Wednesday, July 20, 2016

the dream of the 1890s

Laterblog, from a July 18 journal entry.

As I write this, I'm watching mist filter through pines and redwoods and trees I have no name for. I'm staying with my aunt and cousin and their respective husbands on the outskirts of Loleta, which is on the outskirts of Eureka. "Behind the Redwood Curtain" is a thing people say up here when they're talking about how there are no good jobs or doctors.

Dash just woke up from his nap for a minute. I soothed him by taking him to the window and pointing out the trees, the mist, the propane tank, the cars on the highway, the billboard for Cheech and Chong's appearance at the local casino.

Maria and Al's little house in the big woods.
Aunt Vanessa has lived here since the seventies, when she moved here to be with Richard, her second husband. My grandmother joined her when her house was taken by eminent domain to make room for the Santa Ana City College parking lot.

I learned all these details from my cousin Maria a couple of days ago. She's been doing a ton of research on our family's history, for which I'm hugely grateful. She and her husband Al joined Vanessa and Linus up here a couple of years ago when Maria got a job at Humboldt State.

Country life seems to have been good for Maria and Al, who were the kind of people who maybe needed their lives to be a little less interesting. The first time AK met them, we were on our second or third date, and we ran into them at a Hollywood bus stop. They were wearing matching camo pants and bright yellow T-shirts. The family narrative has always been that Vanessa and Maria are fun, and Valerie (my mom), Cheryl and Cathy (my sister) are responsible. I hope that by now we're meeting somewhere in the middle.

Al and Maria at Centerville Beach.
There's nothing like spending time with family to remind you who you are, for better and worse. We are chronic apologizers, too self-aware for our own good, funny, nutty, creative. My aunt says things like "Whoever invented the term 'golden years' should be shot. It's more like pot metal--you know the stuff they make carnival prizes out of?" Linus has a green-and-yellow parrot named Baby, who eats at the dinner table and only has eyes for Linus. Vanessa said, "If I ever find an egg around here, and it hatches, and the baby bird looks like Linus...."

Family breakfast at Poppa Joe's in Ferndale. Baby couldn't make it.
Maria's agenda for us included dressing up in an old family prairie dress and taking photos at the cemetery down the road.

The dress fit both Cathy and me extraordinarily well. Tailored for Taylors! (Okay, wrong side of the family, but I couldn't resist.)
We drove some of the back roads through Ferndale. I felt jumpy because people are not used to seeing strange cars, perhaps especially ones being driven by black men. One guy pointed a shovel at us in a way I interpreted to mean "Stay off my land or I'll shoot," but soon he, Al and Maria were reminiscing about mutual friends and old times. I am so much better at urban anonymity than country friendliness.

We bummed around Ferndale, which is still the preserved-in-amber 1890s logging town that it was in the 1980s. It still has the same musty smell and some of the same stores, including Golden Gait Mercantile, whose second floor is a collection of creepy mannequins in old-timey clothing. But now there's a WiFi network called Ferndale Free Cozy WiFi.

Upstairs at the Mercantile. You know at night they come alive.
Linus comes from one of the early Danish families that founded the town. All the elders seem to be millionaire hoarders, like a West Coast Grey Gardens. There was talk of stopping by Cousin Willie's; he'd recently been arrested for dumping hazardous materials on his own land. We haven't done that yet and I feel okay about that.

Cowboy Dash. Seriously, I feel so lucky to have such a sweet family, who welcomed him with open arms, slices of watermelon and free-ranging cows.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

songs of innocence and experience

1. inconsolable

Several people in my feed shared a news clip of Alton Sterling’s son bawling and crying out “Daddy!” I try not to be a look-away type, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn the sound on. The headline and a few seconds of silent video was enough.

I kept thinking of last year’s Homeboy Family Picnic, when a little boy temporarily lost his dad, a Homeboy trainee. The boy was maybe seven. He had a chubby face and a buzz cut; a smear of barbecue sauce had defiled his ribbed white tank. He was in tears, calling out “Daddy!”

“Who’s your dad?” asked the crew of women who quickly gathered around him.

“Raul,” he said.*

Raul had to be nearby, playing volleyball or grooving to oldies in the shade. But his son was inconsolable, despite the women’s assurance that we’d find Raul momentarily. He sobbed and sobbed until finally he stopped and threw up on the grass.

This year's picnic. Families lost and found.
As a kid I’d been quick to panic when separated from my parents, but this was a whole other league. This was PTSD. I knew without knowing that Raul had left him before, maybe intentionally, maybe to go to prison, maybe both.

Do you want to know what generations of institutionalized racism, poverty and the prison-industrial complex looks like? It looks like a seven-year-old crying so hard he pukes.

Someone found Raul, of course. A few months later, he was in a car accident that left him paralyzed. I heard he was having trouble summoning the desire to live. I can imagine how he might feel like life was too much of an uphill battle. You get your shit together, you leave gang life, you get a job, you raise your kid. And then this? I can’t blame him for wanting to give up. But I hope he hasn’t.

2. imaginary

As America goes, so goes Facebook. Which is to say, it blew up. Yesterday my Parenting for Social Justice group was full of people trying to figure out what to say to their #AllLivesMatter aunts and uncles. I got into a thing on a friend’s page with a white guy who started calling Alton Sterling a thug. A black woman replied that her son and others had been harassed by police despite being well behaved and well dressed. The guy said every thug’s mother thinks her son is a good boy. I told him “Even yours, Henry” and dropped the mic no one had handed me.

Another friend posted that she wished she could give her daughter the world she grew up in, the safe one. For some reason that post in particular got under my skin. Maybe because I couldn’t dismiss it as a crazy racist rant—who doesn’t want their kid to run free in a safe world? Also because what she was really writing about was her own privilege and denial of history. She’s roughly the same age as me, and while we were kids, the Cold War was still kind of hot, we trampled through Iraq the first time, gang violence peaked, Rodney King got beaten and L.A. exploded and the McMartin preschool trial dragged innocent teachers through the mud. Just as many kids got killed and molested then as now.

I remember driving past this school so many times, envying the amazing playground.
But if my friend missed it, it was for the same reason I did: Our parents sheltered and cared for us, and had the ability to do so. Chances are, her daughter will emerge relatively unscathed by ISIS, police and the imaginary kidnappers that lurk behind every corner. And if her daughter fails to educate herself, she’ll grow up believing that the 2010s were a more innocent time.

3. home

I was going to tell you about our move. Last weekend we packed up the cats, the furniture, a million pairs of Cheryl shoes and a half million oversize toddler Legos and moved a mile southeast of our old place.

There are so, so many things I love about the new house, from the shady carport to the dishwasher (!) to the hot dusty attic, where you can tell it really is a hundred-year-old house.

But I think my favorite thing is the open kitchen/dining/living room area. This renovation was clearly part of its 2012 flipping. I remember learning at the Petersen Automotive Museum that you can track the role of the automobile in people’s lives by how garages got closer to the house over the years, until they became a part of it, in many cases at the very front and center. Kitchens are the same. Once upon a time, they were housed in separate buildings, mostly because they had a tendency to catch fire. Then they were kept behind the dining room, so diners couldn’t see the servants at work.

"Servants' daily routine was considered hardly worth photographing."
Now that most middle class families don’t have servants (because of technology, not because we’re nice), the kitchen is the heart of every party. Domestic goddesses don’t want to be lonely and isolated, and neither do I, as I cook frozen salmon in the toaster oven.

So I love love love that I can wash dishes or make tea while keeping Dash in my sightline. It’s safe, practical and homey, as all childhoods should be.

*Not his real name.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

doubling down on love

1. find out what it means to me

A common trope in the queer rights movement is “Children of LGBT people deserve to see their parents treated with dignity.” I’m not a huge fan of invoking “the children” (it’s cheap and it implies that non-parents…don’t need dignity?), but of course I agree.

After the Orlando shooting this past weekend, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a queer person’s kid. I tried to imagine what it would feel like, on a visceral level, to see my parents attacked physically, verbally or systemically. When I pictured my actual parents—when I pictured Chris and Valerie Klein—I felt immediately embattled. I wanted to throw myself in front of their tender bodies and souls.

Then I tried to imagine how Dash must feel about AK and me. At 16 months, it seems to be: Mommy! Mama! (Actually: Mama! Mama! We haven’t managed to make different names stick yet.) His invocation is a mix of delight and possession, often mixed with the need to tell us something very important, like did we know there’s a box of Cheerios in the grocery bag right next to his car seat?! But if someone tried to take Mama and Mama from him, he would be baffled and devastated.

Lady Gaga puts the L.A. in ORLANDO at last night's vigil.
I shared these thoughts with AK as we were getting ready for work. She said, “Yeah, but I think more about little black kids, and what it’s like to see your parents disrespected under the law for hundreds of years. With gay people, I feel more like we were doing great, and then there have been setbacks.”

Even though I refuse to play the Oppression Olympics (which is worse, to be part of a community that was treated like shit for centuries, or a community that didn’t even get to be a community for centuries? And what if you’re part of both?), I agreed with what AK was saying, and I was humbled.

Respect is a big deal in low-socioeconomic groups because when you’re denied access to traditional avenues of “success” (good jobs, property ownership, marriage, etc.), the little stuff becomes really important. Who you can lick in a fight. What you’re called on the street. A look. Words muttered under breath.

Jill Leovy writes about these factors brilliantly in Ghettoside, a book that makes the case that the black-on-black homicide rate is what it is because law enforcement has completely failed to hold killers of black people accountable, leaving “justice” to gangs and other vigilantes. Another way of framing this is to say that black people have been and still are so disrespected that their dead bodies mean nothing.

2. the secret garden of the self

I have no experience living under a multigenerational legacy of disrespect. But I do know what it’s like to feel like nothing. When I was a kid, I was determined not to be gay, because I couldn’t name a single queer woman that I knew of, let alone someone I might want to be like. Later these feelings of nothingness manifested more explosively when I experienced infertility and miscarriage—it’s hard to put into words, but a part of me believed that if I could be a mom (that somewhat heterocentric role our culture loves to exalt), I could “overcome” the nobody-ness of being queer. It would be, I imagined, my way of having my cake and eating it too.

But then the universe held up a NO CAKE FOR YOU sign, and I was left with my queer, bummed-out self.

During those difficult, searching years, I had to find something to hang onto when so many avenues of success and identity were closed to me. There’s a Tracy Chapman song called “All That You Have is Your Soul”; my mom said it resonated with her when she was going through cancer treatment. You can lose your job, your loved ones, your body parts, your dignity—but no one can take your soul (though some will try). It’s the one thing you have to care for above all else, and if you do, many of the other things will follow (though not all, and not always). And it is fucking HARD when there are so many shiny trophies to grasp for.

The problem is I really like shiny apples and cake.
When you find your soul or your higher power or whatever you want to call it, it will look like a quiet, shady courtyard—a kind of secret garden—in the center of your stressed-out body. Angry gunmen or schoolyard bullies or mean bosses or abusive spouses might assault your body and your busy mind, but they can’t gain access to the secret garden once you’ve found it.

I think it goes without saying that Omar Mateen had not found it. It was there inside him, but it was still a secret even to himself. Of course I don’t know the details, and I’m speculating WILDLY here, but I see someone who saw his sexuality condemned by his religion (his version of it) and saw his religion dismissed by a country that dehumanizes Muslims. Throw in mental illness, a big old gun and the spectacle of beautiful dancing boys who’d found themselves in music and love—at least for that night—and the intensity of the nothingness he felt must have been crushing.

As humans, we owe it to everyone—the Omar Mateens, the gang members fighting over street corners, the queer kids groping blindly for some kind of promising future—to open up as many avenues to success and respect as possible. As individuals, we owe it to ourselves to find that quiet, unassailable place when nothing good is possible.

Love is free. Coffee is $4.
My Facebook feed has been full of grief and calls for assault-weapon bans (I emailed my congressman), and there’s that one friend who seems to think conservative Christian gun-owners are the oppressed ones. But my favorite post was from my friend Dan, who does not shy away the very real possibility that our only choice may not stop the death toll. Shortly after posting a picture of his five-year-old son dressed as “the most beautiful lady in the whole world” (in a tiara and homemade necklaces), Dan wrote this:

All these poor kids were seeking was love, and they were murdered for it. So what do we do? Fight? Give in to the various flavors of hate and blame that are being sold to us (and there’s a flavor for everyone; hate works that way, customizing itself so it can sneak into your heart)? Or do we double down on love, and cope with the heartbreak - such heartbreak - whenever, and it seems to happen more and more, that increasing the stakes that way turns out to have yielded a losing hand. Again.

Monday, June 13, 2016

good fortune in strange times

1. something to (es)crow about

When we were going through the adoption process, other hopeful adoptive parents compared the “match”—the time when the expectant mom and the adoptive parents have agreed on a plan, but before the baby is born—to escrow. I had no experience with home ownership, but I understood what it meant: a period of limbo when hopes were high and a lot could go wrong.

Now the adoption process is helping me understand the process of buying a house.

I know how that sounds, comparing a human being to a piece of property. And that’s exactly why adoption is so frustrating, because it attempts to translate a relationship into a transaction.

Anyway, we are now in escrow. Regular escrow. By “we,” I mean my dad. AK and I are just the grateful, probable future tenants. If adoption was a creaky wooden roller coaster, this process has been a buttered luge—that quick and smooth. A very expensive luge, where someone else is doing the buttering.

A fairly accurate depiction of what it feels like to be a hopeful adoptive parent.
The house: a 1912 Craftsman bungalow stuccoed over and painted a dark, calming olive. There’s a little backyard, a shaded patio and concrete countertops that will be able to stand up to the destructive forces of me and a toddler. Dash will have his own small room. There’s a beautiful claw-foot tub in the bathroom and orange trees lining the driveway. Dash decided his favorite part of the house was the toilet brush left by the previous owners.

You can tell it’s been flipped just by the fence—natural-wood fences have become code for hipster/flipper/New Highland Park. The house’s Zillow profile reads like a recent history of the U.S. housing market. It sold in 2005, was foreclosed on in 2008, sold in 2009, foreclosed on in 2011, sold in 2011, and sold again in 2012. Those facts, plus a YouTube video we found of its makeover journey, made my heart go out to the little house, as if it were a stray pet who’d never found quite the right human.

It’s us! We’re the family that doesn’t want to sell you or let you crumble! We just want to live in you and love you and probably kill some of the lovely plants in your yard, if we’re being perfectly honest.

I wonder about this impulse in myself. Why do I instantly anthropomorphize the house? Why do I have to translate this transaction into something relational? Why do I have to pretend that what is in fact an overpriced, beautiful, desirable home is some kind of underdog in order for me to love it? Is my need to be needed that huge?

2. where’s our humble home?

Having lived in Highland Park for nine years, it’s not like I haven’t noticed gentrification. The Wild Hare became The York. Mr. T’s became Highland Bowl. That funky smelling pet store is gone, and Town now occupies Italiano’s, selling pizza at double the price. There are multiple yoga studios, multiple record stores and Bernie’s campaign headquarters. There’s a store called Platform that will stage your flipped house (and staged ours, at least one of the times it sold).

And yet my eyes were opened all over again while house hunting. I am acutely aware that a forty-year historical trend is reversing: Cities are desirable again, houses near downtowns everywhere are getting snatched up (I am now a snatcher) and poor people are moving to Palmdale. It is strange and breathtaking to watch yourself ride the wave of history.

With my new real estate goggles, I saw flipper fences everywhere, along with signs tacked to telephone poles, saying We buy houses for cash $$$. Only two types of houses seemed to be for sale: The ones with new countertops and new wood floors and freshly baked cookies in the kitchen, and major fixer-uppers screaming Flip me!

One of the houses in the latter category was down the street from our current place. When I showed up for the open house, a young, blonde-haired woman looked up from her phone and told me she was not the agent, but she could answer any questions I might have. She didn’t say who she was.

The house was cute, 1930s mission-style with a lot of original floors and windows. It was pretty banged up, with rotting wood framing the windows, and a kitchen that would have been an excellent location to shoot a 1970s period piece.

"Can I get you anything? Coffee? Leisure suit made from my wallpaper?"
“The owners have plans they can share with you,” Not-the-Agent said. “Like, they were going to knock out this wall and expand the master bedroom. And they were going to open the kitchen up.”

She presented this as if it were a special bonus, like an ocean view or new appliances. The “plans,” which were actually just an idea (and a rather obvious one at that), didn’t seem to warrant the extra $100,000 they had tacked onto what would have been a normal price (for a ridiculously abnormal market).

AK likened the experience to that time she wanted to buy a stereo, and they seemed to come in only two flavors, cheap-ass and uber-high-end.

Where’s our humble little home? we wondered. I imagined clean empty rooms, aluminum windows, some unattractive bathroom tile, but nothing that would collapse or leak or smell. The only place we glimpsed that seemed to fit this description was next to high-voltage power lines that even my non-alarmist dad found troubling.

The realtors all had that seller’s-market strut, like hot girls at the club. They used vaguely coded language about “desirability” and “good schools,” trying to assure potential buyers that this neighborhood is safe for white people (in fact, all neighborhoods are safer for white people than they are for people of color, usually).

3. imposter syndrome

I want safety. I want Dash to go to a good school. I’m not above any of this, although I did wonder what his childhood will be like if we’re essentially living above our means by nature of our rental arrangement.

His childhood would be like mine. I grew up a middle-class kid in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. This manifested in small ways that seemed big at the time. My parents didn’t automatically buy all the shit I had to sell when we fundraised for extracurricular activities. When we went to the zoo or the beach, we always, always, always bought our own snacks. We went out to eat exactly once a week (less during tight times), to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant where burritos cost $3.

My dad started going to Leo's in 1948. Long live Leo's!
But I always had food and clothes and got to do the stuff that mattered most to me. It wasn’t like I was alienated for the fact that I couldn’t afford a letterman jacket when I was on varsity cheer. I was just bummed and a little cold.

In some ways I think this situation was ideal. I knew, in a small way, what it felt like to go without some stuff, and it made me good at saving money (sort of…sigh) and empathizing with people who had to go without more stuff. 

I don’t want Dash to go to school with only white kids, but right now Eagle Rock High School is only 10 percent white. Even if that number quadruples in the next 13 years, white kids will still be in the minority. Plus, the house that will hopefully be ours is zoned for Franklin High School, which is 1 percent white.    

This is all such new territory, literally and figuratively. Property. Schools.

“Excellent adulting!” my friend Nicole congratulated me. I felt like an imposter, of course. My dad is the real adult in this story, although I know that would seem true even if we were the buyers. That’s the nature of parents, at least competent ones.

4. oldies but goodies

The other day I attempted to get a little exercise by putting on music and dancing around with Dash next to the air conditioner, pausing to do stomach crunches now and then. He is really into music and dancing these days; he does this knee-bend-and-stomp thing that melts my heart and reminds me that humans are intrinsically musical creatures. I was wearing a T-shirt and underwear and my hair was in pigtails. We danced to Ray Charles, Parov Stellar, The Pretty Reckless, The Book of Mormon and (because my phone was on shuffle) that mandatory U2 album.

Dash's favorite songs. You should see this kid do the Mess Around.
I had memories of my mom dancing to oldies in our family room. At the time “oldies” were fifties music. I guess now oldies are, like, The Cure. Or Backstreet Boys? I remembered her seeming silly and oh-so-mom-like; I tried assuring myself that my moves were more club-worthy (but hopefully not too club-worthy because Dash). Who am I kidding? I am Dash’s childhood, at least part of it, and whatever I do will be silly and embarrassingly mom-ish, as well as adult by default. It will be the stuff he strives for and the stuff he runs from. It’s cool. I’ll take it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

damn you, jose osuna, you are always making me cry

Each day at Homeboy starts with a Thought of the Day--a personal story or short inspirational speech by a staff member or trainee. It's part of the reason I don't bother going to church anymore; I live at church (a church that welcomes atheists, a church where even the priests meditate with gongs and burn sage). (I also know how the church sausage is made, which both dims and enhances the magic, but that's another post.)

Naturally Fr. Greg's TotD's get the most accolades, followed closely by TotD's from especially vulnerable and courageous trainees, the taste of both tragedy and transformation fresh in their mouths. But my personal favorite TotD-giver is Jose Osuna, Homeboy's Director of External Affairs. He is a former client, who started as a solar panel program student and worked his way up through the ranks. But he's quick to point out that he was never one of those kids who grew up in Boyle Heights with Fr. Greg as a shadow-dad even during their darkest days. Jose has always been a bit of a renegade, and he is also incredibly smart and kind and unafraid to speak the bald truth to power, which is why I love him.

His TotD today was about flying. He opened with a quote from Coco Chanel. (He is also unafraid to speak Coco Chanel to a room full of homies.)

He said: "Today I'm going to talk about flying. I have this daughter named Isabel. She's 24 now, and I asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday. Last year she wanted to go on a helicopter ride, so we did, and it was amazing. I was in jail for so much of her life. I missed so many years."

This year, Jose said, "She said, 'Let's go skydiving.' I said, 'Great, you can go skydiving.' I switched the 'we' of that right around."

I thought this might be a story about how Jose worked up the guts to jump out of a plane, but it wasn't. Isabel went up in the air and Jose stayed on the ground with his phone, ready to text her mother and the rest of the family as soon as her green-and-black parachute opened.

"I saw her floating toward me. And I just started crying. I thought about all those years I wasn't there for her. People wondered why I was there that day, since I wasn't skydiving, but I'm her father. Who else is going to catch her?"

I think Jose knows, better than most people, that Isabel had to land on her own. He hugged her, he was proud of her, and she had a great birthday. But the real pang came, he said, when he saw the picture she posted later that day.

"You know, she never went down the path I did," he said. "She never got in trouble or did drugs. She accepted the parents she had, and she accepted that her brother was murdered at 17. She was just really, really mad at me for a long time. She was so angry. Then I saw this picture of her at the door of the plane, getting ready to jump, with her hair flying all wild. The caption she wrote was, 'I flew.'"

I started listening to Jose's TotD as a parent, trying to imagine Dash jumping out of a plane one day (eeeehhhk). But I quickly realized that in this story, I'm Isabel.

My dad never went to jail; his mistakes were of the too-straight-and-narrow variety. He and my mom saved every penny they earned. They were determined to create financial and emotional stability for our family. My mom grew up with an alcoholic dad who moved their family to a new house every year or so. My dad's dad died when he was a year old, and although his mom was kind and devoted, it wasn't easy to raise two boys on her own. 

"She might have had a couple of years of fun when our father was alive," my Uncle Robin once confided, "but for the most part I don't think anyone in our family really knew what fun was."

My family valued happiness, but it was understood to be dessert, the thing you ate after you choked down your vegetables. 

Yeah, I'm still not a salad fan.
For better and worse, all my dad's hard work--plus some luck and the privilege that comes with being white and male and coming of age at a time when putting oneself through college was a bit more doable--paid off. All those worried phone calls from campground payphones to his business partner regarding the real estate investments that tanked in the recession of the early nineties. All those clothes my mom bought at thrift stores--she would drop a $2 skirt like it was on fire if the tag said "dry clean only."

My parents started planning for retirement when I was in elementary school, daydreaming about the house they might build in the middle of a redwood forest. (This was largely my dad's dream. My mom wanted to be close to people and a good hospital.)

Jose and Fr. Greg.
My mom got sick the year after I finished college and died three years later. My dad realized, in the most heartbreaking way possible, that you can't take it with you. And while he didn't exactly go on a spending spree--he still stocks up on frozen yogurt whenever it's on sale--he did purchase the first new car of his life, a sweet little wine-colored BMW convertible that hugs the road so fiercely even I can appreciate its ultimate-driving-machine-ness. 

My dad's girlfriend Susan pointed out to him that, rather than leaving my sister and I a chunk of money when he dies, it would be more fun (fun!) to help us out now, when we're younger and needier and he's alive to enjoy us enjoying it. 

At times I've resisted his help. At times I've humbly embraced it. At times I've reluctantly embraced it. I thought my reluctance came from my class guilt and feelings about social justice (and it does), but a recent post in one of my online parenting groups, the Dead Parents Club, made me realize that I'm not just concerned about living on the backs of the oppressed. I'm also living on the backs of my parents, perhaps especially my mom. 

I one hundred percent know that she would have loved seeing me parent the baby whose adoption fees she and my dad paid. I know that she would have loved seeing AK and I nest in the house that my dad is now looking for, to purchase so AK and I can rent from him. 

And yet.

This house has about six more bedrooms than the ones we're looking at. But I still feel like I'm living some kind of crazy mansion dream.
House hunting these past couple of weeks with AK and my dad has been surprisingly smooth, the pieces--so far--falling easily into place, although we haven't found the place itself yet. But I'm grateful that they're both such good people and such good communicators. Let's just say we've all come a long way from our 2010 trip to England, when my dad tried to see All Of The Best Things In The UK in the space of a week and AK periodically stomped off in exhaustion and frustration. 

This feels like the right time and the right direction. Also squirmy and bittersweet. But hearing Jose talk about what it meant to watch his daughter fly cut some of the strings of my guilt. This is what my dad wants for me. And if living in an awesome house is what I have to do to make him happy, I will make that sacrifice. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

beach babes

1. the turns our lives have taken

My last post was so melancholy. I mean, that was the space I was in, but sometimes I think I only know how to write in Sad Voice anymore, even when I’m happy. I’m like the most emo 39-year-old you’ll ever meet.

But I’m healthy—those quarterly appointments are a new lease on life, no matter how much I try not to let my world revolve around them. And I just got back from vacation.* So it seems like a good time to try my hand at writing about a good time.

That's Amy on the left. This is 2008, which in my mind was two years ago.
It was a pretty simple trip—a few days with friends in a rented house on the Central Coast—but we’d been planning it a long time. Amy and AK go way back to a women’s group at the Gay & Lesbian Center, and Amy and I go back almost as far. I remember the night we stayed up late eating cheese and talking at her friends’ gorgeous Craftsman house where she stayed in raw early days after her breakup with Kim, her first wife. I’d just miscarried and was equally raw. We could not believe the turn our lives had taken. We were good girls, privileged but hardworking. We wouldn’t have said it out loud, but we sort of thought The Best awaited us. At least I did.

Amy met a new love and moved to Atlanta. Carrie had a then-three-year-old son, and when Amy left, she said, “It’s like we were both members of the Childless Woman Club, and now I’m not, but I hope you’ll keep my picture on the wall of the clubhouse.” She meant it kindly, but I hated her for a minute.

It was tough being a stepmom, although Amy was and is resilient. The pangs of not having a baby to raise from scratch resurfaced. We commiserated.

And then one day Amy sent me an email with the subject line: The dreaded email: I’m pregnant. I was grateful to her for tearing the band-aid off, even though I cried when we talked on the phone and yelled something classy like “You don’t know what it’s like to be afraid you’re going to die before becoming a mom!”

But life is weird and unpredictable, and AK and I became moms three months before Amy’s twins were born. Meeting her kids—and re-meeting each other a year into our parenting journey—felt like a thing coming full circle.

2. baby reality show

When we all arrived at the house, a little two-bedroom blocks from the beach in Morro Bay, one thing became clear: Dash is tall. We’d all seen lots of pictures of each other’s kids, but Facebook doesn’t really convey personality or proportion. Dash was slender and teetery, a new walker at 15 months, what with his high center of gravity. Callan and Bennett were busy little munchkins, bustling about at 12 months.

Sweet chaos.
I could watch them all, for hours, like a TV show. Parenting, when it’s just you and the kid, can be lonely and even maddening. You want someone to share the hard parts and laugh at the silliness. I know that single parents get paid a lot of lip service while receiving very few resources (as do parents in general), but damn, I have so much respect.

But with four parents and three kids, life is the best kind of chaos. The parents in question were AK, me, Amy and Amy’s mom Lisa, because Carrie had just started a new job and couldn’t get time off.

Callan and Dash, partners in crime.
We took turns cooking and kid-watching and relaxing, while Dash, Callan and Bennett were kittens who refused to be herded. They pulled all the phone books out of the living room cabinets and threw them on the floor. The banged pots and pans. They fell backwards into buckets and collided with each other and cried about it. They fought over books and toys and moms, although their moments of outrage rarely lasted longer than thirty seconds.

Dash grabbed Bennett’s clothes and she screamed bloody murder. Amy said, “Well, Bennett, now you’ve met a bigger kid who is actually mobile. What does it feel like?” Bennett, apparently, liked to take charge at daycare and at home. She smiled easily, showing her dimples, but she also yelled and cried when things weren’t going her way.

Callan was chill personified, with big brown eyes and a sort of professorial look that sometimes gave way to huge dimples of his own. He loved filling paper bags, eating seaweed and rolling smooth stones around in his mouth.
Callan (right) indulges his inner freegan.
Chill and chilly.
We spent a stretch of Friday at Montña de Oro, a stop on many Klein family vacations when I was a kid. AK and I usually went on a run along the bluffs there on our San Luis trips, and now I hoped it would become a tradition Dash would grow up with.

We picnicked on the beach below the bluffs with Holly, Joel and their son Wendell, who were in town visiting Joel’s parents. The babies shared sandy, slobbery bottles and I surrendered to the messy and sticky. They dipped their toes in the cold surf. Holly and Amy talked about cloth diapers.

Dash pouted when he saw AK cuddling Callan. It was the first time we’d seen him get jealous.

I kind of understood it. Seeing AK hold Callan sent a quick ripple of emotion through me too. They were so sweet together—I couldn’t help but wonder whether it might be nice to have a second baby. But another part of me wanted to step in and reclaim AK. For myself or for Dash? I wasn’t even sure. Freud probably would be.

3. the future as seductress

The Second Kid Question has pros and cons that march through my head more loudly than I’d like. I know for sure that I could be very happy (and probably a more prolific writer and less poor) with just Dash. “Just” Dash, ha. Dash is everything! I also know that I would love any younger sibling who might come along. Then I remind myself that we literally could not pay double our daycare bill right now, and the answer gets easier.

Party of three.
What I want to do is live in the present. That’s what Dash deserves, and what AK and I deserve too. The future is a dangerous siren. This is a bit of an experiment in being, to leave the door to a second child open without officially declaring it a Goal, which would be to officially have to be disappointed if it didn’t work out. Right? Are those the rules? I know the dance that desire does in my brain, and I’m wary of it. I only like to let it take hold when something really, really counts. But when you’re queer and infertile—when it’s impossible to have a kid without a hell of a lot of intention—how do you have a second child without letting desire drive the bus?

4. we met a goat at avila valley barn

The weekend took a small turn for the sucky when Amy got sick. She’s a doer by nature and kept apologizing for not helping, but AK, Lisa and I did alright with our one-to-one adult/child ratio. Moms always joke about wanting sister-wives—a thing that vaguely annoys me as a gay woman, as if living with another woman is all about harmony and everyone proactively doing the dishes. But I also totally get it. Cooking, cleaning and childcare are so much more fun when there are other adults around.

Damn you, twentieth century America, for isolating the nuclear family. Then again, I really wouldn’t want to live with my parents or AK’s, and I’m too antisocial for roommates and too disorganized for a commune, so it looks like I’m a product of contemporary American family life despite my critique of it.

We took the kids to the pier in Avila Beach, which was a bit of a bust. The sea lions were farther away than I’d remembered, and I got jelly-kneed every time one of the kids got within three feet of the wooden railing.

This goat is all, I'm a private dancer, a dancer for lettuce.
On the way home we stopped at Avila Valley Barn, where Dash fed lettuce to the world’s gentlest-lipped goats and llamas and one sweet-eyed cow. We bought him a T-shirt that said I Met a Goat at Avila Valley Barn. The only thing that melts my heart more than animals, or Dash, is seeing Dash with animals. I hope he loves them this much his whole life.

*I started this post on Tuesday. Now it’s Sunday. Aaaaaarrrrgh, time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

bring them along

1. the tired ones

I was on my way to the ATM when I saw Tara.* She was camped out on the sidewalk next to the bus lot, and if I didn’t know her, I would have walked right by her, the way I do most of Chinatown’s street-corner characters. Someone had brought her a cup of water and a takeout box of food from the café, and someone had given her a black and white umbrella, which she shifted from side to side as she talked. It shielded about half her body from the sun.

She talked rapidly but lucidly. She seemed annoyed at having to reside in her body. She was dressed as she always was, in black track shorts and a black tank top that showed the marks on her skin. From what? I’m not sure. From a hard life, I guess. Her hair was short and neat, graying at the temples. Skin shiny in the sun.

“I’ve tried to die so many times,” she said. “Why won’t God just let me go? I’m so tired. I was supposed to die three times.”

A few weeks ago, she’d been doing okay, coming to Homeboy’s classes, staying sober, taking her meds (I assumed). Then one day she’d shown up wearing a scary-as-hell matte-black mask that covered her whole face. She went about her business, just…masked. A couple of mornings later, I walked into work to see her being arrested in the lobby. Rumors circulated as to why.

“Homeboy only cares about money now,” she said. “That’s what money does to people. Me, I’m generous. The most generous people I know are addicts. They take care of me. They’re like, ‘Tara, do you want to stay here? Tara, do you want to shower?’”

Her thoughts jumped around and circled back to how tired she was, how she wanted to die. I knew she wasn’t living in a world of reason, but I said, “Well, I’m glad you’re here. I think you’re going to be okay.”

“Oh, I know I’ll be okay,” she said. “I know I’m blessed. I have God and that’s all I need.”

I could see the doom and the hope duking it out inside her, and it wasn’t unfamiliar to me.

“Why don’t you go sit in the shade?” I asked.

“I need the Homeboy wifi,” she said.

2. the lucky ones

People always talk about how working with traumatized populations can be difficult and draining. I’m sure this is true for the case managers and therapists, but I’ve never gotten particularly depressed hearing trainees’ stories—they’re like sad movies, and usually the person I see in front of me is the happy ending. I am moved and sometimes angry at the conditions that caused the sad-movie part, but the people who work their asses off to get their kids back or go to college or get a firefighting certification are real and really fucking inspiring.

I imagined this working-with-the-traumatized depression to feel the way the sad part of the movie feels; I imagined grief and empathy. I figured I must have some kind of jerky immunity that caused me to thrive off the blood of others. Or maybe grant-writing just gave me a little healthy distance, I don’t know.

But it had been kind of a bummer day even before I talked to Tara—just the trying-to-steer-a-huge-ship growing pains that make up daily life at an organization going from grassroots to established—and now, as I trudged uphill to the ATM, I felt worse.

What am I even doing here? I wondered. I’m not helping anyone. I’m not enjoying myself at the moment.

What no one tells you—or maybe they did and I missed it—is that this brand of depression doesn’t cause your heart to bleed for others. It just makes you feel really shitty about your own life.

The internet tells me someone named Kelii drew this.
Today I had a meeting with Homeboy’s new photographer, Eddie. He’s a low-key guy in a baseball cap—easy to laugh, pretty quiet at meetings. The third member of our meeting had to bow out, so it was just the two of us. He pitched a couple of interesting ideas for photo essays. I asked him what brought him to Homeboy.

“Well, I grew up in Boyle Heights, so I knew Hector and Fabian from way back. I always knew about Homeboy, and you know, a lot of guys I knew were in gangs and got shot. My brother was one of those guys.” He mentioned it almost in passing. “I’ve been sober for 16 years now, but I was all cracked out for a while there. I was lucky to make it out. And I feel like we have to live for the ones who didn’t. We owe them that, to bring them along.”

I told him my own story—that I don’t know how I got lucky (knockonwood), but I feel a responsibility to the cancer patients who didn’t. It’s not survivor guilt, exactly; it’s more like the deep humility that comes with knowing your existence is both random and precious.

3. the stapler coveters

A woman in my online adoption group who’s been fighting stage 4 breast cancer for as long as I’ve known her is not doing well. As in, her doctors advised her to bump up her family vacation. As in, she’s having trouble typing. I am no fan of her You’d Better Accept Jesus Or Else blog (not its actual name), but she’s a strong lady, a fierce mama and no one deserves cancer. And the kids she’s adopted from foster care certainly don’t deserve another trauma in their lives.

Milton. My friend went on an internet date with this actor once.
This week I’m thinking too much about my own health again. It’s a thing I want to grab and hoard; it turns me into that guy with the stapler from Office Space. I also know that the inability to hoard all the good things for myself is what forces me to open my arms and my heart to something bigger than me. Sometimes I worry that the corollary to this is that I will only be self-actualized when I’m ready to die. In which case I will happily waive self-actualization for another forty or fifty years.

But even as a fucked-up, greedy little human, I can still connect with other humans, and ride their highs and lows, and that’s the whole point, right?

*Not her real name.