Friday, November 28, 2014

driving slowly past crazytown

I’m reading My Body is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press) by Elissa Washuta, about her life with bipolar disorder, and she includes some journal excerpts. I think her book is a good model for the one I might be writing. It’s fragmented, high-low in its references, complicated and playful. Her dialogue between her date rape experience and an imaginary episode of Law & Order: SVU is genius. It inspired me to write a dialogue between the part of me that feels like a mother-without-a-cause and Facebook. AK was understandably relieved that I didn’t actually post that one.

Like a woman needs a fish in her bathtub.
In December I have two cancer-follow-up doctor’s appointments. Just typing those words, knowing that they will end up on my blog, feels audacious and also embarrassing. When you’ve been in remission for a couple of years, you’re not supposed to rest on your pity laurels. When you’ve been in remission for a couple of years, you wonder how much of your worry is regular cancer survivor* worry and how much is mental illness. Is it 50/50, 70/30, 21/79? What if mental illness is a side effect of cancer? Of life?

The dread has been creeping in, slowly, over the past week-ish. A thing that sucks about being a cerebral type is that when you’re really enjoying life, when you’re really in the moment, your brain will stop to congratulate your healthy little soul on being so healthy.

Hey, right then when you were noticing how lovely the color palette of sidewalks and dry leaves and tile roofs was? That was great!

Then your other brain chimes in: Whoa there, Mary Oliver, let’s not get too caught up in the everyday beauty of life. You might get re-diagnosed with cancer in sixteen days.

Your soul quietly pipes up: But the world is for me. Mostly, though, your soul gets lost in the chatter.

On Monday, I told my therapist that it was probably a good time to watch myself closely, to get enough sleep and all that. He agreed. A little self-care can mean the difference between driving too slowly past Crazytown and purchasing property there.

This is what happens when you do a Google image search for "Crazytown."
Today, at this particular moment, I’m feeling confident. How could I possibly have a recurrence when my micro-metastatic workup came back negative after my surgery? But it’s not a coincidence that I’m having this thought—this world-is-my-oyster/of-course-I-have-a-future thought—the day after I went on a long hike, didn’t overdo it at Thanksgiving dinner, spent the evening watching movies with people who love me and got eleven hours of sleep.

Give me a rough workday, too much time in my head, too much Facebook, a cookie binge and a night where I get five or six hours of sleep, and I’ll be thinking about how bigger tumors increase the risk of recurrence and my tumor was bigger than anyone’s, practically ever.

I could call my memoir How to Lie to Yourself with Statistics.

Statistics are a problem. Narrative is a problem—part of me can always see my good moments as nothing but ironic foreshadowing. Everything that takes us away from our fundamental, in-the-moment selves is a problem, and yet to me the beauty is in the processing too. It’s baby and bathwater stuff.

Resort ruins.
Yesterday AK and I hiked up what I subsequently learned was not Mt. Lowe (it was and is Echo Mountain) to the ruins of the Echo Mountain resort, with Sierra and her Meetup hiking group. I lagged behind, which wasn’t a huge surprise, since I don’t hike a lot and someone has to pick up the rear, but I still felt like a little bit of a lame-o. Angela, one of the women in our group, asked me if it was my fist time hiking, ever.

When I told her she didn’t need to wait for me she said, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t scared of lions or anything. When I first started hiking, I was terrified of wild animals.”

It was 9 a.m. and there were about a thousand people on the trail. “I think it might be a little crowded for mountain lions,” I said.

“Oh, my fear defied all logic,” she said.

Resort in its pre-ruined state. I want to go to there.
I was feeling smug about my lack of illogical fears until I realized that I had been thinking of an essay I read titled I had a stroke at 33 and wondering if I, like the author, maybe had a congenital heart defect that was preventing my blood from fully oxygenating. Today, bad hiking. Tomorrow, blood clot in my brain.

I didn’t bring a hat or sunglasses and the light at the top of the mountain was bright and blinding, bouncing off the white cement of the old foundation. My vision felt a little spotty and I tried to decide if I was having a stroke or was just going from shadow to sunlight a lot.

Back in the city, my head started pounding and even an emergency trip to Coffee Bean didn’t help. By the time we got to AK’s family’s house for Thanksgiving, I was achy and feverish. The good news was maybe that explained why I was such a lackluster hiker. The bad news was that I was coming down with something. Even my best hypochondriac efforts couldn’t make it into cancer, although the simple fact of my body being in pain was a kind of flashback. And flu ache felt a little like the boob aches I used to get before my period, back when I had boobs and a period. Back when I was a girl…. Sigh. See how quickly I can go dark?

Love in the time of shoulder pads.
We watched My Cousin Vinny. We watched Heaven is for Real, which was both painfully schmaltzy and curiously touching. I ate some vegan pumpkin pie and Homeboy caramel peach pie, but not too much of either. I Googled “flu vs. ebola.” I have yet to become drenched in sweat, and I think the bruises on my leg are from climbing over our front gate, so I think I don’t have ebola.

I got good sleep—Nyquil good—so I can joke about it. But the creepy, don’t-go-in-the-basement music is always playing in my head, and the basement is always real even if God is as real there as s/he is in the life of a four-year-old pastor’s kid.

*I almost never use this word. I’m so superstitious. Who do I think I am to call myself a survivor? What am I trying to say? Everyone not dead is a survivor, and some of my best friends are dead people.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

chavez ravine time machine

The thing I wish for the most, after the obvious, much-blogged-about things, is the ability to passively time travel. I don’t want to kill Hitler or my own grandfather, or warn the Titanic crew to bring extra lifeboats. I do want to watch history unfold like the best reality show ever. At least once a week, I pause and marvel at the fact that I’ll never be able to see the original occupants of the houses I walk past in Lincoln Heights, or know what L.A. looked like before white people found it.

I feel this wish in my bones; it’s almost like regret. When I imagine Heaven, I hope it comes with an endless, searchable DVR queue of times and places. That said, I’d be satisfied with a queue limited to Southern California in the last two hundred years. Maybe I’m self-centered, or just lack the imagination to muster curiosity about ancient Rome, but I most want to witness the here and now just before it became now.

Until we figure out how to do that Matthew McConaughey bookshelf trick* in real life, I have Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story by Don Normark. For those of you unfamiliar with L.A. history or urban planning’s hall of shame, Chavez Ravine—the scoop of land that now cradles Dodger Stadium—used to be home to three poor, semi-rural Mexican-American neighborhoods. The roads were unpaved. Kids went barefoot. Rain made a racket on the tin roofs of small unpainted houses.

Packards and palm trees. (Actually, I don't know if these are Packards. But alliteration!)
In the late 1940s, city planners declared it a “blighted” neighborhood, despite the relative peace and happiness of the residents, and enlisted Richard Neutra and others to design new homes. As the city evicted the residents, they promised them first crack at the new development when it went up. The plans included a “non-discrimination” clause to ensure that Chavez Ravine natives wouldn’t be excluded for being low-income.

However, public housing foes were freaked out that Communists would somehow sneak in under this clause, and so they killed the project. The once-tight communities remained scattered; the final few houses were auctioned or burned. In 1957, the city council sold the land to the Dodgers.

Portrait of resistance in mariposa pants.
But before the tragedy, there was Don Normark, a young photographer who stumbled upon the neighborhood and documented its residents over a period of months. I’d seen a few of the photos before, in various books and galleries. The one below is the kind of image you never forget, and I’m a little bit stunned that I now have a copy of it after spending a couple of bucks on Amazon.**

This girl and her doll do not take any shit.
There are too few photographs of the everyday lives of people of color (although Heyday Books has published some good ones); to see historical versions of the people I see in my city every day feels like being let in on a secret.

I bought an extra copy of Chavez Ravine, 1949 so I could cut out the pictures and use them as prompts for my creative writing class tomorrow. Maybe some of them will recognize Dodgerland before it was Dodgerland. Maybe they’ll see a little bit of themselves in the photos, or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll be interested to learn, as I did today, that the neighborhoods of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop were as tight-knit as gangs, but without the consequences of drugs and guns.

Kicking it in front of Genaro's store.
The coolest thing is how Normark decided to approach the book when he embarked on the project in 1999. He rounded up former residents and their children and asked them to comment on the photos. What memories did they evoke? Hence the book resists easy or singular narratives, as when sisters Kate and Connie argue about old times.

Kate: We lived at 707 Phoenix Street. The Ortiz family. We were notorious.

Connie: No. That’s not true, don’t say that.

Chavez Ravine was also home to los viejitos, old white men who lived alone on the steep outskirts of the ravine. Normark points out that, because they didn’t have families, their stories are largely lost, which made me sad. Stories are immortality.

Viejito y gato.

*Just a little Interstellar reference there. Good movie. And silly. But moving and well-acted. I just kind of wish that Brit Marling had gotten her hands on it instead of Christopher Nolan.

**I buy most of my books on Powells or Indiebound, but I knew I wanted two copies of Chavez Ravine, 1949 so I cheaped out.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

putting things in focus

At Andrea Seigel’s encouragement, I signed up for the Gilda Radner BRCA study program at Cedars-Sinai.* Might as well put my freaky genes to use. My first duty, after supplying a vial of blood, was to participate in a focus group about Gilda’s new online family history questionnaire. They instructed us we didn’t need to enter real data. I was a little baffled—you don’t need a genetic mutation to beta-test a website—but whatever. They had me at “light dinner will be provided.”

I plugged in made-up relatives and causes of death for the characters in my YA novel. No one in the novel has cancer, but I decided that Kate has some Ashkenazi Jewish blood on her mom’s side, and I sprinkled the family tree with BRCA. I gave breast cancer to one of Kate’s cousins, but I let her live. I thought that seemed like a healthy story to tell myself.

Gilda Radner and a well dressed, cancer-preventing friend.
My sister calls BRCA “the pretty gene.” She developed this theory—that women prone to breast and ovarian cancer are also hot—after attending a lot of FORCE meetings, which skew young. Who am I to argue?

Not to say that the older, slightly frumpy cancer survivors at Cedars didn’t have the intrinsic beauty of people who’ve seen things and lived to tell about it, but if I were trying to sell issues of BRCA Monthly** I know which group I’d put on the cover.

I got there late—because Cedars is the hardest place to get in the whole city, and I would have been much more inconvenienced by cancer if I’d been treated there—and when I walked in, the public health lady running the group was asking about the usability of the page where you enter your family members.

“Well,” said a woman with a European accent, “for so many relatives I had to enter ‘1944’ as the year of death because of the Holocaust. 1944, 1944, 1944 across the board.”

“And what about before there was a BRCA test?” said a woman with crunchy hair.

Check the box that says “not BRCA-tested,” I said in my head.

She went on: “In my family, everyone always said, ‘The men live long lives, but the women don’t.’ We didn’t know yet, but we knew.

A woman wearing so little makeup it looked, somehow, like she had negative makeup, said, “My mother knew breast cancer ran in her family, so she got mammograms religiously, and then boom, she dies of ovarian cancer.” She threw her hands up.

The group leader said kindly, “Maybe when people list a date of death before the nineties, the system can default to a ‘no test available’ option. Okay, now, what about the part where it plugs all your data into a family tree that you can view?”

The woman next to me said, “Ach, I just look at it and see so many estrangements. So painful.”

The European woman put her hand up. “Trust me, better that they’re alive and estranged than killed by Hitler.”

The group leader asked if we had questions. Crunchy hair woman spoke up. “I’m asking this for my daughter, who’s twenty-three. Have any lives been saved by this testing yet? She just had her prophylactic mastectomy last year, and her thoughts about all this have really changed. She wouldn’t do it again. Not even with me getting cancer twice.”

She shook her head in the way of parents wrestling with their children’s immortality.

I looked around the room and wondered who had fake boobs. It was hard to tell. Which is a good thing, I guess. I noticed I was the only one who’d helped myself to a soda and wondered if they knew something about soda causing cancer that I didn’t.

Mostly, I was finding the evening darkly comic and congratulating myself on my ability to stay focused. Website, people, website!

Then the one black woman in the group (who somehow still seemed very Jewish; maybe she was) started talking about her family tree.

“When I look at it laid out, with the slashes across those who’ve died, I can see the story that my family tree tells. The ones who were educated and had access to good medical care got cancer and lived, and the ones in a lower SES died.”

Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of.
She said, later, that she was studying to be a therapist, so maybe she tweaked my thinking by speaking a language I revere (often in spite of myself). Suddenly I was struck by the eerie magic of it all. A bunch of squares and circles and lines added up to a story; language itself is squares and circles and lines that tell a story.

And although I think Hollywood should make an Armenian Genocide movie and a Khmer Rouge movie before it makes another Holocaust movie, of course it isn’t over. Of course the stories of families separated and annihilated—by war or disease or both—bubble up and tumble out of the systems designed to contain them.

Like a lot of people living at this moment in history, I’m grateful to science and data and statistics, and also overwhelmed by them. At work, we’re always talking about improving data strength, and we need to—but it’s just as important to remember that the robots work for us, not vice versa. The website exists to tell our stories and try to find happier endings; we aren’t here to squeeze ourselves into its boxes.

“So it can be kind of emotional,” said the group leader. “We want this to be a tool for families, to help them have those hard conversations. Do you think we should put some kind of disclaimer—”

She didn’t use the phrase “trigger warning,” but that was what she was getting at. I spoke up against it. Shit sucks because it sucks, and knowing five seconds in advance that it’s going to suck doesn’t really help. I didn’t say it in those exact words.

She continued, “It can be really hard, when one sister is BRCA positive and one isn’t.”

Everyone in the room murmured knowingly.

*Not because I’m so adamant about saving others from my horrible fate, a notion that feels kind of insulting. It’s not that bad being me. Also I’m selfish. Recently I donated money to the National Breast Cancer Coalition because they put a deadline on breast cancer that, if successful, will save me, not women like me. When I want to do something nice in the world, it’s usually completely unrelated to cancer, or it’s much more one-on-one, like being the email buddy of someone newly diagnosed. 

**Not an actual magazine. Or maybe it is.

Monday, November 03, 2014

cheryl & kendra: the workplace sitcom

Kendra 11:01 AM
Alexa and I are on a kickoff conference call for our new peer to peer fundraising app/site
She's excited, I'm fearful...
Cheryl Klein 11:02 AM
Because she thinks big picture and you think details. 
Kendra 11:02 AM
And I'm very glass half empty
I do think outlook depends on experience more than most people acknowledge.
Cheryl Klein 11:03 AM
Just try to remember that your fear is usually worse than the thing itself, whatever the thing is.
Kendra 11:03 AM
Cheryl Klein 11:03 AM
I'm very "the glass is going to shatter into pieces that will slit my wrists and I'll bleed to death."
Kendra 11:03 AM
Yeah, I'm right there with you 
Cheryl Klein 11:04 AM
But I'm also very "but MAYBE the glass will bubble over with champagne and I'll never be sad again." Usually neither is true.
Kendra 11:04 AM
That never really crosses my mind
Cheryl Klein 11:05 AM
I'm TRYING to be like "Huh, look at this glass. It's shiny. There is water in it."
Kendra 11:05 AM
I'm very "there's the glass that's half empty that will spill and shatter and I'll probably have to clean it up."
"And have to count all the shattered pieces"
Cheryl Klein 11:06 AM
Lol. Yeah, I can see why.
I'm also very "Look at everyone else's nice champagne flutes, and my stupid glass of Tang. But I guess I'm selfish and I suck for not being grateful for my Tang because some people have a glass full of Ebola. WHY ARE THE PEOPLE WITH CHAMPAGNE JUDGING ME??"
I want to post this conversation on my blog. We are cracking me up.
Tang will give you hand-model hands.
Kendra 11:07 AM
You have my permission
Cheryl Klein 11:08 AM
Cheryl & Kendra: The Workplace Sitcom.
Kendra 11:08 AM
I learned that if you do video chats using Hangouts, you can add a laugh track
Cheryl Klein 11:09 AM
The only person I've ever used Hangouts with was Harmony The Possibly-Crazy Dallas Birthmom. It definitely turned into a dark comedy.

Monday, October 27, 2014

nerds in hipster-nerds’ clothing and other refreshing representations

Like college students themselves, Dear White People is a little awkward, sometimes confusing and sometimes didactic, but full of fresh ideas and completely endearing. The setting is very specific: a fictional Ivy League campus where “talented tenth” African-American students try to carve a niche for themselves among the school’s (white) traditions.

Winchester University looks suspiciously like UCLA.
Each student is assigned to a different house, meaning dorm, but also something bigger than a dorm. From what I remember of my tour of UC Santa Cruz, it had a similar system, where each residence hall was kind of a college-within-a-college, and each had its own vibe and evoked passionate responses among the students. Kind of like the “houses” in Paris is Burning, except Winchester University is nothing like UC Santa Cruz or a drag ball.

I dunno. I went to a big public university that technically had “theme floors,” but the only way you’d know that the seventh floor of Dykstra Hall was the “international” floor was if you accidentally wandered into the study hall on the night they showed Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.

Two colors: Coco and the president's daughter.
The politics of housing assignments is one of the slightly confusing elements of Dear White People, but just go with it. While the world of the film stays wisely specific, the movie sometimes trips over itself trying to capture all the views on race that exist within this small container. There’s Sam, the biracial radical; Troy, the alpha striver who is dating the school president’s white daughter; Coco, the girl trying to conceal her South-Side-of-Chicago roots beneath a straight Indian weave; and Lionel, a gay geek who doesn’t feel like he fits anywhere.

And of course there are the white students—the president’s asshole son who all but dons a pointy hood, and the sensitive film student who encourages Sam to embrace all aspects of herself, especially the part of herself that enjoys sleeping with him. The two white newspaper students who recruit Lionel to write an exposé on campus race relations would be liberal heroes in most movies (which are often made by former-journalism-student types), but here they’re not above putting their hands in the Afro Lionel hides beneath and offhandedly telling him he’s only “technically” black.

Lionel gives good side eye. Even though the movie sorta implies that white people need to stop saying side eye.
I didn’t always get Coco’s M.O., as she plotted some kind of double-agent thing with a reality TV producer. I cringed when the evil school president literally said “Racism is over.” (Dear People of Color: Most white people know better than to say things like that, even if they think it. Instead they ascribe racism to the margins, meaning groups of people that don’t include them. Klan members, Republicans, rogue cops, etc. Then they can be anti-racist without having to work on themselves. Uh, ourselves.) During a cafeteria scene in which different tables of students represent different stances on race, I wasn’t sure whether I was watching an innovative stylization or we were supposed to think this was an actual conversation actual students were having across a crowded room.

Coco is not totally sure why she's putting on a blonde wig.
Some of this is the product of newbie filmmaking—I think this is writer/director Justin Simien’s first feature. But some of it is appropriately indicative of the complications of racial identity itself. Coco doesn’t always know exactly what Coco’s doing either.

As the movie rolls on, the four main characters begin to reject their roles as mouthpieces and slide toward more individualized identities—while still acknowledging the need for a powerful, loud cultural voice. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in a movie or in life.

There aren’t many movies about race. There aren’t many movies aimed at mainstream audiences featuring more than two black characters (meaning that we rarely understand that there might be more than one or two opinions in “the black community”). The title Dear White People is genius. White people can subconsciously think, Oh, cool, it’s about me, just like everything else is.

Black Student Union (the Asian girl is there for the snacks).
Also genius: Tyler James Williams’ performance as Lionel. I’m just realizing—now that I click on his IMDb page—that he’s the kid from Everybody Hates Chris, which I always liked. I guess he was part of the reason. Lionel spends a lot of time looking at his computer while eavesdropping on conversations, and Williams manages to convey an entire character with just his facial expressions (which I guess is what film actors do, but a lot of times it’s lost on me). He is discouraged and downtrodden, but also smarter than most of the people who exclude him. Nevertheless, he’s not a classic stuffed-in-a-locker nerd. He dresses hipster-nerd-chic to conceal his actual alienation. He resents his invisibility but also relishes it and uses it. He’s funny and ironic, and when provoked, he can rally his people.

On our way out of the parking structure, AK and I ranked our favorite characters. Lionel was definitely first, followed by Coco, then Sam, with boring Troy a distant fourth. We were both charmed by Lionel, but AK was almost buoyantly charmed.

“I related to him so much,” she said. “The queer kid of color who doesn’t really fit in anywhere but can kind of pull it together in a pinch? I mean, I’m not into Star Trek, but—”

“You were more of an F. Scott Fitzgerald nerd,” I said.

Salinger side eye.
As a middle school kid, AK subscribed to the New Yorker and devoured J.D. Salinger. I was suddenly doubly happy for Lionel’s existence on screen. Anyone who’s ever felt invisible—for reasons cultural and/or personal—needs to see themselves reflected in the world. I remember how grateful I felt when Take Shelter so accurately conveyed what it’s like to be sane and crazy at the same time. It’s why we need art, especially art that reflects the multiplicity of human experience. So I’m grateful to Justin Siemen and the Indiegogo funders who put a little extra spring in my girl’s step as we left the theater.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

the sum of our parts

1. never never land

Yesterday was not an awesome day. Work fell from the sky in fat droplets and splatted at my feet, and I felt caught without an umbrella. I started coming down with a cold. And…another friend got pregnant—one who’s been trying hard, who gets it, whom I want this for—and I felt alone on my little island of nevernevernever.

Why do I feel like this island in Dubai might be the world's loneliest?
We’ve been at this trying-to-obtain-a-kid thing so long that not only have all the fertile people gotten pregnant, but so have the infertile ones. Single people have gotten married and popped out kids. Hopeful adoptive parents (as they are called in adoption lingo) are now just adoptive parents, meaning parents. It’s no longer just the glib and lucky who have kids. It’s everyone. There’s no one left to be mad at, because I have abandoned my obnoxious friends (or they’ve abandoned me, in some cases) and schooled the remaining ones on the careful art of sharing their good news.

I know it’s not everyone. I know I should join a support group or something. But I feel like everyone in it would just have a kid and leave.

Yesterday, Fr. Greg talked about how a lot of people seek out Homeboy because they want to “give back.” “I think it’s better to receive than to give,” he said. He went on to talk about how generosity is a good impulse, but kinship is a more effective one. When our only goal is to sit with someone in their brokenness—to receive them as they are—we experience our own brokenness and connect. That connection is the gift both parties receive.

Morning Meeting at Homeboy: a place to receive, and also learn what the soup of the day is.
I think that’s what God is—when two broken things add up to something whole. And when you feel like one broken thing, it gets lonely.

I’ve always felt most whole around people who are a little bit broken. I’ve always liked poor neighborhoods better than posh ones, sad and anxious people better than confident over-achievers. And even as I type this, I feel a little self-conscious about it, like, Well, of course some hipster writer would say that. What, do you think you’re Kerouac or something? I worry about grief porn, poverty porn, about a possible need to feel superior. At other times, I feel like I work at Homeboy so its collective spirit can save me, and that makes me feel like some kind of drain on the system, some kind of reverse welfare queen who steals from the poor to give to myself.

Kerouac in kinship with a gato!
But they way Fr. Greg framed it made me feel less like my—what would you call it, social orientation?—is pathological or posturing. It’s kinship. Because I’m not so well-off, and maybe the most useful thing I can do in the world is to stop trying to be so fucking useful.

2. killing it, crawling lit

Last night was the second annual Lit Crawl L.A. in North Hollywood. This year it was bigger and better. Two Homeboy alum knocked it out of the park sharing their life stories at a store selling overpriced sorta-skater clothes, and I got to meet one of the writers who coached them, Jeanne Darst, whose memoir I loved. She was totally friendly and real, and she had great yoga arms, and I want to be her.

Then I ran down the street in my fantastic but unwieldy heels for my reading with Wendy Oleson, Bronwyn Mauldin, Pat Alderete and Olga Garcia at the Laemmle. I pride myself on being scrappy and punk rock when it comes to the literary life, but it would have been nice if they’d given us a whole hallway to read in rather than a roped-off sliver of hallway. On the upside, the good-sized crowd just went with it, sitting cross-legged on the casino carpeting, and the place smelled like fresh popcorn.

At least there was art in the hallway.

In addition to Jeanne Darst's arms, I want Olga's dimples.
I don’t remember exactly how it started, but we decided we would all read pieces about guns. None of us are fans of guns, so we thought it might be a challenge to be eclectic and not didactic. It wasn’t. Just to brag for a minute: I think we killed it. Metaphorically, of course. We called the reading “Exploded Guns” after a book Bronwyn found that displayed the organized parts of dissected guns.

We were greater than the sum of our parts. Wendy read an eerie, Aimee Bender-esque story about a girl made of glass and her brother the gun. Bronwyn read a stunning and funny poem comprised entirely of the names of gun models. Pat read “authentic fiction” about the aftermath of a gang shooting in 1970s East L.A. I read a Homeboy-inspired piece about how a scared little kid turns into a scared teenage shooter. And Olga closed out the night with a big, beautiful, Howl-esque elegy for Brisenia Flores, a seven-year-old bordertown girl shot by Minutemen.

No te olvidaremos.
3. we haven’t always been this way

After the reading, I chatted with my dad and my coworker Lauren, and my dad encouraged me to read my story at Homeboy. I squirmed at the idea of telling people’s stories back to them, even though god bless my dad, because he was the one person who turned out just to see me, drove all the way from Manhattan Beach, sat on a patch of carpet in a way that must have killed his back and didn’t take it personally when I turned down his offer of frozen yogurt afterward.

“You’ve always been this way,” he said. I cringed, imagining how he might explain “this way”—“fighting for the underdog?” “caring about minorities”? Part of me worried my dad was going to call me an N-word-lover in some thinly veiled, not unkind but still ignorant way, in public. And I wanted to explain that 1) “They” are fine without me and 2) “They” are not a “they.” I’m the N in this story, trying to love myself, unabashedly serving myself.

Still squirming, I said, “I guess I’ve always had some kind of empathy.” (Although there are times when my empathy has been incredibly clouded by my own shit.) Fiction writing is the practice of putting empathy on paper.

Lauren, luckily, did not seem put off by my dad’s praise and not-quite-PC phraseology. My dad is one of the most stubborn people I know, but also one of the most open-minded, meaning he will make his case relentlessly and is slow to change, but he will never stop listening. He’s also kind of on-the-spectrum in terms of reading other people’s emotions, and yet more sensitive to human and animal suffering than a lot of people. I think that part stems from his attunement, as a kid, to his mom, who was a loving and somewhat emotionally volatile widow struggling to raise two boys on her own.

The world of my dad's youth, or the idealized version of it.
I suspect he tried to fix things for her, just as he tried to for my loving but hyper-sensitive mom and his loving but hyper-sensitive girlfriend of ten years. He thinks this is how women are. He’s somewhat baffled that he raised a woman who says what she means and reminds him—intentionally and not—of his powerlessness to fix the world.

All I need is a national talk show, and the Duesenberg is mine.
In some ways, I think that’s why he’s a Republican: He just can’t stand to imagine that people are suffering as much as they are, even/especially the ones who do terrible things. He wants simple solutions. It’s a kind of denial that seems to be eroding and evolving as he grows older and more open-minded, and it hurts me to see how it hurts him. I want him to be liberal and Zen, but I also want to protect him. I want to give him the world he wants, just as he wants to give me the things I want. I want to buy him his dream car: a Duesenberg, a long-nosed, expensive German roadster manufactured during the Great Depression.

Friday, October 17, 2014

in support of emotional support animals

Have u seen the inflammatory New Yorker piece by Patricia Marx in which she mocks emotional support animals? my friend texted earlier this week. It is poorly argued!

My friend, whom I’ll call Aileen in case her landlord is reading this, has an emotional support dog. (Not a turtle, snake, turkey, alpaca or any of the other species Patricia Marx tries to pass off as pseudo-service animals in her piece.) Aileen has a real letter, from her  actual psychiatrist, that allows Houdini to live with her in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Aileen has an actual anxiety disorder, and it’s no lie that dogs have brought her a lot of comfort throughout her life.

Alpaca side-eye.
That said, it’s not like Aileen would have a panic attack in CVS if she didn’t bring Houdini with her, so his ESA status is in the gray zone. Aileen is a people pleaser and would really rather not bring Houdini to places he might not be welcome. Last week we left a restaurant before ordering when Houdini’s curly gray legs kept edging past the technical border of the patio and an inch into the open-walled sort-of-indoors part of the restaurant. (I’m sure it’s a border deeply respected by insects and all other potential health code violators.)

Ironically, the anxiety disorder that’s causing Aileen the most distress right now is Houdini’s. Unlike the animals Marx writes about, Houdini is small, quiet and well behaved. (And very, very cute, although so is Marx’s alpaca.) Unless he’s left alone, in which case he freaks out and barks a lot. So Aileen has essentially become his Emotional Support Human—as it more or less should be in reciprocal relationships. Like Aileen, Houdini had a difficult childhood and sometimes shit comes up (not literally—Houdini is more anal retentive than anal explosive). Either she will need to get bolder about owning his ESA status, or Houdini will need to learn to stay alone for short periods of time, because just never getting groceries is not really a sustainable solution. But they’re working on it.

This airplane passenger found Houdini quite comforting.
As I type, Ferdinand is resting his cheek on my wrist for emotional and physical support. He is purring in a way that reassures me.

I admit that I had a glimmer of a fantasy of you taking on the article in one of your blog posts! Aileen texted. Mostly, I want to see what you think.

I can’t resist a commission(!), so here is what I think.

1. The article is essentially stunt writing, in the vein of those “beauty dare” pieces in which a woman wears a blonde wig or a fake mustache around New York and documents people’s reaction. Such writing makes vague, and vaguely troubling, allusions to the scientific method, and there’s a longer piece in me somewhere about the fake science-ification of our culture. Don’t get me started on those “I Fucking Love Science!” pictures that get reposted all over Facebook. Half the time it’s just a picture of a weird fish. That’s not science—science is a process. A weird fish, however awesome it is, is nature. The New Yorker is usually above this kind of writing.

This reminds me, I need to make a dentist appointment.

2. Marx makes a couple of valid points: It’s too easy to get pets ESA credentials—it takes about the same amount of effort as becoming a licensed pastor who can marry people by the power vested in them by the First Church of the Internet, or whatever it’s called. Also, untrained ESA pets threaten the status and sometimes the presence of real service animals. Fair enough: Cheating sucks, and no one wants to witness a seeing-eye dog mauled by Ivana Trump’s purse dog.

3. Marx is inventing a problem where one barely exists. Using hyperbole to make a point is a respectable literary tradition, but the truth is that most people feel okay about the presence of animals. Service personnel sometimes get nervous about getting in trouble, but Marx’s fellow passengers and shoppers are mostly amused by and curious about her turkey, pig, etc. As I would be!

Once in Mexico I saw a tiger in the back of a truck at a gas station, and it was amazing! Although I worried a little bit for the tiger.

Sad tiger is sad. Or maybe washing his face.
Cats (the small ones) and dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. They are domesticated animals. If they can watch TV with us at home, they can probably sit at our feet on a restaurant patio. No one but Patricia Marx is trying to bring a turkey anywhere.

Much of the humor in Marx’s piece stems from people trying to be accommodating. But making fun of people’s kindness toward humans and animals seems kind of cheap. That’s what they get for being nice to her?

4. Marx devotes one paragraph to Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, who makes the point that going everywhere with humans may not be good for animals (see tiger, above). “Animals can get as depressed as people do,” he says. I too am for letting animals be animals. Let’s not dress them up and make them do tricks, unless they’ve been bred to do tricks like herd sheep, in which case let’s get them some sheep to herd so they don’t become neurotic and depressed about their uselessness, the way humans do.

But one thing domestic animals like to do is hang out with humans. So why not?

Reading the piece, I felt a little bit like the person in the room not laughing at the rape joke, before the tide shifted and it became not-okay to make rape jokes. As far as socially acceptable scrutiny and mockery go, the animal rights movement is in the territory of the size-acceptance movement. “As far as animals go, I like them,” Marx writes. “Medium rare.” Bah-dum-bum!

G-Dog and the Homeboys includes the oral history of a homie who describes a childhood pockmarked with just about every kind of abuse and neglect you can imagine. At one point, he’s sent to live with relatives he barely knows in rural Texas. There, he meets a dog who quickly becomes his best friend. They go everywhere together. This is a kid who’s seen nothing but the worst of humanity, and done some pretty awful shit himself, but with a dog, he discovers all the things he thought were off limits to him: love, peace, kindness, fun.

I work with a woman whose cats performed a similar therapeutic function in her life. Although some people from violent upbringings are cruel to animals, just as often—more often, probably—they gravitate toward them. Every time a puppy or kitten is found in a Chinatown alleyway, it’s snatched up and smothered with love by a team of homies. You don’t have to be skilled in the art of metaphor to see that they know what it’s like to be small and helpless and abandoned. Ollie, our youngest cat, came into my life when I was feeling hopeless, as if no good new thing would ever happen to me. With his relentless sweetness and adaptability, he’s a constant reminder that positive change is possible, and that it can take time. (Sorry, this is starting to sound like a grant application. Hazard of the trade.)

Ollie's like, "Don't make me into your symbol of hope. Feed me."
Kendra and I often joke about starting a Homeboy animal therapy program; it’s a joke because Father Greg—lover of all humanity—is kind of meh on animals.

In my opinion, Fr. Greg has the rare ability to see people the way most people see animals: He sees us as beautiful, innocent and capable of learning new tricks. AK and I once theorized that God thinks people are totally cute. The non-saints among us need a little help making the leap. So let us have our dogs and cats. Let us honor them and hang out with them in the ways that they and we deserve. Throw us a bone, okay?