I grew up a few blocks from the Tournament of Roses madness on Colorado Blvd. The parade has its history and draw, but locals know the real action lies in everything leading up to the televised event.

There’s the ritual of sleeping out on the route the night before, which is huge when you’re 14. You grab your sleeping bag and a few friends, plus four bags of Nacho or Cool Ranch Doritos, and you find the ideal spot like a cat circling for the perfect perch. In theory, you’re there to secure a space on Colorado for your family, but in reality, you’re there to witness the one night of near-lawlessness, near-Mardi Gras that Pasadena has to offer.

Thick lines of happy drunks kiss and holler past. Sleepless kids aim their silly string at cars, especially convertibles. Retirees in their RV bunkers form a long, secure caravan for miles along the side streets, so inevitably it’s important to harass the old timers out of their nests by knocking on their plastic doors at 2, 3, 4am. Firecrackers pop up into the cold, clear night. Grilled onions and chorizo on small outdoor barbeques abound, and the smell wakes you up hungry.

Long before daylight people start to claim their spots on the route, armed with blankets and folding chairs. They line up three, four, five deep along the incredibly long street, and the bottles from the night before get swept to the side. The cameras all get set up on the westernmost corner of Orange Grove and Colorado, but the further east you go the less polite the jostling tends to be. People like an unobstructed view.

My family refuses to go in person anymore (unless we get out-of-town visitors, which poses a dilemma). They still wake up early on New Year’s Day and watch the sky for the high-tech bomber that buzzes the route (a worrisome ritual) and catch the first telecast of the parade, with all its awful announcer-chatter.

To grow up in Pasadena is to watch the parade on someone’s shoulders when you’re little; to mock it in person when you’re a teenager; to roll the more mobile trash at the wheels of passing RVs on Jan 2nd. In short, the parade is such a manicured, family-friendly delight that it takes a lot of effort to not subvert it.

Which brings me to the other unseen part of the Rose Parade: people volunteer to build the floats. Unqualified kids and adults immerse themselves in a process so laborious and painstaking in its application of individual rose types and minute seeds that it’s a wonder the floats emerge on time at all.

In honor of the New Year, a poem I wrote when I was 19.


Pasadena turns on men, arouses
with roses. Blisters each new year
with gobs of American Beauty.
In warehouses the night before,
we scramble, shove puffs of Paradise
through chicken wire and plywood,
string up White Lightnin’,

Red Devil. The foreman
for a day drawls “Don’t forget
they’re worth more than you”:
the exotic shipped, sprayed
to last, arrayed with precision.
Our float, pelted with Simplicity,
“the largest mobile possum

in the parade’s proud history.”
Complete with leering wink
and waggle, my friend finds it
cute, wants hot pink Puppy Love
flanking its revolving eyes.
The supe barks for Buff Beauty
and I run to the platform

built for fourteen
bovine ex-Queens; on their
girdled trash can risers (the theme
tomorrow being Fun
in the City), the Strumpet
and Cupcake keep wilting.
Our rodent starts to throb and quiver,

shakes thick scent across the workers,
cautiously extends its tail as it heads
toward the route. Starglo snout
to the night sky, it squeaks and winks,
warming up for tomorrow’s prance
under the scrutiny of cottony
crowds, cameras, stripping souvenir

Charisma. Our opossum will proudly
chug past the pimply bands and albino
ponies; it will take its place
in the unfailingly bright California
morning as we sleep through the newest
day, dreaming of Voodoo and Shot Silk,
Camelot and Bronze Masterpiece.

The Scattershot Hello

I had intended to write about the Democratic caucus absurdities, the many tied polls and tensions in Iowa. And how I can’t stop reading news and commentary. And watching cheap shots.

Also: the excellent series about Chinese growth and pollution in the Times. And Rob Gifford’s new travelogue, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power.

Or: my first hockey game ever, Sharks vs Ducks, where no less than three full-fledged fights erupted as the crowd lost its collective mind.

And: thoughts about the pleasures of a year ending, of finitude, of how much we need these arbitrary rituals of transition (preferably punctuated by champagne). Especially insofar as I’m going to miss the Year of the Pig (though it ain’t over just yet) and are we really ready for the Rat?

I’d planned to write about all of these things to entertain you, the reader. But I really haven’t got much of a clue who reads this.

You, the friendly ghosts who check in on me periodically from West Covina, Puerto Vallarta, Bowling Green Kentucky.

The accidental tourists from Sydney, Bangkok, Neumnster Schleswig-Holstein.

The brave commentators from London, Mesa, Haverhill, Brooklyn.

I want to wish you all a very happy New Year. Thanks for checking in, for the passing / recurring interest. Next year, don’t be a stranger — tell me what you think, what’s funny, what’s afoot with you. Thanks for reading; I’ll keep writing.

The Bends

Yesterday my friend Eric invited me over to make Ginger Pear Preserves and Tangy Cranberry Butter. He and his wife do this every year to make gifts for their families. After the Peach Preserves they gave us last winter, I wanted to see the process up close. But the timing was tricky: we’d both been grading for days, with more still to come, and yet the pressure to get something done before the holidays was real.

I assured him when I got to their place in Oakland that I’m on the short bus to cooking school. It’s not exactly that I’m clueless when it comes to cooking, but some things are not exactly intuitive. Zesting a lime, for instance. How much zest do you zest? Is zest a verb? Do you scrape the poles or just the hemispheres? Does anyone enjoy the white bitter pieces I zested into the mix? I see.

It turns out, of course, that making preserves is extremely simple if someone else is an old hand at it. You start to listen for the language of canning, artful language mingled with science. For instance, you boil the chopped pears until the sauce thickens. How do you know when it’s ready for canning? When the sauce is thick enough to slide like a curtain from the back of a wooden spoon.

Eric seemed untroubled by the rookie mistakes that would get lesser cooks in trouble, especially regarding the problem of bacteria and one’s hands. It can ruin what’s in the jar, of course, if you touch the rim or the lid (but how hard it is to pour hot liquid fruit neatly into a glass jar!). Turns out, this is what hot wet handtowels are for, as well as a healthy dose of good enough.

We used red and black tongs to place each jar in boiling water; they’re not necessary, Eric assured me, but they look cool. Also helpful: a magnetized tool for plucking lids from their own hot saucepan (half-effective, as the lids hung by an edge).

And beer. It turns out that the final, time-honored technique for canning involves nursing a bottle of beer, as the pureed cranberries settle, while it rains outside and steam rises up from the neighbor’s white Christmas lights. The big old pot cradles four jars at a time, immersed in a slow roll of water.

I’ve been feeling the holiday melancholy lately. No doubt you have too. It’s not just the time of year, or the weather, or the commercialization of the season or the impending family obligations. For me, it’s a pressure so varied and firm that it accumulated over many weeks, many months. I feel unmoored here much of the time. My community, my sense of place and friendship and comraderie and yes, even a clarity of purpose feel less certain here. The pressure is self-generated. I am deciding what I am, week by week. Some weight lifts, through new friends, a new love, new connections, but the pressure shifts rather than dissipates. In some ways I am forced by the pressure itself to make choices that distill me to my essence.

Eric passes me another beer and we talk about politics and family.

Slowly, invisibly, the air in each jar escapes.

Canned Goods
(Greg Brown)

Well, let the wild winter wind bellow and blow.
I’m as warm as a July tomato.

Cho: There’s peaches on the shelf, potatoes in the bin.
Supper’s ready, everybody come on in.
Taste a little of the summer.
Taste a little of the summer.
Taste a little of the summer.
Grandma put it all in jars.

Well, there’s a root cellar, fruit cellar, down below.
Watch your head now, and down we go.

Well, maybe you are weary and you don’t give a damn.
I bet you never tasted her blackberry jam.

Oh, she got magic in her, you know what I mean.
She puts the sun and rain in with her beans.

What with the snow and the economy and everything,
I think I’ll just stay down here and eat until spring.

When I go down to see Grandma, I gain a lot a weight.
With her dear hands, she gives me plate after plate.

She cans the pickles, sweet and dill,
And the songs of the whip-or-will,
And the morning dew and the evening moon,
I really gotta go down and see her soon.

‘Cause the canned goods that I buy at the store
Ain’t got the summer in ’em anymore.
You bet, Grandma, as sure as you’re born,
I’ll take some more potatoes and a thunderstorm.

[As sung by Greg Brown on “One Night” (1983), “One More Goodnight Kiss” (1988),
and “The Live One” (1995).]

The Working Life

Before I begin the two-week melee of grading, I’ve been pondering what to use for next semester’s Berkeley course. I think it’ll be a broader net than Muckrakers & Robber Barons (as fun as that was). It’ll be called “The Working Life.”

A tentative course description:

What do we mean when we talk about a life spent working? What do we value, as Americans, in the types of work we choose for a profession? Do the institutions and corporations that we support pay any notice to what we want to be — or do they shape those wants directly?

In this writing course, we’ll research contemporary controversies and read the rhetoric of advertisers, journalists, bloggers and television talking heads. How do emotionally charged issues like “green-washing,” economic nationalism, universal healthcare, illegal immigration, gender and racial disparities and the outsourcing of jobs affect our consideration of the facts at hand? What are the tensions between work and life in our society?

We’ll read oral histories, novels of white-collar absurdity and investigations into the fast food industry. We’ll write our own personal narratives and interview those at work around us. Most important: what is the role of the reflective writer in the midst of this debate?

Book list: Course Reader, Fast Food Nation (Schlosser), Working (Terkel), Then We Came to the End (Ferris), The Norton Field Guide to Writing (Bullock).

Films: The Corporation, Supersize Me, Fight Club

What do you think? I’m excited about adding some new texts, like Terkel and Ferris, plus utilizing a broader range of interviewing, oral history and essays on the work-life struggle.

Then We Came to the End in particular intrigues me. Just nominated for the National Book Award, it’s a novel described as “the Catch-22 of the business world”. We’ll see, but I hope it lives up to the glowing, debut-novelist hype.

Speaking of the life one wishes to work.

What’s Worth Knowing

I just taught my last class of the semester at University of San Francisco. Sweet bunch of transfer students, most around 20 years old. Each of them has endured multiple comp classes at their previous colleges, so their good humor and patience was especially appreciated.

Each was to write me a letter over the weekend about how they’d grown as a writer over the semester. We spoke around the room as they munched on holiday-frosted sugar cookies, talking about what they could see now in their own writing process that they couldn’t in August.

The inevitable comment I get every semester at this time: I thought this class was going to blow, but despite all the work I’ve figured a lot out and I liked coming here. To which I reply: you want one more semester? Because I teach in the spring… And they grin and say not a chance and the class roars.

But then we got to my favorite part. I try to do this with every class, because the range of answers is so diverse, and after a few months together, there’s enough trust and good humor in the room to say almost anything.

Each person talked about something in the outside world that intrigues them, something I really ought to know about. It can be a book, a song, a film, a social movement, a strange dynamic, a bit of dialogue in an overheard conversation.

Here’s a sampling of what my students said:

– You can only really know someone after you’ve heard a dozen of their favorite stories about the world.

– Favorite found artifacts of underground or foreign culture via YouTube: Leslie Hall rapping in gold spandex, the Chilean artists Los Mono, and of course ‘Flight of the Conchords’ (I agree heartily).

– Why is it that the homeless of San Francisco cluster in the valleys of the city and avoid the hills?

– Go see Ang Lee’s Lust/Caution. Also, Pushing Daisies.

– Favorite guilty pleasure: reality shows about trashy relationships, especially Rock of Love.

– What if Title 9 denies equal access for men in college sports?

– One shy student has been to 19 countries, is learning Chinese and realizes she might need to become an explorer.

– What’s great about country music is that it doesn’t revolve around fads. It has a fairly consistent ethos.

– If you’re camping in southern Utah, avoid the overrun national parks. You’ll find beautiful, desolate canyons in the state parks and not run into people for days.

– Ritual Coffee Roasters on 21st and valencia in the Mission District has the most amazing cup of coffee in the city.

The Crazy Robertson, a tights-wearing roller-skating semi-homeless guy in LA who has his own clothing line.

And as one student ended her letter, “you’re welcome… for changing your life (for the better).”

Reverse Chic and the Fall of Empire

There’s a growing body of articles this weekend mulling over the nation’s imminent financial slowdown. And with them, some dark little metaphors.

A summary, and true enough: We spend what we don’t have; we support tax breaks instead of budget surpluses; we gobble down cheap imports from China and can’t understand why eventually the dollar starts to so dramatically weaken.

The metaphors, then: We are the next British Empire, unaware of its long-term decline. We have a viral case of imprudence that threatens to unbalance the world economy. We are little duckies fattening our livers only to be eaten ourselves.

What amazes me is the extravagance of the metaphors. I’m leaning a little toward the economic alarmism myself, this holiday season. But I do wonder what sort of effect (if any at all) these images are supposed to create. Who’s their intended audience: the center-left, the newsmagazine middle class, the Ron Paul and Chuck Norris libertarian ticket?

The best of the recent bunch:

Michael Hirsh in Newsweek

One has to wonder now whether the American superpower is also experiencing a terminal illness, with its decline marked by the dollar’s downward drift. The one difference being that there is no successor on the horizon (the Chinese have a long, long way to go), and the currency that is replacing the dollar, the euro, is backed not by an emerging superpower but by the feeble cacophony of voices that is the European Union. Yet the signs of imperial decadence are unmistakable. The world is losing confidence in the dollar, in no small part because it has lost confidence in America’s strategic judgment and in its sustainability as a great power in the face of record budget and trade deficits, which are forcing the United States to borrow ever more money from future rivals like China and Russia.

Peter Goodman’s sharp, succinct commentary in today’s New York Times on the financial trends.

The most telling passage begins with a reference to the (fiscally) invigorating pleasures of pain and ends with Americans being cheerfully force-fed by Asia (fatty liver! didn’t we read Hansel & Gretel?):

To grasp what may at first seem perverse — pain required to get back to gain — it is worth recalling the genesis of our current predicament.

A decade ago came a financial crisis in Asia. As losses rippled around the globe, credit dried up, threatening the willingness of consumers to spend and businesses to invest. With the health of the global economy menaced, central banks lowered interest rates, fueling a wave of spending that, for the most part, has kept things rolling along.

In the United States, cheap credit added momentum to the boom in technology. That story ended badly, of course, with many companies extinguished along with tens of billions of shareholder dollars. But it did not deter the American consumer, whose spending amounts to 70 percent of the American economy. The Federal Reserve again opened the taps of cheap credit. Spending went on.

As Americans have carried home mountains of goods manufactured in Japan, China and elsewhere, they have sent trillions of dollars across the Pacific to pay for them. Asian central banks have taken these winnings and parked them back in the United States, buying up Treasury bills, stocks and property. In so doing, they have kept American interest rates low and the dollar stronger, ensuring that consumers have the wherewithal to keep buying.

— Finally, against this backdrop, behold the shameful cost-cutting of the Washington elite, as observed by the wryly incredulous Ashley Parker in the Times’ Fashion section. Oh, ignominious Costco, can it really be that your five-pound pretzel bag and the desperate fashion of Pabst shall sustain us through the dark winters and cocktail parties? Are we reduced to bulk caviar?

Against the backdrop of an unpopular war, rising oil prices and a subprime mortgage crisis, a certain thriftiness seems to have crept into the city’s dining rooms.

“I don’t think anyone would dare serve caviar as a first course today, and instead of filet mignon, there are a lot of other beef dishes,” said Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette writer who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary. “Embassies don’t have the pocketbooks they used to. And to have these opulent menus for these parties here, it looks bad.”

In that sense, catering by Costco is a style statement, like drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

“Reverse chic is a very powerful phenomenon in status-oriented circles,” said David Kamp, the author of “The United States of Arugula” (Broadway, 2006), a book about the American fine-food revolution. “I think Costco is the same thing. It gets discovered.”

Reverse chic, the most powerful metaphor of all. And lo, irony shall save even the rich.


We had a great discussion in both Berkeley classes Monday about the far-reaching implications of a Facebook world.

– Virtual Crack Addicts. What makes the Facebook a compulsion for college kids, checked many times in a day? The ever-updating News Feed. Oooh. New photos. Werewolf-Zombie beatdowns. Did he really post that comment knowing that everyone would see it? The hot girl from high school wants, at long last, to be your friend.

– Performance and Creation of Self. There are intriguing limits on what you say you are, and those limits are entirely friend-generated. You can falsify relationships, join bogus groups, apply ironic images of Yoda as your profile picture, but the moment you claim to have been to a party you weren’t at (or worse, claim to have been tending to family emergencies during your trip to Cabo) you get called out publicly with Wall comments. Snap.

– Death & Rebirth. What happens when you delete your virtual profile and create a new one? Can it be a spiritual cleansing? Will your friends still try to tag you with embarrassing photos at the Tau Delta beer-pong kegger?

– Big Brother Lovefest. This notion comes from the essay they were reading, written by NYU student Jim Kuerschner last year, which essentially wonders why we’re so eager as a society to be seen, tracked, monitored. What does it say about us that we’re so interested in the minutiae not only of those we know well, but by the tangential friends three degrees removed? Do we voluntarily enter Bentham’s pantopticon determined to ignore the walls in favor of the familiar reality-show cameras and the waiver we’ve signed?

– Big Mother Lovefest. More pressing a concern for collegiates, of course, is not the abstract curtailing of their civil rights but the lack of peer-privacy now that Facebook’s been opened to everyone. Potential employers. Creepy dudes. Parents checking up on you stealthily. The existential but familiar dilemma of whether or not to accept your mom’s request to be your friend.

After Thanksgiving, they’ll read Michelle Slatalla’s hilarious, slightly troubling take from the New York Times.

I HAVE reached a curious point in life. Although I feel like the same precocious know-it-all cynic I always was, I suddenly am surrounded by younger precocious know-it-all cynics whose main purpose appears to be to remind me that I’ve lost my edge.

Many of these people are teenagers.

Some of them I gave birth to.

One was in a breech position.

And the other day, as I drove home with one of my tormenters in the passenger seat, she started laughing at the way I pronounced “Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

“Ha ha ha, is that how you think his name sounds?” my daughter said. “Oh, my God. Who told you that?”

It was my college photography professor. Twenty-six years ago.

Rather than draw attention to my age, I tried to trick her into thinking of me as someone cool, as we said 26 years ago. “I hope you don’t think this gives you the right to make fun of me on your Facebook page,” I said.

“My Facebook page?” this person asked incredulously. “My page? Is that what you think Facebook is?”

Suddenly a vague memory from my childhood — the time someone else’s mother left her family, wrote a few young adult novels and ended up in a sad apartment complex on the edge of town — welled up, unbidden.

I needed to banish it, along with all evidence of this humiliating conversation. But how?

I vowed to fight on her turf.

My students feel strongly that opening Facebook to all is a violation of all things sane. Because if there’s anything worse than outsiders snooping, it’s those wannabe high-schoolers.