Wednesday, February 10, 2016

square peg seeks circle

1. radical self-care

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Poets & Writers’ annual Workshop Leaders Retreat, a long, beautiful exhale where I was surrounded by people who speak the same language as me. Also there were sandwiches.

Most of the attendees lead writing workshops for people with trauma histories: veterans, sexual abuse survivors, kids in juvie. I’m not leading workshops for anyone these days, so arguably I was an imposter, but whatever. The topic of the day was Radical Self-Care. So what did all these teachers do to care for themselves in the midst of such harrowing stories?

Just in case you thought Oprah or the Yankee Candle Company invented self-care....

Me with radical caretaker (and amazing poet) Cathy Che.
One woman, upon leaving the juvenile hall where she taught, would wash her hands, get in her car and say out loud: “What’s mine is mine. What’s yours is yours.”

Another brushed herself from head to toe.

Another took long showers with aromatherapy crystals.

It’s my nature to discount rituals as a bit woo, despite the fact that I have them and believe in them. But the fact that everyone said they literally washed or brushed the trauma away made me sit up and pay attention.

2. trigger, happy

Flash forward to last Sunday afternoon. I had a little bit of writing time, and a shortage of mini bullshit projects to work on. Maybe it was finally time to read through all those journal entries I wrote between November 2012 and January 2015 and see whether they added up to a memoir.

With all the books I’ve written (five, the last three unpublished, but that’s another depressing post), I’ve taken breaks between drafts and then read with an editor’s eye, taking notes on how to fix the inevitable avalanche of structural and character problems.

I knew that reading about my cancer year wouldn’t be a picnic, but I didn’t think it would be triggering, exactly. First, because the phrase “trigger warning” gets thrown around so much it has almost lost meaning. It’s like “hipster” or “smurfy.” Second, because I sort of consider myself simultaneously too smart to fall for such Psych 101 stuff, and also unworthy—I haven’t survived real trauma, therefore how can I be triggered?

Hipster Smurf really wishes you'd issue a trigger warning before bringing up Gargamel.
But there I was with my dirty chai at Highland CafĂ©, crying into my keyboard. The woman who wrote those journal entries was the same one I’d encountered upon rereading my high school diaries: surprisingly insightful, desperately (tragicomically) determined to make her life better and terrified of the unknown. I’d thought I might want to smack her, but I wanted to hug her.

Starting a new writing project now sounds exhausting, but not quite as exhausting as starting a new tragedy. Which I did, yesterday at 3 p.m., when a radiologist confirmed I had breast cancer in two locations in my upper right boob. She said it probably hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, which seemed like a peppermint on top a stocking full of coal, but it actually may make the difference between being one of those people who lives to 85 and had breast cancer that one time, and being a person who is Fighting Cancer and loses a few years down the road.

I read a few days’ worth of entries—the MRI, the concern about planning my surgery around AK’s IUI—and then closed up shop, planning to go about my day, grateful that this is a story I have (knockonwood) lived to tell.

3. the churning questions of motherhood

AK, Dash and I went to a Super Bowl party, where I felt out of sorts. I chatted with our friend Holly about baby sleep schedules, and worried that our No Nap Schedule At All is a terrible way to go. Usually I’m more of the Meh, Works For Us camp. I found myself looking around at various women and wondering if they were pregnant, my old hated hobby.

One very clearly was—like, seven months or so—with her third child. She said, “I don’t do anything except work, take care of children and watch Game of Thrones, which I just started doing to keep myself from going to bed at 7:30.”

Apparently this is a person from Game of Thrones.
God bless parents of three children, but I don’t want to be one. I’m not sure I want to be a parent of two. I’m not closing that door just yet, but I often think that having one kid feels like the best of all worlds. But suddenly the should-we-adopt-a-second question was churning inside me.

I was grouchy the rest of the night, and I ate too many M&M’s and too much seven-layer dip.

4. sage and sweetgrass

Today I had some annoyances at work. Nothing huge, but there were a couple of moments where I felt more peon-y than usual. I was fantasizing about venting in private Facebook groups when Janet walked by and said, “We’re starting a Women’s Healing Circle in Classroom B. Come join us if you’re interested.”

As soon as I walked into the darkened classroom, the energy—my energy—shifted. Maria had made an altar at the center of the room, with a candle and sage and sweetgrass and a Tibetan singing bowl. The women in the room were mostly trainees, but the whole thing of the circle is that everyone is equal. We introduced ourselves: our passions, our children, our addictions. We burned sweet grass and washed the smoke over ourselves.

Sweetgrass for smudging.
When I returned to my office, my boss said, “Where have you been? You look so Zen!” I told her, and she listened with an attentiveness she rarely has time for. I could tell how parched she was and how in need of healing herself.

So, I think I need some kind of ritual. Not because other people’s difficult lives slough off on me, but because my own does. I need a small, real thing that I do before and after I go into the dark parts that I have to go into if I want to do the thing that brings me the most fulfillment, which is write. Any suggestions?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

one year, top ten

Last week, Dash turned one. The time has gone as fast as everyone promised it would. I spent four and a half years desperately wanting a baby, and then all of a sudden I had one, and now all of a sudden I don’t. I’ll wean myself from the word slowly, as Dash weans from his bottle.

Not a baby. A tiny bear. Possibly a sheep.
I always thought of parenthood as some special club, where people exchanged knowing glances, but the only real club is humanity, clichĂ© as that sounds. Yesterday I listened to Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond interview Kate Bolick, the author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, as part of Dear Sugars response to the many letters they get from women—smart, independent, thoughtful, feminist women—who are despairing that they’ll ever find the love of their life.

What's she looking for in that tea cup? Not a man!
Bolick said that she was a serial monogamist when she was younger, and then decided she wanted to be on her own for a while so she could figure out who she was. When she was done being alone, the dating pool didn’t cooperate. She was lovelorn. For years. And then she realized, as most of us do eventually, that you can either hinge your life on an external factor you can’t control, or you can find a deeper internal center that is tough to hold for more than a few minutes at a time. A slippery water balloon center that sloshes around but keeps you hydrated.

I feel lucky that I found that center before Dash came along. I had to. I had to believe the world was for me, whatever happened or didn’t happen. I’m not monk, though, or an angel. When shit doesn’t go my way, I’m really upset. And when it does—when I not only have my health and the kid of my dreams, but my lady is feeling good about life and no one in my family is in crisis and I even get to write now and then—I am happy. I might even strut a little. I’m also superstitious that it will all go away, although my semi-reconciliation with the inevitability of loss helps me appreciate what is good and not worry (as much) that I will collapse forever if things go wrong.

All of which is to say: I’m not wiser. But I have learned a few things from this year of parenthood:

1. Do not underestimate the pleasure of eating an Egg McMuffin in a parked car, scrolling through Facebook as your kid naps. This is heaven.

2. You will begin to understand how people might survive in times and places without indoor plumbing. Not that you’re ready to go on that 1900 House show or anything; you just get used to showering less and being peed on more, and you see that whatever is normal becomes normal.

This is from when we took him to San Diego and forgot his clothes. (Kidding! We brought four bags of stuff for him. But I forgot my toothbrush.)
3. Approximately 65% of parenting (at least if you are not a breast-feeder) is packing and unpacking. You are basically a roadie for a tiny band.

4. You don’t really have to teach your kid things. You just have to stand back and let him learn, and make sure there are no knives around. If you grew up with parents who planned everything—who not only believed in hard work, but seemed to believe that anything that wasn’t hard work was worthless—this is a revelation. Humbling and liberating.

High five, OC!
5. You will want to get your dog-crazy kid a dog. A special, immortal breed, because oh dear god, even though you love your pets so much, any future mourning of them will be quadrupled by witnessing your kid grieve. But our cats are all healthy for now la la la I can’t hear you.

6. It’s okay that your kid is not like you. He is a dimpled, extroverted boy who loves to throw a ball. You are a curly-haired, introverted girl who likes to read about 19th-century freak shows. He likes you anyway. It is so easy to trick a baby into liking you!

Parenting: The joy is real.
7. Some of the “universal” truths of parenthood aren’t true for you: You don’t mind leaving him at daycare. You don’t stop seeing movies in the theater. You don’t worry too much about germs. You don’t start loving wine.
It's midnight somewhere.
8. Some truths are true: You wear yoga pants a lot. You go to yoga less. You talk a lot about being tired. You take approximately 45 pictures of him a day. You are wistful about how tiny he used to be. You do drink more whisky.

9. Whereas you used to feel like this academically successful person who was mysteriously undeserving of maternal intimacy, now you wonder if you’ll ever publish a book again. The pang isn’t as intense, but basically you always need to feel bad about something.

OMG, he was so little.

Someday I will look at this photo and think, OMG, he was so little.

10. It is all subject to change.

Monday, January 18, 2016

mustang and the mountaintop

When my sister arrived to babysit Saturday night, I told her that AK, Andrew and I were going to see a movie I described “kind of like a Bosnian Virgin Suicides, I think.”

I came up with that tactful description based on the trailer for Mustang—because I’d seen some white-looking Muslims and bored-looking teenage girls trapped at home. The movie is Turkish—in fact a completely different country than Bosnia!—but there are some Virgin Suicides parallels.

No suicides for these sisters.
Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale are a pack of sisters ranging in age from about ten to seventeen. They all have long, untamed brown hair, and they spend their days wandering the fields and beaches of their small town. Lale, the narrator and the youngest of the girls, tells us that it all changed in the blink of an eye, on a day when they play a game of chicken with some schoolboys in the surf and steal apples from a farmer who threatens them with a shotgun.

When they get home, they’re in trouble. They think it’s for the apples—that’s how innocent they are. But they’re about to be exiled from the Eden of their youth, as the grandmother who has raised and protected them reluctantly yields to the will of Erol, the girls’ uncle (their parents, as in any tale of princesses trapped in towers, are dead).

Erol drags the girls to a hospital for a virginity check, takes away their computers and phones, and turns their sprawling country home into a prison, complete with barred windows. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that, like so many people who order lock-downs on alleged perversion, Erol is the one with problems. Erol sees young girls as sexual timebombs because he’s the one who sexualizes them.

Mustang stampede.
But a big part of what makes the movie delightful and not just tragic is that the girls are truly indomitable, the wild horses who refuse to be broken. They are a handful. They are goofy and bratty. They prance around in neon bras and flop down on the floor like puppies. When they’re barred from the beach, they pretend to swim in their bed sheets.

Sonay sneaks out to see her boyfriend. At one point she tells Selma, “We make love, but I’m still a virgin. We do it the back way.” So, okay, maybe they’re not all so innocent.

AK said the movie reminded her of Aimee Bender’s short story “Job’s Jobs,” about an artist whom God bars first from painting, then writing, then cooking, then accounting—but even completely cut off from the world, the man finds art and love. I hesitate to use the phrase “triumph of the human spirit,” but, well, the human spirit is alive and well in that story and in Mustang.

Prairie dresses won't keep us down.
I was also really interested in how the older women in the family find small, subversive ways to help the girls, even as they’re supposedly teaching them how to be proper, marriageable young ladies. These women in “shit-brown” dresses (Lale’s words) teach them how to make their own chewing gum and shield their uncle from their worst offenses. These moments are the film’s funniest and sometimes the most difficult, as when their grandmother scrambles to save the girls from Erol’s advances by marrying them off as quickly as possible.

With Lale’s turn rapidly approaching, she plots a getaway in ways that are both childish and desperate. She and her sisters talk of Istanbul the way young gay men in small towns in the 1970s must have talked of San Francisco. It is their one hope.

Watching the movie, I thought about how I don’t think much about freedom. I’ve rarely been barred from doing anything, unless you count dating when I was ten (not that anyone was asking me out; not that I really even wanted to date; I just wanted the option, or maybe I wanted to want the option). I grew up with parents who prized security, and I’ve tended to think of that as the harder thing to come by. But only a free person would think that.

I also thought about my other friend Andrew, who is now living in Istanbul with his Turkish wife. As he’s described it to me, life in Istanbul is radically different from the small towns—the kind of place where you may go through elaborate tea ceremonies with your girlfriend’s extended family, but then you and she and all the other young people go out drinking afterward.

Making it visible.
Earlier today, I was listening to excerpts from Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, made on my birthday nine years before it was my birthday. At the time, he was being told to get in his place and stop talking about Vietnam and poverty. He was tired and not so optimistic. And this part made me cry, possibly because he shows his vulnerability—he admits he has no desire to be a martyr—and finds freedom anyway. Or maybe it’s because he knows his own vulnerability that he can fly. It is the ultimate human and spiritual endeavor, to be in such deep kinship with your people that you neither undervalue nor overvalue your own bodily life:

Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

my six favorite books of 2015, and all the movies i saw

AK took the kid to the park so I could blog, meaning I only have as long as it takes for Dash to get his pants filthy, crawl after a half dozen big kids and lick several pieces of playground equipment. Poignant reflections on 2015 will have to wait. Instead I’m going to post my annual list of favorite books and movies I’ve read/seen this year.

The catch is that I only read twelve books and saw seven movies in the theater. I’m actually pretty impressed I got even that much culture in. And they were mostly good ones—the theme this year is quality over quantity, I suppose. Can you choose six top books when you only read twelve? Can you just list all the movies you saw? Yes, you can, because this is a blogocracy.

Top six books I read in 2015:

1. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: Maggie Nelson says exactly what I didn't even know I was thinking, but better and smarter. I would resent her for it if I didn't feel so grateful. Here, she takes on the subjects of parenthood, step-parenthood, queer parenthood, love and happiness...but as someone who sees and knows darkness, who distrusts narrative. My Kindle version of this book is basically one big highlighted block.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: You know that thing where you're reading four books at once and then one of them takes the lead and you put all the others aside? This is that book. Karen Joy Fowler is a masterful storyteller, playing with time and memory to tell this story of a family torn apart by a sister's disappearance. She layers mysteries like a chef would layer pastry; the result is elegant and buttery, and you would never know how much work probably went into it. I don't want to give away too much (there are several twists, but even the semi-obvious one took me by surprise), so I'll just say that it's hard to write about animals and their rights (or lack thereof) without getting maudlin, cutesy or dogmatic. This book is none of those things.

3. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle: For most of the time I spent reading this book, I thought of it as a novel about imagination. As the narrator, a recluse disfigured by an unnamed "accident" as a teen, reckons with the real-world fallout of a role-playing game he invented, he (and we) contemplates the nature of imagination. Darnielle depicts a childhood both haunted and saved by an active imagination (I related, as I suspect most artists would, and maybe most people). He engages with the sublime without trying to explain it; it's a book against explaining, in a way.

But as the book meanders backward to the aforementioned accident, I started to read it as a story about choices (paralleling the many paths in the narrator's invented game) and how each choice is comprised of a million mini choices and influences.

The novel is strange and ambitious, sometimes existing almost too much in the realm of dream but pulled forward by a pretty damn compelling plot. I think the plot is a bit of a red herring; I think the book is a treatise about how plot is always a red herring, yet also the only thing that tethers us to the world.

4. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: Some things I have in common with Lena Dunham: hypochondria, envy, a tendency to binge eat and journal about it, a certain eager-puppy hard-worker quality, a desire to say fuck you to those who deserve it, awareness of my own privilege. Things I do not have in common with Lena Dunham: a boho Soho childhood, an HBO show. But I won't hold the latter against her (despite my envious nature); actually, I think Lena Dunham is one of those rare hyped wunderkinds who lives up to her reputation. Or defies it, if you are on Team Backlash. Perhaps more importantly, she's a person committed to lifelong learning, and she learns by creating, and she's not afraid to fall down or hold herself up for ridicule along the way. Those are qualities that will get anyone far in life, and they also make for very funny, wise essays, peppered with perfectly chosen details.

5. Devotion by Dani Shapiro: Sometimes the exact book that you need to read finds you. I have questions about death and God and trying not to live in fear after you've narrowly dodged a bullet. So does Dani Shapiro. They may not be answerable questions, but she writes about them beautifully and honestly, threading together stories about her parents, her son, the religion Orthodox Judaism of her youth, and the yoga and meditation of her adulthood.

Some of my favorite quotes:

"I come from a long line of religious people who aren't so sure the sun will rise in the east and set in the west--much less that their own lives will unfold predictably. I was born and bred to fear the worst. And I know that the worst either happens or it doesn't. Worry isn't a form of protection. So who's the fool?"

"As I looked around any given dingy church basement, it would occur to me that perhaps this *was* God.... In the eloquence of rising out of despair, the laughter out of darkness. The nodding heads, the clasping hands. The kindness extended to strangers. The sense--each and every time--of *Me too, I've been there too.*"

"Their stories stirred up the old terror, the latent fear--and yet what I felt beneath all that was the simple beauty of human connection.... It wasn't everything, but it was something--wasn't it? The reaching out--needing to believe that a hand would be there?"

"Where else was a sensible person to live, but on the edge of sorrow?"

In an era of big dresses and wood-burning stoves, Dr. Mutter had plenty of business.

6. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz: I started Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's biography of Thomas Dent Mutter because I have a thing for the macabre, and I knew that the museum bearing his name was full of horned skulls and giants' skeletons. What I didn't know is that Dr. Mutter was a hero and a trailblazer: Medicine in the first half of the 19th century was a bloody, screaming, disrespectful mess until Dr. Mutter came along with the radical ideas that 1) doctors should be kind to their patients and explain procedures, 2) doctors should wash their hands and tools (hygiene was for pussies as far as many of his contemporaries were concerned) and 3) patients should receive medical care after surgery. Aptowicz's book is intriguing, engaging and makes a solid case for Mutter as someone to whom any 21st century patient should be eternally grateful.
You call it captivity, I call it co-sleeping.

All the movies I saw in the theater in 2015, in descending order of how much I liked them, but I liked them all a lot. Hell yes, even Fast & Furious.

Inside Out
Straight Outta Compton
Fast & Furious 7

Monday, December 21, 2015

a well behaved woman does a small right thing

My friend Sierra and I decided to borrow some writing prompts from Cheryl Strayed. The first one was: Write about a time you did the right thing. Here goes.

First, let me say this: I’m a goody-two-shoes. Or I was. I was so good that my sister and I used to sigh when we saw bumper stickers that said Well behaved women rarely make history. There went our chance for fame.

Arguably, I have a ton of Doing The Right Thing examples to choose from. Except I haven’t done the right thing so much as I’ve not done the wrong thing. I’ve never dropped out, blacked out, abandoned, cheated, or stolen. But, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, Nice is different than good.

Doing the right thing, to me, means taking a risk or going against the grain. It means behaving badly at times. For it to count (or at least for it to make for good reading), something has to be at stake.

So here’s what I’ve come up with: I took a year off between undergrad and grad school.

I know.

Both my parents had master’s degrees, and so did at least one of their parents. If I have any cultural heritage, it is that I come from a long line of nerds. My mom went to library school in part because she didn’t date a lot. My dad got a physics degree partly because he’s somewhere On The Spectrum, I suspect.

We have humble educations—state schools, all of us—but we read and think and geek out hard. Back before the internet, one of my parents was always jumping up from the dinner table to look up something in our musty encyclopedia. My dad and sister have never put birthday candles on a cake that didn’t require some kind of mathematical code to uncrack. The wax melts into the frosting as they ponder whether the blue candles each count for ten and the pink candles count for one, or whatever.

It was a given that I would go to college. Every year my high school published a map showing where people were going to school. Being a public high school in an upper middle class city in California, there were a lot of UC’s, a lot of Cal States, a peppering of private schools and a long list of people heading off to community college. There was also a short list of people entering the military or the “workforce.” The latter struck us college-bound kids as utterly alien and snicker-worthy. It might as well have said “joining a cult.”

Midway through my run at UCLA, I figured I’d go to grad school, too. I was thinking I’d study journalism, since I worked for the Daily Bruin. Then I read a Rolling Stone cover story about how journalism schools were increasingly merging with media and communication schools, i.e. PR. Purists that we were at the Bruin, we considered publicists to be the devil. I had seen Rent too many times to be a sellout, dammit!

So I turned to MFA creative writing programs. I wanted to go to Columbia or NYU and live la vie boheme but without the AIDS part. I also applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop because it was at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s list. I applied to San Francisco State and Cal Arts because they were in California, and I liked the idea of going to an arts school.

Viva la vie boheme!
My research was shitty and my motives were dubious. I got four rejection letters in a row, while one of my best friends got a full ride to Stanford’s journalism school. I stewed in envy.

Then I got one acceptance letter, in a large envelope with an orange-striped border. CalArts—a relatively new and therefore less competitive program—wanted me.

During the application process, I’d talked to my creative writing professors about getting an MFA. They agreed to write me letters of recommendation, but despite having MFA’s themselves, they’d been lukewarm in their encouragement. (No one hates the world to which they belong more than MFA writing professors, except for maybe hipsters.) Why pay thousands of dollars to learn what I could learn just by living? Do the old-timey thing: Be poor, read books, go to poetry readings, read more books, have love affairs, travel, read more books.

They had a point.

Plus, imagine what they saw: A chubby blue-eyed 21-year-old who dressed like a cross between a rave kid and 1972, who wrote precociously but didn’t have much to write about beyond her own privilege-guilt. (E.g., in my 1999 journal, you’ll find a long poem about the time some cholos rubbed up on me at a Downtown club. You would have thought giving them the brush-off on the dance floor was tantamount to Cortes destroying the Aztec empire.) It wasn’t that I didn’t have “a story”—my own shit, my own trauma, my passions—but I hadn’t discovered it yet.

My race guilt and my internalized gender oppression did a pas de deux on the dance floor at the Mayan.
I knew this and I didn’t. The future and what I might or might not have to write about was full of unknown unknowns. I was worried about finding a job, about completely supporting myself financially for the first time, about dating, about my unresolved sexuality, and how was I going to afford to see every new musical that came to the Ahmanson on an $8-an-hour job?

School would have been a comfortable refuge, even if I had to pay for it myself. But perhaps because the same parents who’d always taught me to be good had also taught me to endure a certain amount of drudgery and discomfort in the name of getting what you wanted, I knew that sliding directly into grad school would have been too easy.

One afternoon I wrote an emotional letter to CalArts, telling them I really and truly appreciated their offer, but I needed to go live my life. I’d like to defer, I told them, although I imagined such a thing wasn’t allowed. I put it in an envelope and sobbed in a heap on the floor of the apartment I shared with three other girls.

(Three out of four of us were virgins. This feels like relevant information. Also possibly relevant: the night I wrung my hands over the fact that I’d learned Prop. 13 was bad for California, but I knew for a fact my parents wouldn’t have had a second child if it hadn’t passed, thereby lifting their tax burden, and I loved my sister! My roommate Stephanie told me to calm down; her parents were Chinese, and she wouldn’t have been born if the U.S. hadn’t bombed Japan and ended its occupation of China, but that didn’t mean she was pro-nuclear-bomb.)

The bomb will bring us together?
As it turned out, CalArts was fine with my deferral, which makes this story a little anti-climactic. But in that moment of sealing the letter, I sensed I was doing something noble and brave.

I took my year. I interviewed for a bunch of dot-com jobs at companies with names like Lemon Pop, who wanted to know if I could write content about vampires. After a slow summer interning at Entertainment Weekly—during which I mostly watched the fax machine, ordered lunch and read L.A. Weekly in an office bigger than my current one—I began writing profiles of WB stars (or “stars”) for

I occasionally worked weekends at Book Soup, a delightfully crammed bookstore on Sunset, full of drunk and queer and homeless customers. I nursed a crush on a wannabe TV writer named Nancy.

I nursed a waning crush on my roommate in the Miracle Mile, a gay guy named Tommy who made Vietnamese spring rolls and said we should class up our apartment by getting rid of our inflatable furniture.

I went dancing with my friends from Zap2it. I dated a guy named Alex who liked attending weird Christian events ironically. I more or less lost my virginity. I super-briefly dated a guy named Michael who was 31 and wanted to buy a house, and even though he turned me on to some good music, I could not have been more turned off by the idea of dating someone with such a boring name and such Republican ambitions as property ownership.

I earned $31,000 a year at Zap2it, and even though I still hoarded used paper clips, it felt like a fortune. It was, in a way. Rent was cheap (though we’d be priced out of the area two years later) and I had no debt. I bought CD’s and second hand clothes from the dollar pile at Jet Rag on La Brea. I bought a lot of caramel frappuccinos and sugary drinks at clubs. When my 1987 Toyota Tercel broke down, my dad could usually fix it.

You can get four items of clothing for the price of one frappuccino.
It wasn’t exactly a year in the Peace Corps, but it was the right decision. It was a small leap away from the world I knew, but it paved the way for bigger ones. That was the year I finally decided to date women. That was the year my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I could walk those roads with a little bit of bravery because I’d had practice—which is what resiliency is, as they speak about it in clinical terms. A baby falls on his diapered butt so, someday, he can withstand his first heartbreak. Or lose a job. Or lose a war.

I laugh at my 21-year-old self, but I laugh with affection. I don’t see her as privileged and despicable anymore. My youthful naivete walked alongside my youthful wisdom. I was just a dumb kid, but I was no dummy.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

the world is full of terrible things and i’m thinking about growing my hair out

1. rooms and wings

On Thanksgiving night, AK, her sister and I went to see Room in a nearly empty theater in Irvine while AK’s mom rocked Dash and put him to bed in his pack-n-play. I read and loved the book years ago, and for the most part, the movie delivered a similar mix of beauty, suspense and underlying terror.

If you don’t know the story, it’s this: Five-year-old Jack lives with his mother in Room, which (we learn by reading between the lines of his narration) is actually a homemade bunker built by the man who kidnapped, raped and impregnated his mom. Employing a miraculous mix of creativity and fierce determination, she’s protected him from the ugliness of their situation and created a fairly normal childhood for him. They exercise and take vitamins. They do crafts and watch TV. She tells him stories—one is the story of Samson, whose strength resides in his hair.* Jack’s has never been cut.

Egg Snake: the fun craft that is also a tally of how long you've been imprisoned!
I’m kind of proud to say that Room the movie didn’t hit me much differently from Room the book, despite the fact that I became a mother in between. I’m proud because I hated and hate the notion that only parents truly understand the human condition—that parenthood, and especially motherhood, is this magical, exclusive club.

Okay, so maybe during the scary parts AK had to lean over and whisper, “It’s okay—Dashaboo is home cuddling with his Nana.” But love and empathy are accessible to all humans.

Emma Donaghue wrote the screenplay as well as the novel, and she makes all the right choices, saving Jack from being cloying and his mother from being a Law & Order: SVU-type victim. The story functions as a metaphor for parenting in general—you protect your child from the horror of the world in order to prepare him to face it.** It’s also a portrait of the “good enough” mother. Jack’s mom is arguably the best mother in the world, but she has “gone days” when she curls up in bed and succumbs to the hopelessness of their situation. Jack entertains himself and is okay.

Later she says, “I wasn’t a good enough mother.”

He says, “It’s okay. You’re Ma.”

When she needs strength, he lends her his hair.

2. give me down-to-there hair

There’s plenty of real-life awfulness happening today. Some people shot up a holiday party at a center that helps people with developmental disabilities; why not just kill Santa and Jesus while you’re at it?

I was already in a jumpy mood because I have a cancer check-up coming up. Just writing about it beforehand makes me superstitious—I’d much rather talk about my anxiety in relieved hindsight than in real time. But I’m trying to be brave, for whatever it’s worth. Quite possibly nothing.

In very important news, I’ve been thinking of growing my hair out. When I asked my friend Kenny to cut it just before I started chemo, I was surprised how much I liked it. Keeping it short since then has been a stylistic choice and also my way of saying, “I have short hair because I want to, not because cancer is keeping me from long hair.”

My current awkward 'do. Dash is growing out his hair too, but somehow it looks cuter on him.
Behind that statement, though, is this whispered, opposite one: “Why grow my hair out if I’m going to lose it again anyway?” Why wear your hope right there on your head for everyone to see?

But maybe the brave thing, now, is to be vulnerable. To love (my hair) knowing that it’s better to love and lose (my hair) than never to love at all.

Also, I’m really fucking lazy about getting haircuts.

I was debating my hair choices out loud and Kendra said, “Growing it out could be a good fuck-you to cancer.”

It feels like the opposite—an admission that cancer didn’t just change me in good, wisdom-y ways, that I am scared, that I miss what I lost—but now I think maybe it’s this third thing, and in my experience, the third thing is always where it’s at. Maybe it can be my strength and my weakness at the same time.

*See Susan Straight’s A Million Nightingales for another amazing story of parenting in captivity and the possible magical qualities of hair.

**I didn’t make up that theory. But here’s one I did (theory includes spoilers, but none that aren’t also in the trailer): Room is a little bit of an adoption story (in the book Jack’s mom was adopted by her parents, which she mentions in passing), or at least a love-makes-a-family story. When a reporter asks Ma what she’ll do when Jack asks about his father, she growls, “He is not his father. A father is someone who cares for his child.” And it’s Jack’s step-grandpa who plays the most grandfatherly role in his life.

Monday, November 23, 2015

10 things never to say: a rant and manifesto

1. humans vs. assholes

The other day, a writer I’m Facebook friends with posted: “I’m tired of personal essays. I really don’t need to know anything else about any stranger’s breakup, dysfunctional friendships, epiphanies, condescending cultural affiliations, or childhoods. Can the age of the universalizing snowflake transition into something else now?”

I basically agree; the thread that followed attached some qualifiers, and I admitted I like reading and writing personal essays when they’re good (well, I like reading them when they’re good; I probably like writing them even when they’re bad). But two things became evident: First, the universalizing snowflakes in question are usually middle class white women, rapidly turning their angst into a bid for internet fame. Guilty as charged, Your Honor.

Let me tell you all about my night and how dark and stormy it was.
Second, there’s a particular subgenre of the universalizing snowflake personal essay that especially bugs me, and that is the What Not To Say essay.

I just Googled “10 Things Never To Say” and here are some actual articles that came up:

10 Things to Never Say to a Woman Who Has Had a C-section
10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who’s Asexual
10 Things to Never Say to a Person with Sensory Processing Disorder
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Tall Person
10 Things to Never, Ever Say to Someone Struggling Financially
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Guest in a Worship Service

They have the prettiest What Not To Say lists.
Look, I’m not advocating that you tell your financially struggling friend to get a job, or your asexual friend that he just hasn’t met the right person yet. (I didn’t click on these links, but I and most non-assholes can make educated guesses about what not to say.) But the prevalence of such articles seems like a giant passive aggressive move on the part of people with hurt feelings. Maybe when someone asked the tall person what the weather was like up there, she replied that actually, she’d heard that one before. Or she laughed politely and then wrote a list for the internet.

My real beef, though, is with the implicit idea that if you study hard enough, you’ll avoid getting it wrong, and that getting it wrong is a thing only insensitive jerks do. Because that’s not the world I want to live in.

I have been on the receiving end of some ignorant questions and comments—about gay people, about cancer, about the adoption process—and at times I’ve been offended. Can I tell you how many times people have said, re: Dash’s birthmom, “So, are you still in touch with the mother?” (If you mean AK, the answer is yes. If you mean Erica, who is certainly a mother of his, but by no means the mother, the answer is yes.) Much more often, people have said sincere, respectful things. Because I know a lot of humans but very few assholes.

And guess what—it’s all good. It’s okay to fuck up and say something offensive. It’s okay to get offended. And then you talk about it and you both move on. Ideally.

I’m feeling a little cautious about this post, because I realize it could be a slippery slope to complaining about how “the PC police are taking away my right to make racist jokes and it’s so unfaaaaaair.” Regarding people who freak out over political correctness, I’ll repeat what a friend of mine said in college: “If you knew someone named Joe, and one day he wanted you to call him Bob, wouldn’t you just do it? Because he gets to decide what his own name is?”

I’m not saying it’s cool to be a jerk on purpose, to prioritize your own agenda at the expense of someone else’s emotional wellbeing, but, well, I am saying it’s better to call Bob “Joe” accidentally than it is not to call him. It’s okay to ask Bob why he wants to go by Bob, as long as you’re really willing to listen to the answer.

2. the repair manifesto

In the world of trauma therapies (a world I only half know, a world I get wrong all the time), people say it’s not about how trauma fucks you up, but about if and how you repair it. This idea gives me a lot of hope.

I spent the first twenty-ish years of my life afraid to rebel, because I thought that if I got in trouble, my dad would never forgive me. In a way, it’s a shame I never put it to the test, because now I have no doubt that he would have. Slowly, but he would have. I’m not such a goody-two-shoes these days, but I still haven’t gotten over my desire to be perfect. All I can say is that now I know it’s a losing battle.

Raisins contain antioxidants and anti-zombie properties.
So, repair. Maybe you managed to take some long walks and cook a couple of healthy meals over the course of your much-needed weekend. But then when the kid woke up at 3 am, you just started pounding cinnamon raisin bread and Trader Joe’s chocolate honey mints as if your mouth were some sort of bunker and carbs were going to be in short supply after the zombie apocalypse.

Repair it. Ignore your jiggly belly for now and eat some fruit and whole wheat toast for breakfast.

Maybe your partner was stressing out about some work stuff and you did the wrong things with your eyebrows and it led to a big fight.

The price of salt and kids' train sets.
Repair it. Remind yourself that she’s always been rattled by big changes and there’s a lot of change right now, and it’s okay and reasonable for her to be stressed out. It’s also okay and reasonable for you to get tired and resentful sometimes.

Ask Alberto—the aswesomest friend and godfather ever—to babysit and go eat pupusas at your neighbors’ house and go see Carol, a beautiful movie that pushes against the queer tragedy narratives of the past and the everything-is-awesome queer narratives of the present. Remember how much you love love love going to the movies together.