Bookmarked Place: Francesca Lia Block’s Manhattan

St. John the Divine

Visiting the Upper West Side’s Peace Fountain in 2012

Fiction represents places in ways that resonate or inspire, validating our own experiences or giving us new perspectives on them. For this reason, I’ve been meaning to start a series of blog posts in which I relate books to places. This is my first attempt at such a post.

Francesca Lia Block is best known for her tales of a magical Los Angeles, but her knack for capturing the spirit of a place isn’t limited to her native city. Although a seasoned New Yorker might disapprove of turning to a California author for a representation of the city, as a fellow Californian with a connection to NYC, I relate to Block’s vision of New York.

Block captures a certain fantasy of the city. It’s a distant presence in many of her books, including Weetzie Bat. The iconic Weetzie, a quirky blonde pixie of a protagonist, knows NYC through her New Yorker father, who sends her “postcards with pictures of the Empire State Building or reproductions of paintings from the Metropolitan Museum, Statue of Liberty key chains, and plastic heart jewelry.” In I Was a Teenage Fairy, main-character Barbie (named after a doll she doesn’t want to be like) imagines a symbolic New York woman:

She is always carrying bags of clothes, bouquets of roses, take-out Chinese containers, or bagels. Museum tags fill her pockets and purses, along with perfume samples and invitations to art gallery openings. When she is walking to work, to ward off bums or psychos, her face resembles the Statue of Liberty, but at home in her candlelit, dove-colored apartment, the stony look fades away and she smiles like the sterling roses she has bought for herself to make up for the fact that she is single and her feet are sore.

This image may be romanticized or stereotypical, but it demonstrates Block’s fearlessness in delving into the aesthetics and associations of place and popular culture—all of which draw me to her work.

Although I am far from a naturalized New Yorker, I did live there, once, and that period of residency was about as formative as a stint of less than three years could be. Continue reading


New England Leaves

New England 2015

Let’s rewind to the first of October . . .

K and I set out for New England, chasing that moment when the Eastern seaboard transforms into technicolor autumn. Instead, we found ourselves navigating the earliest touches of fall. The leaves teased us with bursts and patterns unpredictable, as if to say: You left, and you can’t just have everything back all at once, and only for a week. 

Still, we went apple-picking with young-couple relatives and their tots, sipped cider and marveled at how unique even the smallest humans are.

New England 2015


We visited a gothic summer cottage, scaled the White Mountains of New Hampshire in an aerial tramway, walked among miniature mountain-top trees, and watched trained bears dance. I knocked my head multiple times, and hard, against the low, slanted ceilings of our frilly bed-and-breakfast rooms, just below the attic, and felt like an overgrown Alice fumbling through a dollhouse. However, the breakfast was delicious. Later, we dined on Thanksgiving fare and I drank a glass of cranberry wine. We played old-school arcade games and drove back to Massachusetts.

New England 2015


New England 2015

Thanks to the pervasive autumn chill, I found myself once again craving tea throughout the day, so I scrounged up whatever I could find—tea bags in the back corner of a cupboard, Earl Grey k-cups that sputtered in a faulty Keurig machine. Upon my return to Oakland I was greeted by a cerulean blue sky, warm sun, and palm trees silhouetted above skyscrapers of humble stature. I made a beeline, tugging my suitcase-on-wheels behind me, for Burrito Express, and thanked my lucky stars that I live in California.

And so my beloved autumn has become a fantasy season, more inspiring in daydreams and tumblr photos than it is in person. Still, I miss the long stretches of brilliant hues I experienced in Maine, when each of the seasons awaited me and I had time to enjoy my pumpkin spice coffee and crisp, cool breezes day by day, instead of trying to scoop up all of the pleasures of fall in the space of one week. Traditional seasons evade me here, but it’s a small price to pay to live in the region that feels more like home than any other. And so my heart lives in disparate places, but mostly—approximately—it’s here.



5 Tips for Staying Creative While Working

My office has been an intensely focused, deadline-driven environment lately, and it’s gotten me thinking about how to stay inspired under the circumstances. Part of what sparked this line of thinking was actually the observation of how good that intense focus feels to my brain, and how it makes me want to apply the same level of dedication to my independent pursuits. I like the stability my current job provides, and I think it leaves me in a good place to find the peace of mind to concentrate on other aspects of my life as well—that is, if I can learn to balance my creative and working lives. I’m no shining example, but I have found a few things that give me hope that I can one day finish that dreamy novel or short story collection while holding down my desk job. Here are my tips for staying inspired at work, not just about your immediate projects, but about your own creative aspirations:

  1. Jot down ideas. It’s when I’m most immersed in what I’m doing at work that the creative juices start to flow. I’ll get an idea for a story or blog post while deep into editing a technical document. That’s why I keep a small notebook with me. I take it out when inspiration hits, jot down what comes to mind, and go back to the task at hand. This often happens when I’m at my most productive, work-wise, which is why this article kind of makes sense to me. I also tend to be hit with inspiration while caffeinated, which brings me to my next tip.
  2. Have a cuppa. I’m not proud of my caffeine addiction, but I find that a well-timed cup of coffee or tea can really boost my level of inspiration (and yes, timing is crucial; consider following this advice to figure out when caffeine most benefits you). I find that late morning or afternoon is best for me; in the early morning, I like to ease into my day, and a full cup of coffee can rattle me. But later on, it sends me soaring through my work.

  3. Take a walk. Whether a lunchtime stroll or a determined walk to public transit, I find that the rhythm and elevated heart rate of walking gets me into a different state of mind. On days when I choose to walk to BART instead of taking the shuttle, I sometimes find myself so mentally energized that I stop every few blocks to take out my notepad. It’s a whole different experience than jostling on a bus.
  4. Recognize artistry. Whether you’re making pies or websites, or ringing up customers, there is an art to what you do. There is a way of interacting with people that works best, a method of organizing files or moving through tasks that gets better results and, likely, leaves you in a better mood. Recognize these moments of accomplishment, and if possible, take a moment to admire what you and your coworkers have done. You might be amazed at what you’ve created, and that boost of confidence can be carried over into other pursuits.
  5. Add art. Fill the interstices of your day with things that inspire you. Listen to music if you can (for working, I like classical).  If you work at a desk, bring in objects that you like to look at, but won’t distract you (I have a miniature snow globe that I like to turn over at moments when I need a quick dose of whimsy). During breaks, read something with the right amount of substance and escapism. In other words, make time, even if it’s just five minutes, for something you love.

So, that’s my list for the moment. What keeps you happy and inspired at work? How do you balance your work life with outside pursuits? I’d love to hear more ideas about how to tackle these daily challenges.


Ordinary Transformations: Ms. Hempel Chronicles


Living as they did, at the top of the house, Beatrice and her brother were surrounded by trees. In the summer, their rooms filled with a green light. In the winter, the fir boughs grew heavy with snow and brushed against their windowpanes. Because they lived in rooms meant only for servants, their windows were small and perfectly square, not long and grand like those in the rest of the house. But they preferred it this way; they liked living in their tiny rooms, aloft in the trees; they liked the green light falling in squares at their feet. Their rooms were almost the same, but not quite: Calvin had a fireplace in his, and Beatrice had a wall of bookshelves built into hers.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Ms. Hempel Chronicles

I’m lucky enough to have the occasional Wednesday off. Sometimes it’s used for errands or appointments, but on a recent mid-week reprieve, I woke to a quiet apartment and crawled into my new reading chair, bathed in buttery sunlight, and revisited a book I’ve read and loved before. I was struck by the passage abovethe feeling of childhood comfort and make believe in a private world up in the trees. I felt like I was stepping into my own little lofty room away up in the eaves, even though I’m really in a first-floor apartment. On that recent quiet Wednesdaywhich I reminisce about now knowing I won’t have another one for a good little chunk of timemy space was as peaceful as any hideaway.

editedfullnookHaving recently left my twenties behind and just barely entered my thirties, there was no better moment to reread this book. Beatrice Hempel is a middle school English teacher in her late twenties when we meet her, and this period of her life unifies the book, providing points of entry into her past and future. Rather than a strict chronology, the book is structured as a series of narrative glimpses into various stages of Ms. Hempel’s development.

Yet we never really get past an indeterminate point in her thirties, and don’t go much further back than her teens. That’s one of the things I love about this bookit portrays a slice of life that seems, from my vantage point, heady with identity formation. Ms. Hempel occupies the awkward years seldom spoken of as such, when one is outwardly an adult, but not old enough to have fully left youth culture behind.


In the book’s first chapter, Ms. Hempel sits in the middle school auditorium watching a talent show, wondering how to react to the risqué rap lyrics (I feel a poke coming through …) accompanying a dance routine. She is “caught, again, in an awkward position: still young enough to decipher the lyrics, yet old enough to feel that a certain degree of outrage was required of her.” The moment is typical of Ms. Hempel: She is capable of compelling insights while remaining fairly clueless about how to respond to them. She senses that her position is delicate, placed at an instrumental point not only in her life but in the lives of her students. And though she often wins over her students, just as often, she feels a sense of unease about her own legitimacy as a teacher.

The book is filled not only with her own dynamic memories, but with her affection for the quirky, innocent troublemakersfrom ebulliently confident Harriet Reznik to dark-and-stormy Jonathan Hamishwho color her days. Still, it’s Ms. Hempel’s personality that carries the book throughher ability to slip into a fantasy world while riding a school bus, or to view her fiancé’s sexual kink with a wryness tempered by a longing for romance. Bynum combines humorous realism with an almost Victorian whimsy, and it’s a pairing I find endlessly appealing.

When I first read this book, just a year or two ago, I wrote that “reading this book in my late twenties was like reading The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13. Perfect timing.” Which leads to my next question: Do certain books mark certain times in your own life? Which books do you find yourself rereading, and how have your tastes changed (or stayed the same) over the years?


Sweet Sunday in Old Oakland


Timeworn beauty and a tangle of blossoms

Most Sundays, K and I walk to a nearby farmers’ market. The stretch of houses, shops, and sights between our apartment and Jack London Square has become familiar, yet I still notice new details each time.

Today, camera in tow, my eyes were opened to the fantastic murals along the way. I’ve always been enchanted by the mix of historic homes, industrial spaces, and bright splashes of color, but this time, looking for interesting backdrops for my maxi-dress ensemble, I became better acquainted with these public works of art.


Close-up of a mural by Youth Spirit Artworks and Community Rejuvenation Project, outside the local chapter of the Engineers and Scientists of California

You can feel the layers of urban history here as sprawling murals give way to quaint side streets. One of our favorite spots in the heart of Old Oakland is the used bookstore run by the Friends of the Oakland Public Library. It appears small, but it’s the kind of place stocked with books you’ve been meaning to read and had almost forgotten about until they magically appear before you (at least, that’s my experience here).

Today, there was a sign outside the store asking “Who is your favorite female protagonist?” A number of answers had been scrawled on the whiteboard, from Scout Finch to Morgan Le Fay. It’s a difficult question, but in that moment, I added Anne Shirley to the list.


Later, we wove back to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and followed it through residential streets into the wider expanses of the warehouses and lofts between Old Oakland and the waterfront.


Wind, leaves, and motion in Roots Run Deep by Meggs

I got lost in another mural—a swirling force of reds, teals, and ferocity—before landing at our final destination: the square at the harbor, where heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, and okra awaited.


The nautical splendor of Jack London Square

Although I like the anonymity of the city, I love having a local list of places that I can go to while still feeling at home. Though Jack London Square has a touristy bent, I can’t help but feel that a gussied-up marina is a luxurious location to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. The waterfront has really grown on me, which was probably inevitable, as I’m always drawn to the nearest body of water—being near the ocean or a rushing river gives such a feeling of release.

What are your weekend routes and routines? What sights and experiences comfort and inspire you?


Crown & Crumpet

teacupladycollage timeforteamecollageFor my birthday, K took me to Crown & Crumpet, a tea room I learned of from the Heroine Training blog. It was pretty much exactly as I imagined: a light-filled space embellished with whimsical touches, like a clock with teacups and saucers instead of numbers.

The service was as friendly and lighthearted as the tea room itself. We ordered a large pot of Crown & Crumpet Private Blend, a proper black tea. My three-tiered Tea for One included a satisfying sampling of finger sandwiches and treats, though K’s sandwich (I think it was mozzarella chicken) was the tastiest of the savory fare.


The warm blueberry scone with lemon curd was my favorite.

Going by the numbers, I’m very much a grown-up these days, but I can still enjoy an Alice-in-Wonderland-like teatime experience. Teatime seems to be associated with make-believe and fanciful old ladies, but I think it should be a part of everyday life—and more or less fancy according to the occasion.


Copywriting, Creative Writing

Confession: I am taking a copywriting class here in San Francisco. A class about writing ads. It’s not academia as I know it, though there is definitely a workshop component to the class.

The writing produced is different from fiction in many ways, and the experience only increases my respect for the depth of artistry demanded in writing fiction. Still, copywriting is a skill of its own.

What strikes me most about the class, so far, is the dynamic between students responding to one another’s work. Maybe it’s because advertising is a collaborative field that relies on professional networks (though this could be said of many fields), but there’s a feeling that one person’s well-wrought line of copy doesn’t just benefit that person, but all of us. That line contains an idea we can all work with and be inspired by.

I owe much to the fiction-writing workshops I’ve taken over the years. But too often there is a feeling that each person is on his or her own, or that there are little teams of two or three students who adhere to the same aesthetic and don’t much care for the work of those writing in different styles.

I’ve definitely contributed to this dynamic. I’ve been overly sensitive and taken things personally. But I’m happy to say that I’m learning something new in this class, not just about working with words, but about ways of being a writer and interacting with others who write. It’s a fresh experience, and far from dulling my mind with hackneyed lines, it’s sharpened my sense of words in a way that only heightens my appreciation for literary writing.

So … what about you? Have you participated in writing workshops? Do you have copywriting experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts about what being a writer among writers means to you. BlogSig

Home, as a Location

DSC04361DSC04380 DSC04372 DSC04388It’s strange but lovely to say I spent the first 18 years of my life in a surf town with beautiful beaches and a seaside amusement park.

On January 2, I revisited it. The same pizza, coffee, cookies, views. Since I spent most of the past decade elsewhere, it was familiar and fresh at once. It’s so very much the same, but not quite. You know?

It seems that every entry I write lately relates to the idea of home, but in this case, it takes the form of a very specific location.

After spending so many years in other regions, no one place can encompass everything that has formed me — yet it’s nice to think that the place that comes closest to fitting this description is one small, scenic city on the Monterey Bay.

What reminds you of home?


Tales of Hearth & Home

novembertodecemberIMG_0103 2K and I headed north for Thanksgiving, back to the same place that has come to feel like home. Now that I’m on the West Coast again, I’m able to visit more often, and it’s been lovely to see the seasonal changes in redwood country.

Though the holiday weekend had its ups and downs (for example, our engine overheated and we ended up taking a long bus/train ride), so many details of the experience felt so valuable: gorgeous views from the train; the way that droplets of fresh rain brightened fall-colored leaves; and time spent before the fire, listening to rain fall outside, playing Scrabble, watching movies, and talking. Sartorially, I stuck to a traveling outfit that included a vintage L.L. Bean jacket which I never quite worked into my Maine wardrobe, but which has been perfect for California winter.

IndoorOutdoorInterspersed amidst time socializing and, of course, eating, were snippets spent reading a collection of Charles Dickens’ seasonal stories while sipping a mug of peppermint tea with spiced rum. I admit that these solitary moments were among those I most looked forward to. There’s nothing like Dickens for cultivating a cozy and contemplative feeling.chairblankieteaThe edition I read united A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth. The ordering of stories takes readers through Christmas time and the New Year, with a final tale of home and community.

Often sentimental, these stories helped to define a particular aspect of Dickens’ fame. His association with Christmas is no secret, nor is his commitment to social awareness. These stories may not be Dickens’ masterworks, but they are no less emblematic of his legacy than works that garner greater literary validation. As always, Dickens writes of tender scenes and appealing characters, evoking nooks and crannies of warmth within a cold and unfeeling social structure.

A Christmas Carol is the most iconic story in the collection for a reason — of the three, it is the most compelling. Continue reading