The Neighborhood

Fantastic Negrito on the cover of the East Bay ExpressI love when I run into news (good news) about people I know. I don’t know why–it just seems really thrilling to pick up a weekly paper and see someone I know on the cover or featured in a story inside. It gives me a feeling that people around me are doing amazing things all the time, and I love feeling like that. 

This morning, I walked past the stack of East Bay Express newspapers in the coffee shop where I was writing, and I  recognized the person on the cover:  Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the musician known as Fantastic Negrito. Fantasic Negrito has a practice space and art gallery in the same building where I and my gang of small lady ninjas hold our late-night workouts. 

I took a picture to post on Facebook. In my caption, I called Xavier my neighbor.  When I wrote about Fantastic Negrito before, I also called him my neighbor, and a few of my friends asked for clarification. He’s not your real neighbor, right? He’s your neighbor in your training space. They weren’t trying to be picky or strict sticklers for the truth, just trying to get a mental picture of who this person was and how I knew him. But I think there was also a bit of an implication that I was being misleading, that he wasn’t my real neighbor. Real neighbors live where you live, not work where you work or play music where you exercise. 

So for my picture of the East Bay Express cover, I thought about modifying the word “neighbor” for my caption. I could say “basement neighbor” (since our training space is in/called the basement), though Fantastic Negrito is not in the basement but way up above us, on the much snazzier second floor. Or I could say, “training space neighbor.” 

Giving it some thought, I decided on just “neighbor.” First of all, Jack London Square, where our workout space is located, is only two miles from my apartment near Lake Merritt. I ride my bike there most nights. While I wouldn’t call it my neighborhood in most situations, it does in many ways feel like my neighborhood, a spot on the map of my life, a place that feels almost in sight of where I live. 

But more than that, I realized that a neighbor of my basement space is really just a neighbor, and that is because the space is part of my home. That’s a really amazing thing to realize. 

We’ve been training in the space for a little more than two years. We first rented it when our kickboxing school closed. At the time, it felt, to me, like the world was ending. There was no other school that would be comparable to the curriculum or excellence of our school. What would we do? 

A few of the women from the school got together to devise a plan of action. We didn’t know what we would do, but we knew we wanted to stick together as training partners. All of us had trained in martial arts for about a decade. We wondered: could we lead our own training? And if so, where would we do it? The idea of a park came up, but I hate working out outside, and we would have to bring any gear we wanted, which would mean we would have to drive there rather than bike or take public transportation. I advocated hard for a dedicated space–an indoor space. 

But getting that set up was a ton of work. We spent a month visiting different locations, sending each other pictures, working out how much we could afford and how much room we needed and where we could all get to, transportation-wise. 

foundry space
foundry space

One of our favorite spaces we looked at was advertised as “convenient hobby space.” When we wrote to the owner, he wrote back: “We have an old foundry with lots of nooks and crannies.” When we visited (after looking up what a foundry was), it turned out to be a GIANT abandoned factory-type building, about a square block in size, on an unpopulated side street. We went in through an enormous roll-up door, through a street-sized hallway between buildings, into a warehouse space that had all kinds of people sawing and drilling things, plus tons of antique furniture stacked everywhere. We went upstairs in a small industrial elevator, and into a wonderful dusty space full of weird junk, with high ceilings and a lovely giant window and a dirty wood floor littered with rusty nails. 

The guy told us that if we wanted the space, he’d help us clean it out and install anything we needed, such as electrical outlets. 

We loved that space, and thought we might take it. It seemed crazy badass to train in a giant abandoned foundry, if not a bit intimidating (we tried to imagine what it would be like in there at night, the endless echoing space, the possibility of a quarter mile between us and anyone else). 

Before we made a decision about that space, we looked at one more. It was in a basement, the same price as the foundry, a similar size but in a small warehouse instead of a giant one, on a well-traveled street rather than an abandoned one. 

empty basement space
basement space

This was it: our new space. 

Getting it ready was exciting but stressful. The air, walls and floor were thick with dust; it made us cough just to walk around in there. We put on gloves and masks and swept, vacuumed, mopped, until it was all clean. 

Training there felt odd at first. It feels really different to work out in a new area, especially one that doesn’t have the feel of a workout space yet. We figured out some tiring but safe drills to start out with, because we weren’t used to the concrete floors yet, with their giant cracks and irregular surfaces. 

cleaning the basement

It only took us a few weeks to feel completely at home in our new training space. The smell of our sweat and hard work got into the air, the shapes of our feet pressed into the wrestling mats, and it became home. We bought more equipment, and had lots donated to us: weights, pads, mats, heavy bags. 

Now, over two years later, our space feels like a full-service gym. We have enough equipment down there that one of our worries is, if we have to leave someday, where will we put all this stuff? It’s not an ad-hoc any more, not a temporary make-do kind of space. It’s our training spot, our second home, the space we do our hardest work. And the people around us, for better or for worse, aren’t just our sort-of neighbors, but our real, true neighbors. Like any type of neighbors, some of them are awesome, some are annoying, some are downright crazy, and some of them are famous! 

DB gang


Imagine writing a short story. Perhaps it is twenty pages long. The story has a beginning, a middle, and end. It has characters, setting, conflicts, resolutions. It comments, implicitly, on a number of themes. 

For your short story, you can see all these elements–the plot, the characters, the themes–in one session of reading. You can sit down with your short story, read it from beginning to end, fix the parts that aren’t working. Then you could read the whole thing again, determine what still isn’t working, fix the parts you overcorrected–where there was no description and now there is too much, where action occurred too gradually but is now too sudden. And then you could read it yet again. You could literally read it dozens of times each day, making small corrections each time, until your story wasn’t even a story anymore but a perfect, polished jewel. 

Now imagine writing a novel. Maybe your novel is three hundred pages long. Each chapter is its own short story, and there are dozens of them, each one needing to properly balance and reflect all the others. It takes several days, at a minimum, just to read the whole thing, much less make any changes. 

How will you possibly revise this beast? 

For my last novel, The Divine Sharpness in the Heart of GodI wrote the whole thing through (on a  blog, as many of you will remember). After that, I had planned to start a revision back at the beginning. But I wasn’t happy with the ending, so I went back ten chapters and wrote a new ending. Then I started at the beginning and revised the entire thing, tightening up rambling sequences, adding more description where it was too spare, adding one new chapter in the middle. Then I reread the whole thing again checking for typos and wonky sentences. 

After that, I was pretty much done. There were some areas that I still thought could be strengthened. But to strengthen those areas, I would need to make changes that might disrupt other parts of the novel, leading to more and more revisions that could possibly unravel the entire structure of the novel. Every change you make in a novel is a giant commitment, because you can’t just spend an hour reading the entire text to make sure the change is working. The change might help the novel, or it might mess it up, and it’s often difficult to tell which.

So I stopped revising. I put out a self-published version for my friends and family and began sending the novel to agents and contests. I moved forward, wrote a few stories and articles. I planned my next book and began to write it. 

Then I got feedback from one of the agents I had sent The Divine Sharpness to. She loved the book but had a few issues with it. I agreed with everything she had to say. So I decided to table the new projects and go back to revising the old one. 

So here I go. I’m changing all kinds of things; the characterizations, a bit of the plot, the ending. It’s extra daunting to go in and start messing around with something that already had a finished-ness to it, but I know it has to be done. Part of me feels like: still this? I’ve been working on this novel for years…three years, it turns out (I had to go look it up). Well, it’s gonna be a few months more. I am predicting six months, and then, after that, I’m sure I’ll have to revise it again. 

That’s okay. I am good at long-term projects. I am a master of delayed gratification. When I first saw kids taking the marshmallow test (kids who can wait five minutes before eating a marshmallow earn a second marshmallow), I knew exactly how five-year-old-me would have reacted: I would have asked, if I can wait ten minutes, can I get two extra marshmallows? 

Someday, this novel will be finished. And I’ll look back on the days when I was writing it, and revising it, and revising it again, and I’ll think: wasn’t that the most fun I ever had? 

I am singing the “REVISION!” song to this tune (the traditional song of my ancestors, the New York Jews):

Girl, You Need More Makeup (AKA The Photo Shoot)

Yesterday I did something very, very out of character for me. I let someone put a bunch of makeup on me and then take pictures! I know, so crazy. 

First of all, I don’t like taking pictures. (If you have ever done jiu jitsu with me, you know this). Especially digital pictures (which are the only kind of pictures anyone takes of me). There is no worse self-consciousness than posing for a picture, trying not to make a weird face, then having the photographer check the picture and tell me to stop making that weird face. 

But as I get ready to do some presentations and readings, I realized that I need some decent publicity photos. The photo I usually use is one I took with my computer, sitting at a coffee shop grading essays. 

coffee-shop selfie
I like this picture because it really captures my essence. In case you ever wondered what my life is like (I know you can’t stop thinking about it), it’s basically like that picture. 

For the conference I just went to, Michelle and I wanted to include pictures with our email addresses at the end of our presentation. She had a lovely professional photo of herself smiling at a literary event, wearing her signature red lipstick and dark eyeshadow.

Lovely picture of Michelle Gonzales

I had…the coffee-shop selfie. 

“You can’t put those two pictures next to each other,” Michelle said. “You’re not even smiling.” 

We found another photo where I was smiling, from her birthday party a few years ago. But compared to her photo, mine still looked faded and unprofessional. 

That brings up another issue: makeup. I am not a big makeup wearer. I use some tinted moisturizer and lip gloss; that’s about it. I think it is quite lovely on other people, but I just don’t need to look that pretty on a daily basis. But for my grown-up-professional-teacher/writer photos, I would need to wear, as my favorite song of 2015 puts it, “just a touch of makeup, some natural looking makeup.” 

Luckily, my friend and former student, Claire Nobles, is a badass makeup artist and amateur photographer. So I hired her to put actual makeup on me. This included such extremely bizarre substances as foundation, blush, MASCARA (aka eyelash tar). It actually all felt very good, except the mascara which I have officially decided is yucky (but looks good in pictures). The nicest part was the foundation, because Claire applies it with an airbrush, which feels like a cool fan blowing on your face. I liked how the blush looked, which I didn’t expect. She did it so it didn’t look like blush, but just like my cheeks were naturally a bit red. 

We took the photos in the Oakland Rose Garden, which is one of my favorite places in Oakland and the world. I’ll have the pictures in a week or so, after Claire processes them, but here is a sneak preview. 

Karin in front of pretty blue flowers. Karin by redwood tree

Also I love this song so much: 

If you are looking for an amazing makeup artist, Claire Nobles can be found at her website and on instagram and twitter.