LA Diary 2005: April


Jonathan Foer

April 4, 2005

Three days in Salinas with Code Pink girls, and local, mostly Spanish speaking inhabitants. Twenty-four hours of reading but there was music and dancing too, these sit ins are similar all over the world. Let’s see if they close the library after all: the reason given is no money for small libraries. The protestors declare: more money for books, less for wars. Names of soldiers killed in Iraq were lined on a fictive graveyard with candles.

Political writers from all over US came to read bits and pieces of their writing. Some were intelligible, some not, some were pertinent, some not. It made me wonder about books and writers: why on earth were they always considered important? Other jobs very often pay much more.

I did hear some sense there: people who did not go to schools read books, and managed to grow thus. That convinced me. Otherwise, as somebody who is writing all the time, as a vice, and reading as an addiction, I often wonder if my life would have been happier if books were classified as weapons.

Women for peace here are similar to women for peace everywhere I meet them: except that here they have more personal money, and more colorful clothes. I am amazed how much information is tossed under the carpet here in America, how many newsworthy things that are quite simple and clear to foreigners, concerning US official misdeeds. Americans are proverbially more pragmatic, except that their plans come late and are too complicated. Watching them do their work, once again it proved to me that the meanders do work out, those alternative invisible paths of politics: being late at the mainstream event often means that you are in time for some off-stage calamity.

April 5, 2005

Strange, this country where people are as free as birds when it comes to social behavior. They dress as they please, they sit almost everywhere, they eat while walking down the street. They laugh as loudly as they feel. Poor people in the US are richer than most Serbians. Yet, the police are everywhere. Warning signs preach everywhere, don’t do this, don’t do that… The ban the most basic things, some are ridiculously prohibitive.

At the college of Pasadena, police patrol all the time. It’s unpleasant see cops so constantly, in such numbers. My friend from Code Pink told me, she wanted to protest against police patrolling around a school. She does not want children, her amongst others, to grow up with cops and guns.

What are they protecting, and from whom? I come from a war zone; I have nothing to fear and almost nothing to lose.

April 8, 2005

I met a writer, half Mexican, big, young, and dressed in fur, high heels and shiny robes. She had the typical Yankee shrill voice and boisterous, energetic laughter.

She came up to me after my reading and said; this is serendipity, I am just writing a book where my character is named Jasmina and she comes from former Yugoslavia. Can you help me with her? I don’t want to write anything stupid…

What kind of things do you write? I said. Chick lit, she replied. Oh how nice, I said; can you teach me to write that?

Her books sell half a million copies. She wrote the first one in 15 days.

Chick lit is a major issue here; these books are the big moneymakers nowadays. American romance novels are more old-fashioned; they have less attractive covers than chick-lit, while their authors seem to be fat, elderly, provincial women living with many cats or adopted children. Now my daring chick-lit author plans to write a book about a soldier who came back from Iraq, refusing to fight there.

I have my doubts about American commercial fiction for women. Maybe it’s men writing those books, under pseudonyms? From my experience, wherever money is, men come; wherever women come, money leaves.

April 11, 2005

Two days ago, I hugged the biggest living thing in the world. Steph said, what is it, an elephant?

No, it is a tree. It lives, and it belittles you in a nice way: it does not talk or walk, it just exists. It has the colors of human hair, the living tissue of our books in paper. It grows, God knows why, there in the Sequoia wood, that big.

It was snowing. My shoes once again, as in New York, fell apart. I saw a guy walking around with a plastic bag around one of his legs. I tied up both my feet inside plastic bags, like those shoeless, frozen soldiers who trampled the whole continents on foot. I climbed up to hug the biggest living thing on earth. Then I climbed back down the mountainside before the snow froze and the roads were closed for traffic.

Bears live in those woods. Bears often attacked the parked cars, breaking into them in order to reach food. They smell food, and feel its presence if it is not well packed in massive, unbreakable containers. Bears do it persistently and repeatedly. They do remind me of male hunters, who kill, but only for food.

The next day: Malibu beach. Again, all over the place, signs crying don’t do this, don’t do that. The police helicopters enforce these prohibitions. Police beach cars cruise around the few of us lying innocently in the sun. Always, but always, there is something wrong going on; I was lying in a place on the sand where I was not supposed to be.

I’m getting used to avoiding arguments here. People just don’t argue with the authorities, who act rather nicely, if one just obeys. It costs me a lot to hold back my questions and comments, but I am here as a tourist. I need to leave and return.

LA Code Pink fundraising party; a restaurant in Santa Monica called Warszawa. The patio is full of elegant pink women. Their pink outfits verge on witty ridicule; a deliberate esthetics.

Five of us perform, three singers and two speakers; I speak first, then Tom Hayden. Wow! I speak about women and peacemaking. I speak against the feeble practice of prayers and holding hands. I get applause and a lot of laughter. I give examples. They think I am ‘amusing and funny and brave but eventually they do hold hands, and they pray, and even sing.

On the way back to Pasadena, a smashed Rolls Royce on the highway: the most expensive thing in the world crushed like a tin can. It is not a living thing like the largest tree on Earth, but living human beings were being extracted carefully from the tinned Rolls. I didn’t dare look at them.

I learned that firemen here in LA rescue not just people in fires, but also respond to heart failures and car accidents. These firemen are omnipresent and often very good looking men, treated as national heroes and objects of desire of many American women who read or write chick lit. The dashing figure of a cavaliere, I guess.

April 13, 2005

Somebody said that today is the birthday of the devil.

In California to have a pet or a ghost is the best gambit for a decent conversation. If one does not have pets or ghosts to boast of, then one can speak about ‘serendipity,’ a word I had to look up in the dictionary in order not to misuse it.

Well, I can always fake a love for pets; basically it is like having children, only applied to non-children and with more tolerance. Ghosts, oh well, my friends talked about them, my favorite women authors, so even though I never bothered to find my own ghosts, I can always borrow some. ’Serendipity?’ Lets say “synchronicity,” that theory of coincidence would suit me better. The cranky Arthur Koestler tried to put this theory into scientific language and convince Albert Einstein of its validity. Why should 21 and 22 always be 43? How much better if we could creatively bend these rules and theories, so that the sum is sometimes less, sometimes more.

Stories are born from beliefs of all kind. The bigger the beliefs, and the bigger the misunderstanding, the better the fables. I never understood philosophy. That’s why I write about it and read it. Human nature, poetry, it’s way too easy. We live that, we understand it. Making a coherent system of it is impossible. Yet philosophers do it and some even manage to succeed. I take my hat off to them.

A lovely elderly couple lives in my castle. The first day I met the man, he said, my wife is Scottish, we live half the year in California, half in Scotland. That evening, alone in our flat, we read Robert Louis Stevenson aloud, the most famous Scot in California. I said to myself, why all this synchronistic Scotland all of a sudden?

It didn’t stop there. Every evening we read Stevenson, his travels, his stories, and I enjoyed them as if I had never known them before. Only last night, I finally met the Scottish woman, the wife. They live exactly beneath my flat: I asked her, are we too loud? We read Robert Louis Stevenson every night, aloud.

She nearly fainted with excitement. It turns out to be that she is a very significant collector of Stevenson. She wrote a book about him. She is not merely a fan but a member of a Stevenson mania club, people who live to research him and his travels.

I don’t know why we read Stevenson, but when we don’t I miss him. I miss his bold boisterous spirit, his hard and yet lovely life, his fantasies and truths. I tried reading Hemingway before going to sleep. Hemingway got on my nerves.

This morning, a mass of white foam gargled out of my kitchen sink. The ghost of Stevenson, in those vertical pipes?

April 18th 2005

Loitering in LA
I was in the San Gabriel canyon, a beautiful spot for sight seeing. Among other usual forbidding public signs, Don’t do this, Don’t do that, was new one: NO LOITERING.

Nobody was there. There were traces of litter next to the sign announcing a thousand-dollar fine for littering. Somebody obviously both loitered and littered, then spent the night well hidden under the bushes overlooking a beautiful sight with the dam and the water reservoir.

Loitering is heavily monitored, and prohibited just about everywhere in LA. If you walk too slowly you look suspicious to the cops. If you look too long at people or objects you become suspicious to everybody. I do both, not because I want to, but because that is the way I do things. In Europe, that is the way I move, think and live.

I notice however that I have shortened my times and gestures in order to avoid trouble. As soon as I relax, though, I do loiter. My proclivity to loiter is spontaneous. Once unrestrained, now it is labeled; to find a pejorative term for one’s way of life is halfway to understanding it. Do not squat, do not drink, do not light fire, do not swim, do not fish this or that.

On the other hand, people are in fact loitering all the day and everywhere; very elaborate and well equipped, nicely behaving hobos are seen all over the city; with wheel devices, back packs and other strange gear. A toothless elderly American gypsy pair with a tiny poodle sitting between them in their car… the dog barked fiercely at me while they sold me their pass into the national forest. I guess buying crumpled paper passes from gypsies was prohibited too, but we just bravely did it.

I watched from my window an American marriage, publicly performed in the garden of the castle. The bride was blonde, thin and pale, while the groom was sturdy and Chinese. They held hands and sang before saying yes: the bride’s father and the groom’s father both cried at the wedding, while the mothers were self-contained and extremely serious. The bride seemed happy and the groom tense.

Americans have big talent for rituals: social or personal, public or private, existing or original. They believe in them, and make other people believe too. I only wonder: does that change any reality? Marriage is a concession to the church. It is a burden to a true love commitment. Marriage should have its place and form for the sake of the lovers, for the sake of their love. I ve never seen such a ceremony anywhere. In marriage, there is always some ritual public concession to a god other than love.

April 20, 2005

In Little Tokyo. I’ve been in Chinatown. I guess a small Belgrade exists somewhere around here too. Though small, these ethic whatever enclaves in LA are far more amiable and Californian than anything else.

I saw a shop in one of those little urban replicas, an international military toy shop: boy’s games, boy’s dolls: of Bush, of Hitler’s staff, of American civil-war generals, of James Bond, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Weapons, uniforms, games, military video games. Nobody’s land, nobody’s victims.

I hear about the danger in some LA quarters. Downtown doesn’t seem too dangerous to me, more like a poor, southern Balkan city. People are selling something on the pavements, others smoking, some even publicly drinking. A guy is cruising around a fountain with a bundle of money in his hand, like a wasp around its prey. A policeman watches him. They are both local.

That seems familiar too. I cannot sense real danger in LA. Generally speaking, I feel the paranoia of the American white citizens who see danger everywhere except in their gated communities, where checkouts and firm rules are implemented.

April 21, 2005

It is so difficult to hide that you are different. It is like hiding one’s growing baldness; it draws attention. In LA, I have a feeling everybody is different and eccentric, the most normal people are actually the derelicts and hobos. Their eccentricity is somewhat bland compare to the loud statements of the so-called normal people.

My diversity is quite invisible until I open my mouth. Then it shouts, a different voice, a European neurotic body language, an indefinite accent between British, Latin and Slavic. Finally, my incessant philosophical quotes. My postmodern river of narrative with digressions and free associations. I say things, I do wrong and that is not very American. I claim I am guilty and not guilty in the wrong places, and that is not very wise. I openly claim that I don’t believe in the local religions and ghosts. May both of them help me.

April 23, 2005

A book signing party last night: Jonathan Safran Foer‚ in Venice, in a nice literary house, a lot of nice drinks and extremely sweet food: meat, shrimp, corn. I’m accustomed to these foods being salty. I keep asking people in US, why is all food sweet here? Nobody seems to know. Some even deny it.

It was a party of writers, agents and literary fans, very much like any such party in the world. Here, though, writing is a job, it makes a living, it makes an identity. In Europe to be a writer is mostly just a title, like being a count in Italy, where titles are abolished yet still highly respected. It does not pay the rent or feed your children.

At a meeting/workshop on digital culture, an anthropologist spoke of his research on computer games in Indonesia. Then he switched to gay lesbian marriages and how gender relationships are changing, not because of gender but because of deep changes in daily life, life-changing cultural issues. He sounded very reasonable to me. Being here in California is not like being elsewhere. Human decency and spirituality are the stuff of rather untouchable and invisible sciences. Loitering in LA makes makes me a transcendental derelict, a spiritual hobo.

April 28 th 2005

I am back in Belgrade: in a religious communist stupor. Long days of holidays, one after another, for people to stop working in a country where there is no work anyway. Here we feast, here we are pagans, here loitering is not prohibited but recommended. I claim, though, not everyone can loiter well.

The weather is menacing, dark clouds with bright patches of sky. The society changes too fast for the human body; these days are a weird combination of Orthodox religious Easter and the communist May First holidays, which is sinister and depressing. I don’t know why, but the days of bombing come back to my mind, that end of April in 1999, when every night we would look at the sky wondering what might save us, good weather, bad weather… God, science, or precise targeting.

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