my deepest thanks for all the hours of entertainment and cultural education they provided. To give you a frame of reference, the videos that were burned into my memory forever include Destiny's Child's "Independent Woman," Madonna's "Music," Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U," and the Wu-Tang Clan's "Gravel Pit."

There was at least one channel that aired English-language movies. I remember one evening when my boyfriend was flipping through to find something we both could watch, and I caught a glimpse of Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery duking it out on Alcatraz. You know what I'm talking about: The Rock, an awesome 1996 action thriller and undoubtedly Michael Bay's finest work.

"Go back!" I squawked. "I love that movie!"
Old Nicholas Cage, I miss you so much

My boyfriend gave me a sideways glance. "No, you don't," he said.

It's hard to convey the precise tone that this was said in, but basically he implied that because I am female, I cannot love action movies. Apoplectic is the proper word to describe my reaction. Once I'd calmed down, we watched the rest of the movie together, and he's never questioned my love of action movies since.

Something we hear over and over is how the YA market is geared toward teenage girls, and therefore there must be some form of romance in your book for it to be a hit. You know what I was reading when I was a teenage girl? Everything Stephen King ever wrote. I read some Tanith Lee, some Michael Crichton. Granted, there wasn't the vast selection of YA novels that there are today, but I think I would have stayed away from the love stories. I'm not saying that I hate romance--when it's done well, it's fantastic. It's just not my first choice.

I'm sure most any publishing professional would tell me, That's nice dear, but the reality of the situation is, the girls who buy books like romance. And, well, it is what it is. But the book I'm writing is for the teenage me. There's no romance--my characters are too busy trying to survive to chase girls. I'm not saying I won't write anything romantic, ever. Just not right now, because that is not the story I want to tell. I think the teenage me would approve. (Whether or not any publisher agrees with me remains to be seen, haha. Maybe the joke will be on me!)

What are your thoughts on this subject? I think we all know the advice, "do your best and write the story you want to tell," but do you consider the teen girl audience when you're drafting your work?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Report

Would you call yourself a seizer or a saver? When you have the opportunity to enjoy something nice like a favorite food or a new piece of clothing, do you seize the moment and eat the food right away, wear the new clothing as soon as you own it? Or do you tend to hold on to these nice things, saving them for the right moment to savor your little treasure, relishing the anticipation?

I tend to be a saver. It's not always the best choice--my favorite food has gone cold on my plate while I'm busy gobbling up everything else, saving it for last. Beautiful new clothes have gone unworn, eventually forgotten in the back of my closet, while I run around in an Old Navy t-shirt every day. It's stupid, I know, and something I try to change about myself.

Before my recent trip, I found myself hoarding a familiar item: books I was really looking forward to reading. Sometimes the anticipation pays off and sometimes it doesn't, but happily for me, there were some real winners in the group. I generally don't do book reviews on my blog, but today I want to plug a few:

Across the Universe - What a great concept here: girl awoken, trapped in a mystery on a giant spaceship, knowing that she won't be able to awaken her parents for fifty years. Yow. The best part of the book for me was trying to figure out what secrets Eldest was keeping from Elder.  The whodunnit part I found fairly easy to guess, and I really wished that the final secret that was revealed would have been kept a secret, but that's just my taste. In any case, I'm certainly reading the sequel.

Paper Towns - Is there a John Green for President campaign yet? How can you not love someone who uses their platform to promote intelligence and common sense, and generally not being a sucky person? He's like the Jon Stewart of YA--his books are both hilarious and thoughtful. I liked Looking for Alaska, but Paper Towns really stood out for me. The underlying theme of how your idea of someone is affected both by your own skewed perception of how they should be, and by how they present their public side, is something I already think about a lot. If more people tried to remember this, I think we would all get along better.

The Marbury Lens - I'll be the first one to admit that I've got a weakness for damaged boys, and Jack is the ultimate in damaged goods.  The premise is very unique--when I read the description, I thought, how do you get from sexual assault and murder in California to fantastical inter-world travel in London? But it's more than just a wildly imaginative plot, because this book goes deeper and has you questioning what's real and what's not, and thinking about things like mental health and coping mechanisms. It's neatly interwoven but still completely unpredictable, which gets huge points from me, and the characters are very real and very engaging.

The Knife of Never Letting Go - I was put off first by the title of this book, and then by the misspelled dialect used by the main character, but once I gave it a chance and got a little further, I fell in love. It's a fast-paced adventure of the best kind and the sort of book I wish I had written. The main characters are flawed but appealing, and the author is so hard on them. It has some similar sci-fi elements that reminded me of Across the Universe, so if you liked that book, I implore you to try this one. One thing: I'm glad I didn't read this when it came out in 2008, or I would have been royally pissed at the author for the monster cliffhanger ending.

And that's it--I only made it through four books on my trip, what with all the sightseeing and socializing and whatnot. If you've read them, I'd love to hear your opinions, and if you haven't, I strongly recommend all of them.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Aaaaaand we're back!

I'm sitting here racking my brain for a lovely quote about travel or some such thing to open with, but sorry, I've got nothing. I am a jellied sack of jet-lagged mush--albeit a content one. There's something very satisfying about the routine after you return home from your travels, unpacking and doing laundry and getting settled back in, having survived your journey intact. 

The trip was great. Saw some very cool stuff, met fun people, ate tasty food (although I think I could stand to go a year or so without seeing another french fry). Almost met my end in York by taking a bad step off a curb, which sounds dumb but is surprisingly easy to do when you let your right-lane instincts take over in a pinch. Learned of the joy of hot coffee and rum in a pub in Edinburgh after nearly taking flight in one heck of a windstorm. Went to Manchester and...well, not much happened in Manchester. It rained, I bought a dress.

One thing that completely blew me away was how polite and friendly British people are. If there are any Brits reading this blog, and my stats tell me there are approximately one of you, then kudos to you on being so damn civilized! Maybe I just felt that way because I was visiting from Los Angeles, where your chances are about 30-30-40 of running across: a) a nice normal person, b) a phony pod-person, or c) a raging asshole. And, once you've been living here a while, you have about the same odds of being one of those yourself at any given time.

Angeleno aggression notwithstanding, I had a big smile on my face today as my taxi flew down Lincoln Blvd. Most of that had to do with the sunshine and the warm breeze whipping my hair around, but also because I'm excited. I got the break I needed, I read some great books (more on those later), and I'm ready to get back to work. I've got a big month ahead of me--it turns out that I'm going to the Big Sur writing workshop in March, and the amount of work I have to do beforehand to prepare is frightening. Like, I want to go stick my head in the pool and scream frightening. But it's going to be okay.

Anyhow, I need to go pick up my cat now. So happy to be back!