Monday, December 15, 2014

cheryls on the trail

1. strayed

A long time ago I interviewed the poet Eileen Myles, and she said something about how traditional narrative is structured like the male orgasm, where it’s all about building to a climax. I know that theory is probably a little cringe-inducing to some postmodern feminists, but is it inaccurate?

I don’t know if Wildthe movie (I haven’t read the book! I know!)—is structured like a female orgasm, but it manages to take a long, weighty, satisfying journey without really having a climax. Or maybe it has a series of small climaxes. I would say that it is structured like the long hike that provides its frame.

It was weird to see a '90s period piece, though. Weren't the '90s like five years ago?
As Cheryl (yay for more Cheryl representation! I feel like, in pop culture, Cheryls are always someone’s off-screen bitch ex-girlfriend) embarks, largely unprepared, on the hike that will take her from the Mojave Desert to Ashland, Oregon along a multi-terrained mountain ridge called the Pacific Crest Trail, she reflects on the things that brought her here. Namely, her mother’s death, the end of her marriage to a good man she cheated on and a lot of wild, unsafe acting out via sex and drugs.

Not the PCT.
We see these things in short flashes at first. A woman’s nipple, a horse’s eye. Then we get the longer stories. Her memories are like memories: unbidden, meandering, sweet, painful. Her hike is like hiking: mundane, meandering, difficult, full of beauty too powerful for even the most cynical city kid to ignore. Jean-Marc VallĂ©e directs with a light hand, seemingly understanding that in life and in hiking, there are more small moments than big ones. But the small ones add up.

AK and I saw the movie with my friend/coworker Sierra and the Meetup women’s hiking group she leads. It was kind of like getting a big group of girlfriends together to see Sex and the City, and kind of the complete opposite. Sierra is a tough cookie (she’s climbing a hundred peaks this year, for one thing), but her eyes were puffy at the end. As were AK’s. As were mine (but you can never measure a thing by whether it makes me cry—if it’s not so bad it actively pisses me off, I’ll probably shed a tear or five).

The scene that got me? Cheryl’s mom has a horse she loves, and after she dies, Cheryl has to figure out what to do with the horse when it too gets sick. I don’t think I’m giving away any true spoilers here—it’s not that kind of movie—but turn away if you’re really hung up on plot. Anyway, there is a gunshot. She imagines she has shot her mother.

In the only recurring dream I’ve had since I was a kid, I discover that a long-dead pet in fact hasn’t died, but has just been neglected—by me—for years. Imagine dirty rat cages and bird cages, animals ridden with tumors and skinny with malnutrition. After my mom died, she started playing roughly the same role in my dreams. She would reappear, back from the dead, only for me to realize with a sinking feeling that I’d moved on. My dad had a new girlfriend. What were we supposed to do about that? Or: I knew she’d been resurrected only to die again, soon. Or: I knew that one of us was going to live and one of us was going to die and I was rooting for myself and felt like shit about it.

So killing one’s pets and mother is a thing that unfolds in my subconscious, oh, once every couple of weeks. It was shocking and cathartic to see it on screen.

Selfie with dog and crazy hair.
2. klein

I have no ambitions to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but on Saturday I did venture with Tara and crew on a fire road up to the Hollywood sign. I’d had an anxious week (which is bleeding into this week), and it was good to get out of my own head and hang out with people and a couple of dogs I didn’t know all that well. They were a likeable group, and it was a clear day washed clean by rain.

Last week in L.A. there was a huge structure fire, a storm, flooding and a murder-suicide. We all needed a clear day.

Hike leader Tara (right) and Franny, the trusty dog she co-parents.
Tara made caprese sandwiches and little squares of pumpkin pie for everyone, and told us stories about the history of the area. Who built the sign. Who jumped off it—an aspiring actress who, had she lived, would have learned she was about to be cast in the story of a suicidal woman. I took that as a cautionary tale never to give up, although arguably she was convincing in that audition because she was already super depressed.

Better to keep trudging ahead, even when you can’t see the trail, even when your feet hurt and you know you’re supposed to be thankful you have fucking feet, but you don’t feel full of gratitude and you have no real idea what you’re doing with your life anyway. One foot in front of the other. It’ll get you…somewhere.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

viva la resolution

The other day I bought the January issue of O, The Oprah Magazine because AK wasn’t feeling well and the cover featured Oprah posing in an emerald green dress next to a lion, and I thought it would make her laugh.

It's all about me-ow.
It’s fun to make fun of O because Oprah is powerful and ubiquitous and prone to let-them-eat-cake moments; because, like every other women’s magazine, it’s obsessed with self-improvement; and because, well, see lion cover above.

But of all the magazines you can impulse-buy at the checkout counter, it’s one of the best. It takes books seriously. It features women of color regularly. And even though Oprah’s always on us to be our best selves, it turns out that the resolution-oriented articles in the January issue are pretty sensible.

I have a complicated relationship with self-improvement. I think our (American? female?) obsession breaks us down and gets us to buy shit more often than it lifts us up. On my blog and in my life, I want to be the voice of You’re good enough. Life is crazy. Have a cookie and a good cry. Yet there’s something charming and innocent about seeing every new day as an opportunity for self-actualization. I just don’t think that Scandinavians think that way, you know?

Bread and bread. And bread.
And, of course, I am always trying to self-improve. I’ve wanted to be perfect since fourth grade, at least. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to hint that while I ate flautas and three pieces of double cinnamon bread (so, sextuple cinnamon) yesterday, starting today I’m going to be a picture of clean and noble living. I’m going to eat only squash and spend my free time reading smart literary magazines. Because I have a new strategy! Because I have Oprah!

One of the magazine’s tips: Start a resolution on a Wednesday when you’re not overwhelmed by the Monday-ness of Monday. So here goes [ed. note: I wrote this post last night].

I mean, I’m not really making a resolution right now. I’m making a meta-resolution, which is not to get derailed by my own perfectionism.

The perfectionist in me wants better punctuation in my screw-it message.
Rule 4 in O’s resolution-making guide is “Your Slip-ups Are Only Detours.” It includes a zigzaggy line depicting the arc of a slipup, whether it’s financial, nutritional, whatever. “Don’t let yourself get sucked into screw-it syndrome—the idea that once you overindulge, you’ve ruined the day, so anything goes. Instead, say to yourself, Yes, I got off track, but I don’t need to make it worse. It’s easier to dig out from a 300-calorie or $30 mistake than a 3,000-calorie or $300 one.”

That’s just basic common sense, and yet I read it with a kind of wonder. Other people have screw-it syndrome too? My sister has long accused me of beating myself up for having basic human emotions. I always think that I am worse than everyone else and that I should be better. Neither is true. I’m just not that special.

During the Thought of the Day at Homeboy this morning, Fr. Greg talked about cherishing the moment. The root of the word cherish, he said, means “to hold.” We should hold good moments and bad ones, simply turn them over and look at them.

A thing I would like to hold.
To suffer from screw-it syndrome is to declare that a certain day doesn’t count. In a way, it would be awesome if we could make some days disappear and only cherish the perfect ones. But life is really fucking short, and it all counts, so you might as well cherish, which is the opposite of screw-it.

So I guess that’s my overly abstract, not-quite-the-new-year resolution (Oprah and company also recommend warming up to a new habit): more cherishing, less saying of screw it. I’ve made similar resolutions before, and even as I type this, I know that what I really want is to trick myself into being perfect by accepting my imperfection. Like some kind of secret back door to perfection.

I’ve been working on an essay or a memoir chapter or something about perfectionism, and I keep circling it, not quite sure how to describe a problem I’m still in the middle of. But I’m not a perfectionist about the essay itself, because I’m much more well adjusted in my writing life than in the rest of my life.   

Friday, December 05, 2014

the babadook, and what i read in october and november

Over Thanksgiving weekend, AK and I saw an Australian horror movie called The Babadook, about a woman whose husband died in a car crash as he drove her to the hospital while she was in labor. Six years later, she’s a single mom struggling to raise a son who sees invisible monsters. She’s frazzled. She wishes he would just go the fuck to sleep.

The movie has a great Tim Burton-ish aesthetic, but with more restraint.
One day a spooky children’s book about a monster called the Babadook shows up in their house. The book promises a terrible fate for any who ignore it and, the text cautions, the monster never goes away. At first, only her son sees the Babadook in their house, and he seems like one of those classic creepy horror movie kids, crazed and possessed.

Nothing like an old-timey rocking horse to make a kid seem creepy.
Then the mother begins to see it. Her son promises to protect his mom, even as she swallows the amorphous monster like so much black ink, becoming angry and cruel, and admitting she wishes her son had died instead of her husband.

This is a mother’s worst fear: becoming the evil mother of horror movies and fairy tales. At this point, the film’s POV flips. She’s the monster, and her son is sweet and brave (which takes some serious acting chops on both parts).

The Babadook, we know by now (“we” meaning not the film-nerd douche bags in back of us, who were excited to compare the movie to others but totally missed its unsubtle metaphors), is nothing more and nothing less than grief, embodied. The film’s simple but cautionary message is: don’t ignore it, or it will come after you and eat you and your loved ones alive.

Reading is fundamental...ly terrifying.
So she faces it down in a scene that had me clutching AK’s arm and bawling. Yes yes yes—this is what the ball of grief and fear inside me feels like. I know I’m not alone in having a personal Babadook, and yet the nature of the Babadook is to convince you that you are utterly alone.

After the woman battles the Babadook, effectively choosing her son and the present over the seductive past, they develop a happily ordinary mother-son relationship. He gets to goof around and do magic tricks instead of parenting his mother. In the final scene, he hands her a bowl of dirt and worms he’s dug from the garden. She goes into their heavily barricaded basement and feeds it to the still-lurking, but much smaller, monster.

“How was it?” her son asks.

“It was small today,” she says.

Take note, movies and self: children are impacted by your pain (“Careful the things you say, children will listen,” sings the witch in Into the Woods). But also: they can heal. They can help you heal. It’s okay. The monsters will come and go, and to see them is not to be ruined.

Here are some books I read these past months:

This book is about neither beads nor a woman named Bailey. Discuss.
Bailey's Beads by Terry Wolverton: This girlfriend-in-a-coma story is an interesting examination of how we create our identities, and especially those of our loved ones, through story. The novel plays with form in a way that feels ahead of its time (the original pub date was the early '90s, I believe), and the questions it asks are still relevant. It's also a good read for anyone who's ever dealt with a difficult in-law. :-)

Man on wire.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann:  I'm probably not the first one to suggest that Colum McCann has written a 9/11 novel that takes place twenty-five years before 9/11. His connected short stories spin around a single, improbable event involving the World Trade Center. But instead of a tragedy, the event in question is one of beauty, artistry and comedy: a high-wire walker's stolen stroll between the twin towers in the mid-1970s. I think McCann is asking us to see the world's chaos as an opportunity; without being maudlin, each of the characters whose lives bump and crash together rise to become their best selves. Case in point: Claire and Gloria, a wealthy uptown white woman and a poor, though educated, black woman living in the Bronx. They initially become friends in a support group for mothers who've lost sons in Vietnam. Racial dynamics and sorrow dovetail in a painfully awkward moment that threatens their friendship. But they keep moving and work through it.

I can see why this novel won the National Book Award. It finds the good in Americans without denying our ugliness--slavery and poverty, Vietnam and drug addiction. Like a black-and-white photo of a person boldly displaying a scar, this is a portrait that can win even a cynic's heart.


The Night Watch by Sarah Waters: This is the first Sarah Waters I've read, and her writing lives up to its reputation as "literary historical fiction" (it's always weird when genre gets legitimized with the literary tag...and yet on some level it's useful shorthand). Like Richard Yates, Michael Cunningham and so many of my favorite writers, she describes the intricacies of human emotion perfectly. She also provides a cinematic dose of well integrated historical detail, to the point that I feel like I know what WWII-era pajamas look like. And by making queer characters visible in these scenes, she commits a needed and quietly radical service.

Yet, while plenty of things happen in this book, and secrets are slowly revealed, I came away feeling like there was no real story. Or maybe that the story was too mechanical compared to the telling of it. The four young people whose lives unfold against the backdrop of WWII London are interesting and likeable, but I never know quite *why* I'm getting this glimpse into their lives. It's like Sarah Waters is such a documentarian that she never fully seizes thematic poetic license.
 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

proving you’re not crazy: on ferguson, sort of

1. the body he lives in

There’s a trainee at Homeboy named Rudy. Recently he gave the Thought of the Day and shared a poem he wrote, about introducing himself for the first time in his memory as “Rudy,” instead of giving his gang nickname. It was a sweet and powerful poem that captured the intensity of rediscovering your own identity—the not-so-simple act of declaring I’m not who they say I am.

Rudy, shown smaller than actual size.
The first thing everyone notices about Rudy is that he’s close to seven feet tall. He has the girth to match and a deep voice. If he signed on with a casting agency, he would regularly get cast in fairy tale films. But in this world of modern fairy tales, he was cast in the role of tough guy very early in life. When I think about how long it took me—an average-sized white female whose parents never told me not to cry— to truly own my vulnerability, I can only imagine how machismo and other cultural forces must have tamped down the hurt little boy in Rudy. The fact that Rudy found his inner Rudy is proof of his true manhood, and because of the body he lives in, he has to prove it over and over again.

2. those who cannot remember the past are doomed to post ignorant shit on facebook

This morning, I read some posts about Ferguson on AK’s Facebook page, from some of her evangelical college friends. (If ever there were a recipe for an opinionated blog post from me, it would be Facebook + evangelical Christians + no coffee yet.) Most, though not all, of the commenters were white and middle class. The gist of the initial post was: Hey you guys, I never post anything political, but the rioting in Ferguson upsets me because cops have a really hard job. What’s wrong with these people? She got something like 68 likes and 33 comments, the majority of which were supportive. Yeah, we should respect cops! My brother’s a cop!!

I haven’t read many articles about Ferguson or even formed thoughts beyond a vague sense of sadness and frustration about how little has changed since 1992 or even 1965. And that’s a luxury I have as a middle-class white female. That whole Ferguson thing is sorta just over there.

1965

1992

2014
The woman who set aside her no-politics stance to speak out on this very important issue ended up putting on a cringe-inducing performance of her own ignorance. Her post was genuinely baffled, and not hateful in its tone. Most, though not all, of the comments weren’t hateful either.

But they were putting the burden of proof—of proving I’m not dangerous as well as I have something to be angry about—on poor people of color, and that strikes me as fundamentally flawed thinking. The sum of lots of well-meaning-ish ignorant opinions is culture, is racism.

I don’t know Darren Wilson, and I don’t know whether he is a bad cop who should go to jail or not, and I believe he probably was afraid for his life when he shot Michael Brown. But the sum of lots of scared white cops, when added to the ENTIRE HISTORY OF AMERICA is culture, is racism.

3. statistically, it is much more dangerous to be a roofer or a farmer than a police officer, but i’m gonna play it safe and stick with writer

It’s true: cops have a really hard job. My uncle was a cop for years before he retired and became a psychologist. Today he works with the Long Beach Police Department to screen prospective officers and weed out the psychopaths and people with an ax to grind, racial or otherwise. He also counsels cops who’ve been involved in shootings, helping them grapple with all the intense, complicated experiences that happen before and after a trigger is pulled. I don’t think Robin and I see eye to eye on every issue, but I’m encouraged by his work, because it puts consciousness and empathy at the heart of police work.

As individuals, we can defeat racism by educating ourselves about history and interrogating our own thought patterns—i.e. the academic route—or we can live among people who look different from us and see them as they really are—the Father Greg kinship route. I am a fan of both, and I think both are two-way streets.

By “we,” I don’t just mean “we white people” because, ugh, that would be a crappy way to talk. What I mean is, it’s not just that white people need to stop seeing people of color as killers and thugs (although, as the party in power, we-white-people face the more urgent task), it’s that poor communities of color need to see white people who aren’t just cops, teachers or celebrities on TV. White people can be kind. White people can be non-authority figures. White people can struggle—and ideally they can do so without shitting all over people of color.

Police officers, whether kind and hard-working or racist or struggling or some combination thereof, at the very least see what goes on in poor communities of color. Unlike the evangelical Facebook posters, they don’t have the luxury of blindness, although they may still be ignorant and biased. But they’re getting their hands dirty, and in some ways they are bearing the brunt of white stupidity, if less so than the people of color who get shot.

"You and I, we have a lot in common. Like our dashing 'staches."
That Facebook thread went beyond a failure to understand history and context, and bled into a kind of willful ignorance that can only come when you dehumanize people. Not only could those posters not understand what protestors and rioters might be pissed off about, but they couldn’t even imagine that there was a piece of the story they weren’t imagining. That is literally the least we can do—when we don’t get it, we can hold the door open a crack for the possibility that there’s more going on here than we can wrap our little minds around.

4. the political is personal

This morning I talked to my friend Michelle, who is having a classic Thanksgiving visit home, meaning her family is lashing out in the wake of its collective inter-generational problems. Specifically, her dad is torn between smothering his grief over her mom, who died five years ago, and acting like a teenager allowed to run around un-chaperoned for the first time. He wants to rent the house to strangers, he only wants to hang out with his daughters when his new girlfriend is around. Michelle’s sister has her back, but even she prefers the Dive Into Something New school of coping to the Sit With The Suck school.

Michelle, who has been sitting with the suck, woke up this morning to an empty house. Everyone else had gone to breakfast and left her with a lone bag of English muffins.

“Even the toaster is gone,” she said. “What the fuck?”

After we talked for a while, she said, “Thanks for letting me know I’m not crazy.”

Actually, elephants may be a lot more enlightened than most of us.
In my own family and in my friend circle, I have periodically been the crazy one. I’ve felt others’ fear of the intensity of my emotions, and I’ve screamed at the top of my lungs, trying to get them to name an elephant in the room. It feels awful to be feared, and alienating, and I think that when people protest and riot, this is what they’re doing. They’re saying There’s an elephant here, and it’s huge and terrible, and it has been here for hundreds of years. Maybe this time can we talk about it? How many of us does it need to stomp on before you’ll stop calling us crazy?

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.