LA Diary: August 2005

Cindy Sheenan

1 August

LA has a lively Lowbrow Art scene beneath the Hollywood glamour and rubbish. The ‘Maximilian’s Schell’ performance is a jewel, in the midst of nowhere, a small space marvelously arranged as an Outer Space Place.
‘In this month’s blazing heat, Maximilian’s Schell, an installation at
the gallery Materials & Applications, is casting the most buzzed-about
bit of shade in Silver Lake. The airy vortex-shaped canopy was created
by Benjamin Ball, an architect and former production designer, and Gaston Nogues, an architect and product designer at Frank Gehry Partners. They started developing the project over a year ago. They cut 504 pieces of amber Mylar with a computer-controlled machine, fitting them together to create a
structure that shades and defines the gallery’s outdoor space.”

August 2, 2005

Today Bush appointed Bolton, the guy who wants to blow up the UN building, but is not a terrorist; he just used that as his metaphor, as the American UN ambassador. This guy said, if the UN were blown up, nothing would change in the world. I guess he was proved right. I was in NY when he was first nominated, and inside the UN building, fighting guys like him.

Since then many opposition voices were raised in US, even from Bush’s party.

The other big political issue is that the US constitutional court may have different balance now, since the judges are changing, a right wing anti abortionist policy. The abortion issue will be the central one for the appointment of the new judges, since there is a big backlash here in fundamentalist US on that issue.

My young neighbor in the castle, an art critic, said, so how is your American diary going on? I said, well less and less political. He said, we Americans ignore politics. If something political happens, then we hire a comedian to explain it to us on TV.

Just this morning I read how in postcommunist Russia, talking politics was considered gross if not forbidden. I am post-post, post-feminism and post-communism, because I cannot stop seeing what I see. Besides, why would I stop? All this post- posturing is an old, evergreen method of escapism.

3 August, 2005

This is America: a lesbian couple here in LA made a new law. By common law verdict, domestic couples are as legal as straight married couples in sharing club facilities.

Now, that decision can spread to health insurance, pension, all the rest.

As for conservative America it is news: catholic Italy finally made natural and legal children equal some years ago. In Serbia common-law marriages are equalized with legal ones. But this is America, nothing was equalized and then once it gets there, it is one step further: gay natural marriages are legalized.

On the other hand Bush’s America treats women as follows:

“A brain-dead American woman has given birth to a girl in a hospital in Virginia. Susan Torres, 26, was being kept alive to allow her fetus to develop, after suffering a stroke on May 7 while four months pregnant with her second child.”

Corpses giving birth as new cannon fodder for the wars.

August 8, 2005

Last night I was at a party in LA proper; people from theater, from film, producers, artists. Also, a guy who fixes things after earthquakes. He told me about his job, of his multifaceted skills. He can fix anything from a pipe to a light bulb. Earthquakes are his trade. Earthquakes are his homeland.

In every country, in every city I like those home-repair guys best: in Belgrade I called Stamenko a reserve husband. In Rome it was a woman actually, a single mother with her son who took care of a decaying city and her decadent inhabitants.

The earthquake fixer told me that Pasadena cops are the rejected LA cops. That’s why the cops are bad, and so picky towards the citizens. It sounded like rival football teams.

Then he told me how San Francisco people don’t like LA. Other people joined his argument. Except for him, nobody was born in LA, but everybody lived here and wanted to stay forever.

We drank a lot of beer and wine and we even smoked. A Mexican doctor, still new in LA, was offering cigarettes to everybody. The host was celebrating his 39th birthday. There was a newlywed couple, hugging and kissing all the time. They told everybody how proud they were of their wedding, how much time and money it took them to plan it and execute it. They wanted it done in just their own way, cross-cultural, since they were of different ethnic and religious origins.

August 11th 2005

The end of the second term in Art Center, students exhibiting their works, anxiously, and professors trying to score their points in the academic ladder.

I am an outsider here. The more they see of me around Art Center, the less I am really there. I am repelled by the competitiveness going on, and the pragmatism. My social hypersensitivity is driving me nuts. Wherever I live, after few months I plain see through and behind the curtains, and my convictions turn into illusions.

American society is money-centered, said my friend, and not only that, it is emotionally decentered. There is something wrong with American society, my guts tell me. Not only because of the foreign wars the current president is waging, but also because of the pressures of the internal war that every American individual is waging… I wonder if there is anything like good healthy society today, when the planet’s ecosystem is crumbling. The nonsensical fall of Yugoslavia makes sense only in the global context of the fall of civilization. There is no civilization or country that is not falling. They all behave like suicide bombers, whether or not they have a gun in their hands.

August 12

I met a pregnant German woman. She told me how she went the beach with her small girl, and with some illicit beer hidden in her handbag. One day the police came to inspect people’s bags, searching for drinks. The German woman got really afraid because the fact that she was pregnant made her case worse.

But in Europe, pregnant women do drink beer, she told me. In the restaurant where we were sitting, the waiter brought her a non-alcoholic beer, though she hadn’t asked for one. She drank it sullenly. I gave her some of my beer when the waiter looked the other way.

A friend of mine from Belgrade lived in California for 19 years. He wrote an essay on the lack of toilets in California’s public spaces. He mentions in this same essay that a woman was arrested for putting quarters into parking meters. She did that in order to prevent strangers’ cars from being towed away. She did it as a volunteer, to help people she had never met and didn’t know. The police charged her with interfering in justice.

August 15, 2005

I went with Code Pink friends to drop a Cindy Sheehan banner from an overpass on an LA highway. The banner said: Bush, speak to Cindy.

We were four women and two men. The overpass trembled with the speeding cars and trucks, honking in our honor. Only a few reacted with insults and the finger, but those few were as loud as the majority.

Cindy united the opposition, one of my friends said. She has become a leader. Another war mother, Nadia, whose son was also killed in Iraq, is protesting all over the world. She said to me: he was killed like a fool. He enlisted, after September 11th, he wanted to do something useful. Then he was sent without warning to Iraq. He was killed the fourth day he was there.

My young neighbor said to me; if I were drafted, I would go, even though I am against that war. I don’t know how to say no. He reminded me of many men I heard speaking like that in Serbia. They speak of their honor, they speak of their duties, and of their shame. One of them fought two wars. When he was drafted the third time, his wife told him, if you go this time too, I will not take you back. At that point he said no, but it was as if he lost his manhood, he said.

In the castle, the professional wedding planners had their big day; they were selling a huge bulk of kitsch and dreams. A show of huge wedding gowns, which the amateur models barely managed to drag onto the stage. A singer in a Hawaiian shirt sang music from the ’50s that my mother used to play. Time does not exist for these archetypical patriarchal rituals: a 92 year old Russian lady said she was married 70 years ago, and it seems to her like yesterday when she sees a newlywed couple. There is something frightening in that collective daze, as frightening as a religious trance.

August 19, 2005

I saw a stag today crossing the street at Art Center. He was big and solemn. He stood at the side of the road, like a human being, politely waiting to cross the street, better trained than some pedestrians I’ve seen in Serbia. We stopped the car for him. Slowly, as if limping, he crossed to the other side; if I am not hallucinating, he gave us a short thankful glimpse. I don’t like domestic pets, but I do like wild animals. I identify with them.

“Fugitive L.A. Alligator becomes Local Folk Hero

USA: August 19, 2005

“LOS ANGELES – More than a week after a man-sized alligator stunned
authorities by surfacing in a murky Los Angeles lake, the fugitive
reptile has already become a folk hero in the gritty neighborhood
where he continues to outwit wranglers and elude capture.

“Dozens of residents gathered on the shore of Lake Machado on
Thursday, sitting in lawn chairs or scanning the water with
binoculars as park rangers with nets waited for the 7-foot (2 metre)
alligator to rise out of the muck.

“‘We’re pretty confident we’ll be able to catch him,’ park ranger
Albert Jedinak said as he stared at the calm surface of the lake. ‘He
was actually in the net once but unfortunately we didn’t have the
boat ready.’

“Meanwhile one woman deployed her two young sons to work the crowd,
hawking $10 t-shirts bearing an alligator drawing and the words:
‘Harbor City You Will Never Catch Me.’”

20 August

I went to a pacifist rally in front of the CNN building in downtown LA. Different groups of black, white, Mexican pacifists. I was one of the speakers, in the name of Women in Black and Code Pink.

This Cindy Sheehan issue has united not only women, but all the opposition to the war; strange people at the rally were distributing or selling propaganda materials. Sometimes I have a feeling that nobody really knows what we pacifists are talking about here, but that the protesters, who seem like people of the 1970s even when they are young, have a general disagreement with the US today. They seem poor, upset and aimless. Cops went by in cars, very discreetly.

There were also several reporters with cameras and microphones, but not many people stood by. Cars saluted us, as well as a third finger every now or then. The police were very polite here, as compared to our police during the Milosevic regime. They escort the protestors, no charges, no accidental beatings, no personal insults. Not yet, anyway.

This is what I said at a rally in front of the CNN building.

I am Woman in Black from Belgrade, I am from Code Pink Women for Peace LA.
I am a woman, a peace activist from countries that were or are aggressors of other countries. And as such, we must all know that for every our dead soldier, in an aggressive war done IN OUR name by our politicians, there are 10 dead soldiers or civilians in the attacked country. And we should know that these two death rates are connected, interdependent and escalating. That there is no such thing as a JUST WAR or CLEAN war, that for playing war games there always are TWO sides.

Every dead soldier or civilian is somebody’s child and no victim of war is a legitimate death.

Nobody has the right to fight a war not ONLY IN OUR NAME but also in his/her own name because the consequences are beyond somebody’s personal life and convictions. They are global and historical, they affect the next generation.
We women for peace, all over the world for years have been protesting with out bodies, preventing our own sons, husbands and brothers, not only politicians to take up the weapons.

Women for peace have no other weapons but their own lives and bodies. And they do not want any other because the issue of life is here at stake: we don’t want to die for our countries and ideals; we want to LIVE for them.

Throughout this country and the world, pacifist are supporting Cindy. She is not alone and there is a big tradition to her brave political action: from ancient Greek mothers against war, through Gandhi’s non violent peace movement, to Srebrenica mothers in Bosnia… and many will follow her example.
We demand that the CNN reports what we have to say in OUR names in all those places that we are doing it every day… This Democracy is not enough for women and peace, this is not even democracy unless women get empowered: visibility is power, the word is power.

August 23, 2005

I heard on the classic rock radio station, that Jimi Hendrix’s childhood house, a shack of a small black boy, was being either sold in these last days of August, or demolished. It is already a wreck and the owners have no means of restoring it. Now, that guy is a classic, everybody knows it‚ here more than anywhere. Fame is money here, so I cannot believe that nobody in America wants to do anything about it. This is a missing part in my understanding; it that makes me still a foreigner, I guess. It’s like all these people that talk against Bush and never have time to do anything but shop and consume.

The price of oil is rising, and the pressure against US troops in Iraq is becoming more visible day by day… Empires fall. Almost 21 centuries ago on this day Pompeii was destroyed. I have a chilly feeling up my spine that while I am here in America I will see something big and bad. My neighbor here, a Swede, is preparing to leave for Stockholm, a place he left many years ago. He doesn’t like it there, but he is afraid of the future here. He has a bad feeling.

August 26, 2005

In the airplane, heading to Singapore, from LA 18 hours of air travel. Around the world, to the other side of the world. Singapore is eighty miles north of the equator, not even in 80 days; this is reality.

As usual, I am driving the planes, not riding in them: every turbulence makes me tremble. After the bombings I will never feel at ease when I deal with airplanes.

The crew is Chinese, they speak Singapore Singlish. I hardly understand them, they hardly understand me. Inside the plane I feel I am already in Singapore; attentive, quick, small attendants, dressed up in uncomfortable tights, with fancy clothes and shoes: they are serving us food, drinks, all the time, relentlessly. In the few moments when I manage to doze off, they are waking me to serve me. There is something hysterical about this: my Singapore stewardess reminds me of a woman I know from Belgrade, with the same workaholic, hysterical attitude. She is also small and thin and an overachiever.

My American friend tells me that people from Singapore have an ethic of never relaxing. My friend from Belgrade is just the same; when she relaxes, she doesn’t move out of her skin.

We are filling the customs document; on the backside it is written in red big letters: DEATH PENALTY FOR POSSESSION OF DRUGS. My American friend says; gosh, what if somebody has drugs on him by chance?

My little plane attendant insists on asking me: Madame, did you lose something? Madame, did you leave something? I am baffled, I deny it, I smile. Finally she tells me that they found my camera.

Arriving at Singapore, we accidentally abandon a duty-free whiskey bottle.¶

27. August, 2005

It is dawn in Singapore, heavy tropical rain, the cab drives in the left side, the green tropical streets takes us to a concrete jungle, a science fiction tall building; the Pan Pacific hotel is a construction of white false-marble rooms with green weeds between them. People here don’t talk, don’t smile, don’t say ‘have a nice day’ like Californians. They are so different from everything I know.

I feel culture shock, which is taking the power of words from me. I am interested only to observe, trying not to offend anybody, especially not the law. I read that the famous penalty against chewing gum has been abolished. I don’t smoke, I don’t even drink‚ I just watch.

In my panel at the Singapore writers’ conference, Chinese translators are speaking of English words, English poetry and the English language as superior rules, as gods, as something they have to reach with utmost work and dedication. They are breaking my heart with their colonial sense of duty. I never imagined it was so bad. Serbs were serfs for hundreds and hundreds of years, serfs to rich and powerful and educated foreigners and their rules and troops, but they never succumbed in spirit, on the contrary they got wilder. I wonder which fate is worse, or better.

I dare not interrupt my Chinese co-speakers, although I was asked to. I am their guest and they have so much to say and so little to hear. Typical of the oppressed. That is exactly what happens in Serbia too when foreigners come; the locals are kind, hospitable, but dying to open their hearts and their wounds. California seems many miles away now, because it is.

August 29, 2005

This is one of those places where west and east did meet with success. And every day more so, people from Singapore globalize the historical issue of First and the Other; their Singlish is a child of the biggest power of the past and of the present: you tell me which is which, between the Chinese and British. Their economy is growing. Their city-nation is clean and efficient. It is like LA on steroids.

A Singapore writer said: we will never get a Nobel Prize for Literature; because there is no political freedom to write what is really going on here. We are stuck between great economical freedom and liberalism, and no inner expression.

A cultural functionary from the government said: we don’t have even ONE literary agent in this country. Every year, several people phone me and ask me — can we help them become a literary agent? After they hear there will be no real money in doing that, they never phone me again. Nobody has the enthusiasm, nobody wants to risk.

But writing is risky too, I say, nobody got a Nobel without risk.

Only rich people write here, they tell me: and they have nothing to write about except their leisure, so nobody wants to read that.

Leisure is not emptiness, not in the countries I know. This wealthy country needs no Nobel, it needs a language first, to put its own life in a literary shape that resembles these buildings, these colors‚ smells and sounds.

They simply express their artistic flair by means other than literary. Food, for example.

Huge fines for wasting time in Singapore’s public spaces. The fine for loitering here is 500 dollars, much worse than in LA. No dustbins in the street, no rubbish on the pavements. People hurry as they stroll in the evening, they seem a people with purpose. Rather pretty people, no fat or deformed people. When a white person comes across the street, she/he seems a bulky animal by comparison, even when in decent shape. Shops are full of fancy garments, but few seem to wear them; they dress casually and gracefully. I seem Californian here, they tell me. I wonder if I would become slender and Chinese if only I stayed longer in Singapore.

August 30, 2005

Singapore still

In the poor part of the city, where retired and sick people live, there is a big artistic colony with their own goods for sale: cheap, beautiful and unusual. It is all packed up, too many goods in a small claustrophobic place, as if stored by some mayhem which happened to the true owners of those goods, now dispersed or dead. Why is it always that somebody has to sit in order for the other to rise?

In those concrete, serial buildings, the people live like soldiers; flags are stuck on their windows with patriotic messages. They sing and praise their forty years of liberation. I am told by very patriotic Singaporeans that freedom of thought is something that people cannot even imagine, far less crave. Even the regime concluded that a bit more creative thinking is necessary for the city’s maintenance. But it is hard to make people think and risk in a situation where such a thing was once unimaginable.

Old people drag themselves among decaying food exposed in the market: here they can spit and smoke, and nobody sees them, old, mutilated and dirty. I wonder if the recipe of soft dictatorship may be the right one, for cultures and countries suffering for centuries from poverty, colonialism, neglect and political abuse.

August 31, 2005

A big show in the centre of the city: based on a new book claiming that it was the Chinese not Christopher Columbus who discovered America. Cheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, supposedly sailed the world in 1412 and discovered America, bringing back goods to China.

This show is monomaniacal and baroque. It claims Chinese greatness and discovery; it sounds plausible, but it is not true. I heard that people lost their jobs here because of saying publicly that this theory was nonsense. All nationalisms looks the same, once in public: strong and stupid, and pathetic and weak at the same time. They long to be bold in a weak point, to make a boast of superiority from an inferiority complex.

What impressed me most in that exhibition was the collateral information. The King of the Forbidden City killed 2,800 of his concubines and eunuchs after his favorite concubine committed suicide. Then the Forbidden City burned. The oracle that predicted this mayhem himself committed suicide one hour before his prediction came true. This king must have been truly hateful.

This Admiral Cheng He, he who supposedly discovered the world, was castrated at early age. His precious, severed belongings were kept in a jar. His child fiancee waited for him all during her first life, and then passed to her next one. In the meantime, he was discovering the world.

Such male stories, so similar cross-cultural; it doesn’t really matter who discovered the world. They didn’t make the world any different.

Last night I dined with world writers. I met a Scottish Pakistani writer who once wrote a story about a Yugoslavian love triangle: a Croat, a Bosnian and a Serb. His Pakistani-Scottish story could have been my own life: the names, the details were taken out of my everyday context. I was dumbfounded: but then somebody told me: don’t be. Your life is exotic. It is history by now. Writers are entitled to that kind of material.

The more writers are entitled to my own life, the less I am. That feels good. Let the writers handle the happy ending, then.

No wine in Singapore, only beer and some kind of herb brandy. Cigarettes only in bars: switching from restaurants to bars seems like a yin yang experience. Childish faces from the daylight get dark, somber, dangerous. Singapore is tight with a hidden rebellious energy: very hidden and very strong. I wonder when will it burst?


About jasminatesanovic

Jasmina Tešanović (Serbian: Јасмина Тешановић) (born March 7, 1954) is a feminist, political activist (Women in Black, Code Pink), translator, publisher and filmmaker. She was one of the organizers of the first Feminist conference in Eastern Europe "Drug-ca Zena" in 1978, in Belgrade. With Slavica Stojanovic, she ran the first feminist publishing house in the Balkans "Feminist 94" for 10 years. She is the author of Diary of a Political Idiot, a war diary written during the 1999 Kosovo War and widely distributed on the Internet. Ever since then she has been publishing all her work, diaries, stories and films on blogs and other Internet media.
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