Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Pretentious and Pop has a new home!

Again, yes. I hope this time, for the last time. The new home of this blog: http://laurayan.com/

Please update your bookmarks and follow the newly designed, but still same as ever: Pretentious and Pop.

(Also: now you can find all the things I've published elsewhere, on one handy page. Hire me to write for you!)

Thank you, thank you as always for reading. I'd be nothing without you.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

She Sometimes Took Reminding

Yesterday morning I went to my boxing class and this morning I woke up with pain on the side of my right hand, something that felt tender or swollen. It hurt even to hold a pen and write. When I touched it I felt the bone and tendons underneath. I had never realized how delicate a hand was, like the skeleton of a bird, something that seemed so easily broken. And yet, mummified in layers of hand wrap, tucked into the padding of a boxing glove, it became something that seemed invincible, powerful. You forget things like this, little things, when you're not paying attention.

In New York, you never run out of things to pay attention to. Today I walked around Washington Square Park, the same streets I strolled countless times before, rushing in and out of classes. It was raining, and when I looked up, the lit windows of an apartment building seemed entirely foreign, full of untold stories and possibilities. Earlier I sat in the park and watched a girl with brown curls stand next to the man with the patches of odd colored skin, the park's resident pigeon feeder. They perched on his arm and on his head and surrounded the bench around him. Occasionally, seemingly without provocation, they soared together, gray and white and brown wings flapping in formation, a synchronized dance overhead. The girl fed some of the pigeons. Maybe she was making a documentary, or simply curious, the pigeon feeder a marvelous discovery, one of those wonders of New York. Once, he had been a marvel to me too. He would always be new to someone.


I stopped blogging not only because of lack of motivation and this and that but I think something else. In the beginning I was always trying to write a narrative of my life as an ideal. A fantasy. My prose was soaked in sunset tones and shades of whimsy. Constructing an identity, a glamour that I tired of. What was left?

Non-fiction is frightening, in that you're constrained to yourself, your life, and sometimes if you're not living the things worth writing about it feels like you're failing, and most of all disappointing yourself. 

Sometimes the things that I think the most powerful are the things I'm too scared to write, even though I do write it, over and over, masked or not so masked in short stories and tones. 

Someone asked me once, after I read him a short story about torture, whether it was autobiographical. I laughed and said no. And then I thought about it, and told him, yes, it was, in the way that everything I wrote was autobiographical, in the way that almost all writing was. 

If I ever get a tattoo, it would be a small one, in script, like in one of my favorites Lucksmiths songs. On my inner wrist or maybe imprinted across a hipbone, subtle enough to maybe even miss. Fiction, the song is called. When I asked her its significance, she said she sometimes took reminding, what she wanted to be doing, whether reading it or writing. Why would I lie to you?


I spent the weekend reading. I'm reading Flapper, a non-fiction book about the 1920s. It is pure escapism, better than some novels. And I'm reading 2666, which is a different kind of escapism, a dark, dream like one, one of a landscape I don't know, one of language itself, never ending, sad, and fragmented. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Writing and Suffering

This morning, I woke up at the exact moment that I was shot in my dream. I was running down a hallway, and I sensed someone there with a gun, but he fired before I could raise mine. It didn't hurt. But I was tired and confused when I awoke, to the sunlight and the mild familiar walls of my room, the bloom of flowers on the table, the ritual of the day I had to start. I hate waking up. Not from lack of sleep, but because of the comfort of the bed, and the allure of my dreams. They are bizarre and extraordinary and sometimes terrible. But even with the nightmares, I'm not sure that I wake up feeling relief. Sometimes I simply want to find out what happens next.

I recently read an essay on the myth of the suffering artist. It was a lovely piece, and uplifting, and I liked the bit at the end, when he said:

If the budding writer just settled down and wrote, then he or she would become more and more who they are happy being, and might make things other people can like and feel happy about, too. Better still, the sheer effort of getting better, of pushing sentences to shine brighter, of fumbling about in the dark of half-formed ideas and feeling foolish and lonely and scared – that's more than enough suffering to be going on with.

But I don't know, I don't know if I agree that artists don't suffer more or less than anyone else. Everyone suffers. There's heartbreak and disappointment and regret and sickness and death. And everyone feels. But not everyone feels in quite the same way. The artist, the writer's sensibility is different. I'm not sure if it's better. It's bound with narcissism, with a never ending analysis.

A writer friend said the other night that writers are the most boring people in the world because we can only talk about the things that interest us with other writers. He didn't mean talk of craft or technique or process, though those are all part of it. I think he meant this over analysis, this greedy desire, need to express something inexpressible, that the rest of the world doesn't need to make sense of. And yet, we do. I do. To make narratives, to shape ordinary incidents into precious ones. And it is not that the writer suffers a more tragic life, but that reality itself becomes more damaging. Even the most idyllic life, read in the right (or rather, wrong) way, is full of minor catastrophes. If it sounds melodramatic—well, of course it is. But it is the writer’s narrative, the narrative of the writer’s life, and the truth of that narrative has nothing to do with the external narrative of reality.

Another friend told me once that we are so good at writing sad stories, yet perhaps the real challenge is to write a joyous one. I told that to the friend who told me that writers were boring. But the fact that life goes on, exists, despite the suffering, the tragedy—that’s the joy, he said. So though we think we might be writing calamity, in fact it is the greatest joy.

I see now that there is no good way of writing this.


I’ve been reading the essays of E.B. White, whose clarity and grace astounds me. “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” he writes. The essayist must be content in his role as a second class citizen. (Funny, I always thought it was the aspiring, or the failed, novelist.) Yet his essays have the ability to transport me as much as a good novel can—maybe it’s better, because I can take solace in the knowledge that it was real. He writes about the quiet things, and when I read it I can feel it, that world frozen on the page, free to be revived.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Painting Lily's Nails

I painted someone else's nails for the first time this weekend.

I hadn't expected to--when I signed up for the New York Cares project (which told me that I would "socialize with men and women who have a history of mental illness as they pamper themselves"), I'd envisioned sitting smiling and chatting, while the residents lay in reclined chairs with facial masks on. But I guess I didn't really know anything. I was the only volunteer who showed up, and for a while I simply sat in the lobby (with its alternating orange and white walls, plastic potted plants), waiting, unsure of what I waited for. When I finally went inside, it was a room with gray tables and chairs, with a few scattered residents sitting around. No spa. 

But there were two plastic bins with bottles of nail polish, cotton balls and swaps and nail files and nail polish remover jumbled inside. And there was Lily, who sat alone at a table in a shapeless cotton dress. I had wanted to introduce myself to everyone in the room, but when I approached her she told me to sit down. It was a command. I stayed. Sometimes, when Lily spoke, it took me a few times to understand. She seemed frustrated with me--and I tried to redeem myself--Lily, like the flower? I said. That's a pretty name. 

I wasn't sure it helped. Lily asked me where I was from--and when I told her, originally China, she seemed upset, and started to yell about how that was where her checks went. I didn't understand or know how to react. I tried to talk about other things. I put on latex gloves and started to take off the small flakes of red polish left on her nails. Her nails were uneven, some long, some broken. I brought the bottles of nail polish to her table for her to pick out the colors. Though she was much older, I slowed down my words, and talked to her as I would have a child. What color do you want? She deliberated between a few. In the end she and I decided on orange for the nails and metallic blue for the tips. I wasn't even sure I could do the tips a different color--but Lily was sure, she'd done it herself, she said. 

When I took off the gloves they left a chalky powder on my hands. When I tried to dust it away it left faint outlines on my jeans and coat. I tried to remember what people did at a salon. I put hand lotion on Lily's hands and filed her nails as well as I could. Lily was from Birmingham, Alabama. Where Dr. King was from, she told me. That's wonderful, I said. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Lily asked me. I told her I didn't and she asked me a few times why not, as if I could decide. She said she had a brother (or did she say two?) and five sisters, and that she was a baby. I tried to imagine them, their lives, and whether they visited her here. Sometimes it seemed too difficult to answer her when she asked me about my life. Do you have kids? She asked me, and I laughed and told her no, I'm only 21. That's not too young, she said. Where do you work? When are you going to visit your mama? She asked me. And I told her I didn't know, and it seemed impossible to explain that the writing I did for my job was different from the writing I did for me and that there were all the logistics of vacations and airfare to figure out my next visit home. 

(When Lily noticed my ring and my phone, she asked, what's that? As if they were entirely alien objects from another world.)

I painted her nails--the nail first, then the tips, with increasing confidence as I went on. It was easier to paint someone else's nails. She scrutinized each finger after I finished. Not too much, she reminded me, often. I promised that I wouldn't put on too much. I was surprised by how nice they turned out, vibrant and bright. 

She asked for another coat, but I didn't trust myself to not ruin the distinct colors. I always made a mess with my own nails, I was amazed I could do it at all. Besides, it was time to go. When I told her goodbye, Lily asked for my name again. I hope you come again, she said. And I was surprised. She said it in the same tone she delivered everything else, in a way that sounded angry. I hope I do too, I told her. 

After, I went for a long walk through the Northern part of Central Park, in the beautiful spring sunshine. There were cherry blossoms and smiling dogs and orange breasted birds in the park. I watched ducks dive, feet skywards, bills pecking for food in the muddy stream.    I thought about Lily. How little we understood of each other, and how I did want to return and see her again. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spring Awakening (Let's Try This Again)

photo via
You'll have to take my word for it, but yesterday I wrote a lovely thoughtful post that got eaten up by the great technology machine--or my own failure to save properly. Today I'm feeling rather less eloquent...although I can still remember what I tried to write. Something about how I worry that blogging is a little scary when I write about myself, the fictive non-fiction of my life, revealing things that perhaps should not be revealed. Something about spring--the sunshine, bare legs, possibilities, and yet disappointment too, for the next great season I'll look forward is fall, and that's so far away. Something about needing a project and fearing boredom, that worse than pain and suffering and sadness I dread that empty lack of feeling, which creeps in between the hours and drags between the sheets and slowly, suffocates.

Today, of course, things are different. I went on a long walk, for one thing, which never fails to lift my spirits. The other thing is that I feel grateful, which is one of the best feelings in the world, and I am relieved that, despite doubts and certain sleepless nights, my complicated attraction towards tragedy and sadness, mostly my life is something to marvel at. And if any part of it isn't, then it's my own doing, and it's up to me to change.


I guess what I'm trying to say is that, these days, I am listening to happier songs. And I sing along, and try--very, very hard, to not talk myself out of it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Glimpses of New York...A Life in Instagram

This is a bit of a cheat, as it's a belated post I never got around to posting...and life has gone on quite a while since then, with quite a few more Instagram photos, but at least it's a start in what will likely be a series of glimpses of life through Instagram. Are you on Instagram (I'm lameep)? 
Left to right: a charming West Village street, a cafe to sit and writer, the novel in progress, and fall in Washington Square Park. 
One of my favorite places in New York: Bryan Park and the grand library there. 
New York nights...red nails and fur, mesmerizing skylines. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

More Than Just Pretty....The White Deer

Browsing art prints today and fell in love with the work of The White Deer...fragile, intimate, beautiful and yet a little desolate and broken.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sundays, Volunteer Work, and Guns

Sundays feel like a special breed of day, a lazy and pampering kind of day. Last weekend I turned off my phone for all of Sunday. It was nice, but also strange, and I felt a little at a loss, and took a very long nap. When I woke up it was dark. I don't think I left my bed very much.

I went to the orientation for New York Cares this afternoon. It was in the basement of a church with horrible fluorescent lighting, the kind that exists in the worst waiting rooms, institutions, that spill of sickness and exhaustion. I felt like I was back in high school, middle school, in a cafeteria with cheap gray plastic chairs and a teacher who wouldn't stop explaining the most basic things. I shouldn't have judged it so harshly, I suppose. It was a volunteer organization and all around me were people who wanted to do good. For a few moments I didn't know why I was there at all. Maybe my motivations weren't as pure. The people who sat there weren't like me, I thought. They nodded attentively and asked questions. I looked at my phone and was relieved when I left.

A few years ago I worked at a public elementary school on the Lower East Side as a work study job. The teachers always commented on my outfits and most of the kids were fond of me. I read to them or talked to them as they worked on art assignments and on Fridays sometimes I taught cooking class. Ironic, as I barely knew how to cook myself. It was a rewarding experience, as people would say. But I remember there were a few kids, especially one blond haired, sharp eyed boy who would make racist comments to me (they were in the first grade. That young!). I didn't know how to talk to him, what to say. One of the kids made me a card for Valentine's Day, or maybe some other holiday. It was adorable and I took it home and tucked it in a keepsakes box. I liked to think that I was making at least a little bit of a difference, though sometimes in the after school program I simply felt out of place. The leaders of each group of the after school program were often local high school students, familiar with each other, while I was a stranger to it all.

When I volunteer now it'll be different, I suppose. Go out of your comfort zone, the orientation speaker said. Work with kids and the elderly and do the unexpected. Mostly I wonder if it'll make me happy or frustrated or sad. On the train home I suddenly had the idea for a short story--a horror story, torture porn, maybe, even. I typed it in the Notes app on my iPhone. The dark side I'm so equally drawn to but sometimes fail to explore, the one I'll never know. At home, for the story, I researched suicide methods and guns and discovered a shooting range in NYC. Something that now, I really want to do.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Romantic Old Songs and Singalongs

I rarely listen to new music, these days. Sometimes it seems like too much effort. So, I turn to old songs I love. Stars or Camera Obscura or Belle & Sebastian--even if I think I've grown out of my twee phrase, it is these comforting songs, songs where I know every line with eyes closed, songs that evoke a mood I already know so well, songs I've sang along with in the car and alone in my bedroom in San Diego, songs I pegged as soundtracks to the people and places and things that happened in my past (get me away from here I'm dying, play me a song to set me free).

A few years ago, any time I had a new crush, I made a mixtape, a playlist, just for him. Sometimes I burned it onto a CD, and wrote the tracklist by hand, after I meticulous arranged each song so that the mood, lyrics and order flowed perfectly, and delivered it in some perhaps trying to be nonchalant way. I thought I would remember each crush, as vividly as the color of his eyes or the way he smiled, simply from the songs. I still have a few playlists in my iPod, but I can no longer decipher message that I wanted to inscribe between the lines. I remember how I obsessed over certain lines of certain songs, marveled over how perfect, how fitting it seemed to be. Maybe I have a better grasp of reality now, or at least a more self conscious awareness of my tendency to romanticize (it's not love, no it's nothing like that).

But maybe I cling to these songs I know because sometimes I long to not know better, to abandon myself to these exaggerated emotions, painted sentiments. Maybe it's a cheap, easy thrill, to swirl up nostalgia and longing and sadness, with the easy click of a few buttons, and remember when it all seemed so much more real. And maybe it's because now, I'm much more frightened of feeling what was so easy then (when you sing you're the sweetest thing / I would trade my mother to hear you sing).

Something I always wanted to do with a boy (though it rarely ever happened): to drink until we're laughing and the veneer of discomfort has worn off, to play my favorite songs, to sing along, and sing to him, with conviction behind every line (I wish my heart was as cold as the morning dew/ but it's as warm as saxophones and honey in the sun for you).

Friday, March 2, 2012

Six Books I Am Reading All At Once (In All Their Different Forms and Places)

In no particular order:

Selected Stories - Alice Munro (Paperback, bedside reading)

Last Friday night, I walked around the West Village alone in the rain, and stumbled into a magical bookstore (bookbook on Bleecker Street). It was warm and cozy and small, the sort of place that made you sigh and take off your gloves and settle in for a long, comfortable browse. And that was what I did, slow circles as I eavesdropped on the conversation the two booksellers were having, an intelligent conversation full of cultured names and references. The selection was impeccable, and I found title after title I wanted. In the end I tried to practice a little self restraint. I asked the booksellers for advice between a short story collection of Evelyn Waugh, and this, and they recommended this. I don't know very much about Alice Munro except that she has flattering blurbs and someone over at The Rumpus wrote a nice essay about her. I've read a few short stories and they are nice enough, though I am not very interested in rural Canada, and I prefer reading about the depressed middle class of Richard Yates, and I do not get that stunned sense of awe from her writing like I do with some other writers.

The Lover's Discourse - Roland Barthes (Paperback, bedside reading)

I picked this up at bookbook, too. What do you call the genre of this book? Philosophy? Theory? Literature? This was on my reading list for my Letter As Literature class last semester. Reading books like this makes me feel intellectually stimulated, which is nice when I'm no longer in school. It's structuralism or deconstruction or something, about love, "fragments," definitions, ways of grasping and explaining and explicating. I read one section at a time and sometimes I try to think about what Barthes says and apply it to remembering love, the real thing.

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes (Kindle, subway reading)

I didn't know who Julian Barnes until my Letter as Literature class, too. We read Flaubert's Parrot by him for class and I really liked it, though I hadn't even read Madame Bovary then. He is another one of those playfully intellectual fiction writers, I think, someone who likes theory and story writing equal amounts and plays with the craft, the subject, and the form. But his novels are also just enjoyable to read, and not too long. I've been reading this book on my Kindle in the subway exclusively. It's a slightly strange way to read a book I knew nothing about, but I think I really like it.

The Collected Short Stories of Colette - Colette (Hardcover, bedside reading)

According to Goodreads, I've been reading this since September 10th! Well, it is a very long book, with very short short stories, so I was reading it continuously for a while, then forgot about it, and only just in the past few days remembered it again. I switch between reading this and the Munro stories. I much prefer Colette--she's French, sensual, a bit naughty and wild, but her language is exquisite, her descriptions and subjects utterly fascinating. Colette writes about music hall artists and pretty spirited girls and broken hearts and all the things I love. She is one of my idols and I like switching between her and the distant gritty realism of Munro.

Within a Budding Grove - Marcel Proust (Kindle...imaginary reading)

I finished the first book of In Search of Lost Time relatively quickly and felt quite accomplished. But according to the wise bookseller at bookbook, the second book is about as far as most people get with Proust. Sigh. I haven't given up yet--but admittedly this is just about the last thing I turn to under any circumstance when I have so many other wonderful books awaiting my attention. Someday I will read it all, though. I just need the right environment...a very long train ride with no other books, perhaps? A week without internet in my house? Insomnia?

Confessions of An Advertising Man - David Ogilvy (Ebook, computer)

I've been rewatching Mad Men, and that, along with book, has given me a fiery desire to work in advertising. I realize, of course, that modern advertising is nothing like the glamorous, thrillingly stressful life detailed in this book, but nevertheless. I like Oglivy's straightforward writing style and his business smarts, and I like reading books about business because it makes me feel like I'm really learning something. Good practice for my future career in advertising...maybe!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Blog A Day // Tiny Fashion // 4 Things I'm Waiting For in the Mail

This month, I will be writing a blog/note/letter a day, every day. Inspired, in part, by The Daily Rumpus, and by  the grand ambitious plans I have for posts that never get realized, March seems like a good time to try a something different. Where I let myself ramble--make useless lists, go on about little obsessions, books I'm reading, people I see, thoughts in my head. No big marketable ideas, just bits and pieces a life. 

Did you know that there are a whole subset of petite fashion bloggers? Who are and blog about being tiny and buying tiny clothes that fit? It's funny because many of them seem to shop at the same few petite friendly places--J. Crew, ASOS, Ann Taylor--and have a similar aesthetic. They own Louboutins and wear what I think of as conventional grown-up clothes, blouses and pencil skirts and pumps and cocktail dresses on the weekend. It's quite different from that other fashion blog/Tumblr aesthetic, of vintage and peter pan collars and full skirts and over the knee socks and chunk platform shoes, that I know. Or maybe the divide only exists in my mind.

I have been thinking a lot about this, lately. Part of it is this preoccupation with being "grown-up," whatever that means (having a job, the morning commute, drinks after work, wearing perfume, the dry cleaner's, keeping track of money). It's wanting to be more sophisticated, fewer overly twee dresses and more of this clean, effortlessly chic look. It's tailored and polished and timeless and minimalist clothes, things that go with my Ferragamo bag and perfect tiny ring. And all the while, self conscious and terrified of becoming one of those forgettable people, with their downcast eyes and bland heavy clothes, or just as bad, the women obsessed with   labels of shoes and bags, that cliched superficial fixation.

And sometimes I feel guilty for caring at all, as if being an intellectual, a feminist, an activist, different--means that I shouldn't fall into it so easily, consumerism and the terrible business of beauty and fashion (with its underage, under fed models and molesting photographers and empty brained defendants and terrible perpetration of the same disastrous problems of sexism and racism and classism). Then again, I'm complicating things. Maybe the point is that I can love literature and shoes and lipstick all at once. Maybe the point is just that I'm getting a bit tired of my style and want an update. (I should be taking pictures, I know, but my cameras seem so difficult to set up lately...just another small thing I should stop thinking about and take action towards.)

Anyway! I am waiting for some things in the mail. Here they are:
-Warby Parker Japhy glasses in matte crystal (I stepped on my old perfect pair and broken them)
-ASOS Pique Skater Dress (in navy, to wear with red lips and Ferragamos)
-ASOS Gingham Sundress (impulsive but adorably necessary)
-Ann Taylor Perfect Pointy Pumps (because really I wanted this)

Tomorrow: the many books I am reading currently, all at once.