Saturday, August 12, 2017

pushing against the wind

Wind River is an intense, beautifully made movie about a hunter and an FBI agent investigating the death of a young woman on a Native American reservation in snow-strangled Wyoming. The landscape is a character in itself, often a villainous one. When 18-year-old Natalie Hansen (Kelsey Asbille) is found barefoot in the snow, six miles from anywhere, raped and bleeding, the medical examiner can’t list homicide as the cause of death because technically the cold killed her. This creates a jurisdictional nightmare, because Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) can’t call in FBI assistance unless it’s officially a murder. But there are only six cops (led by Graham Greene, who plays the part with world-weary humor) on the whole reservation, so without backup, the investigation is fucked.

Getting the weather report.
The snow holds tracks and covers them. Blizzards shut down roads and obscure views. Long shots of snowmobile caravans making their way across a white snow-desert conjure images of The Hurt Locker as much as the presence of Jeremy Renner as a local hunter/tracker does (because Detroit is also out now, my brain did a spectacular crisscross and I thought I was watching a Kathryn Bigelow movie the whole time; sorry, Taylor Sheridan). Someone observes that here, it takes fifty miles to go five and says “Welcome to Wyoming.”

O-jai, nice to see you.
In a flashback, Natalie and her boyfriend do some California dreaming about where they might like to live, landing on Ojai. Think of Southern California as a metaphor for being white and middle-class, possibly male. When you want to live your life, you step outside and do it. Rural Wyoming is what it’s like to be Native and poor. You step out your door and the land and weather fight you every step of the way. The world for you is harsh at best, deadly at worst. It’s not a coincidence that this is the kind of place the U.S. herded its original inhabitants into; analogy and reality merge here.

Enter Jeremy Renner with his snowmobile and ability to read tracks like tea leaves. As a local and as the father of two mixed-race children—the older of whom also died in the snow—he is the Man For The Job. To extend the metaphor, he’s an ally doing what allies should, putting his skills and access to use for the good of people who could use a hand.

Cowboy on a great white snowmobile.
The movie is also a contemporary Western, with Indians and cowboys, good guys and bad guys and a shootout that exposes toxic masculinity for the tragicomic clusterfuck that it is. Agent Banner—a rookie who is as petite as Mary Kate and Ashley—puts her gun down and gets control of the situation. She is not fearless, and at times she’s in over her head, which makes her badassery that much more admirable. Similarly, Wind River works as an action movie because the victims and the grief that blooms in their wake are never just plot devices.

At the end of the movie, a couple of lines of text note that no statistics are kept on how many Native American women disappear each year.

I cried hard as the credits rolled, because how could I not think of Roxy the whole time? As we left the theater, I said to AK, “I don’t say this often, but right now I’m really feeling like ‘Fucking men.’” I paused. “I guess white people aren’t so great either.”

At home, we thanked AK’s mom for watching Dash (and doing the dishes, god bless her). He was still tossing and turning, so I curled my body around his and thought about Roxy’s kids, who had a great mom and who now have no mom because some guy could not find his way out of the dark. Jeremy Renner’s character says to Chip, Natalie’s angry drug-addict brother, “I wanted to fight the whole world too, but I figured it would win, so I fought that feeling in myself instead.”

Angry young men.
“Dash is one of the good ones,” AK said.

There are plenty of good ones. There are. Wind River is a fantastic and important movie, but it would have been better if Jeremy Renner’s character was played by a Native guy. Ally metaphor aside, nothing much in the script would have needed to change. And to be honest, the movie passes the Bechdel test only on a technicality.

If Taylor Sheridan had written a movie with a Native protagonist, would people have criticized him for trying to speak from an experience other than his own? Not to be all “White people just can’t win!”—because it’s pretty clear white people do plenty of winning. But representation politics are complicated.

I’m glad Wind River exists. I will be thinking about it for a long time. We should produce more movies by Native writers and directors, starring Native actors. All these things are true at once.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

there are deaths and then there are deaths

Every few months, a shoebox appears on the reception desk at Homeboy. It’s covered in paper printed with grainy photos. Sharpie or ballpoint pen explains who died: someone’s mother or brother or homie. A few times it has been a trainee, although never one I knew personally. Once it was a baby. Rarely is it anyone over fifty. There’s a slit in the top of the box for folded bills.

At this year’s mandatory open-enrollment meeting, our insurance brokers talked about HMOs vs. PPOs, inpatient vs. outpatient, FSAs and co-pays and preventative care and cancer. Everyone watched with glazed eyes. When the brokers got to the life insurance section and mentioned funerals, the room buzzed. Everyone knew exactly how much a funeral cost.

I didn’t know Roxy well, but I didn’t have to ask “Which one was she, again? Did she work in the bakery?” The first thing I noticed about Roxy was that she was beautiful—like undeniably, Disney-princess beautiful, with big dark eyes, dimples and long straight hair. That kind of beauty can be a blessing and a curse. I mean that in a general way, because I don’t know how it was for her. The only time I interacted with her beyond hallway hellos was when I wrote a letter to a landlord to provide a counterweight to her bad credit. I explained that she was a single mom to three kids who were thriving, who would love to play sports in the park near the apartment building. She struck me as sweet. She talked about escaping domestic violence and gaining confidence.

It’s an old story: Woman leaves an abuser. Abuser apologizes, cajoles. Woman tries to move on with her life. Abuser escalates.

I was already in a weird, antsy mood on Monday morning when I heard someone sobbing. And then many people were sobbing in stereo. Someone said, He killed Roxy. He shot her. And then Roxy was a face on a box.

People talk about trauma fatigue, but I’m not sure I can claim that. I’m not a therapist or a case manager; I was friendly with Roxy, but we weren’t friends. Instead, I’ve spent the week in what I’ll call a third-responder fog. Because there are plenty of other variables in my life, I can’t tell whether I want to leap out of my skin because I’m outraged by injustice or because I’m petty and unable to count my substantial blessings. All I know is that when a male leader shushed me and another woman in a meeting yesterday, I wanted to punch someone in the face or cry or both.

When you’re a third responder, you feel like you’re getting smaller and smaller with every word you don’t say. You wonder what you’re even doing here. You can’t tell whether you’re wondering that because a woman was shot by the man everyone knew wanted to shoot her, or because you want a nice life where meetings start on time and people return emails.

“There are deaths and then there are deaths, you feel me?” one of the homies said today. A guy who mentors others and has a lot of wisdom. “Everyone—guys from different neighborhoods—are saying what they’ll do to this fool if they find him. So I tell ‘em, don’t go to the vigil, don’t put yourself in that situation.”

Island life.
I’ve been wrestling with some existential questions about my work, trying to find a balance between seeking out my tribe and changing the definition of what a tribe should be. Am I a person reshaped by trauma, who belongs on an Island of Misfit Toys? Am I writer and an introvert, who belongs with other writers and introverts? Neither? Both? Should I STFU because it’s a luxury just to have such a crisis?

Monday night I drove to therapy, where I was grateful to spill it all. When I pulled out of the parking garage, the needle on my gas gauge was at the bottom of the yellow warning section. My wallet, I discovered, was at home. All I had was my checkbook, and the guy at the gas station predictably looked at me like I was a weirdo.

So I called my sister, and she and my dad drove to Westwood and put gas in my car and bought me tacos next door. Because I do have a nice life, and people to catch me when I fall. The sky was pink and orange by the time they arrived. The palm trees and wires were Kara Walker silhouettes. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

moana: a hero in need of a towel

I’m a believer in the close read—in getting to know a book, play or film so intimately that you can consider the meaning of every detail—but I’m not much of a practitioner. It’s true what librarians’ bumper stickers say: So many books, so little time. But if you want to study every nuance of a thing, I highly recommend hanging out with a toddler. The catch is that the thing in question will probably be the Minions movie or a picture book about construction vehicles (ask me about the difference between a front-end loader and an excavator).

It’s a little embarrassing how excited I was when Moana appeared on Netflix one day recently. Finally, a movie we could both get into watching 17,000 times! I hadn’t seen it, but I listen to the soundtrack a lot, and I sneaked in a couple of songs between “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the Tidal playlist I created for Dash. Toddler criteria for liking something seems to be “Do I already like it?” When the first song came on, he said “Mommy car!” (where we’ve listened to it) and immediately paid attention. Throw in some water and boats, and he’s in heaven.

The movie is Disney’s take on Polynesian mythology—I feel like there are things to be said about cultural appropriation, except Disney is already kind of shorthand for cultural appropriation. That’s what they do, and it’s not totally okay because corporations etc., but at least they’re big enough and smart enough to do it well? To make a mash-up of public-domain ancient legends that is beautiful, clever and funny, a mix of 3-D animation and 2-D drawings inspired by Polynesian art.

Agua-loving kid with a worry-wart parent. I wonder why I like this movie....
In the opening scenes, Moana is a toddler, and it was a big deal to see a little brown kid up there—not as an ensemble member or sidekick, but as the hero. Of a big movie from a big studio. If I feel that way, I can only imagine what it means, intuitively, to my little brown kid. I want him to feel represented so he can be the hero of his own story, but I also want him to know that other people are the heroes of theirs, i.e. empathy. So for the opposite reason, I am glad Moana is a girl.

Dash’s favorite character seems to be the ocean itself, which plays little tricks and taps people on the shoulder, which I believe is Dash’s way of reminding me that I can engineer all the representation I want, but he’s going to see the world through his own lens. He demands “Moana song.” When she washes up on the beach, he suggests: “towel.” He worries about her sick grandma and asks “Better?” He really, really likes the cave full of ancient boats. Because it’s a fucking cave full of ancient boats and a fucking waterfall.

"Tunnel!" according to Dash
A while back, a former coworker of mine—I’ll call him Hal—tweeted People keep telling me I look like Maui in Moana but cuter, lol. Hal is a sweet guy and talented photographer with a huge ego, the type who frequently talks about “humbling himself.” When I worked with him, he was in the early stages of recovery and prone to long, heartfelt monologues about his journey; he’s immersed himself in at least a couple of new religions in the time I’ve known him. He sometimes talked about how his parents were superstar activists who never had time for their own kid, so he got involved in gangs and got in trouble a lot when he was younger. Every time he met someone new, he pointed out the contradictions of his own success: “People are so surprised to meet this former gang member with multiple college degrees.” I might have done a little eye-rolling off to the side. When he returned from rehab, the staff advised him to just focus on himself and not hide behind his camera for a while. It was hard, but he did it.

The way to a man's heart: through his ego. (#NotAllMen, of course.)
Maui is a demigod whose human parents rejected him. The gods see something special in him and raise him as their own. They give him a magic fish hook that allows him to shape-shift. But he never stops trying to impress humans, pulling up islands for them, lassoing the sun, ultimately stealing the heart of Te Fiti, the mother goddess, causing her to (spoiler alert) turn into a sort of volcanic banshee. I like that too, the idea that all of us are capable of good and evil, and we need heart and a little help to be our verdant-island selves as opposed to our screaming-fire-monster selves. Maui does a lot of boasting and posturing, but he discovers his human side thanks to Moana. Hopefully Hal will get there too.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

somewhere between hot cheetos and whole30

Confession: I joined Weight Watchers. Why is this a confession and not just a statement of what-I-did yesterday? A bunch of reasons:

Canned fruit platter anyone?
Feminism: As I’ve said before, good feminists are supposed to love their bodies and, if they want to get in better shape, train for triathlons or something. They’re not supposed to give money and energy to the Weight Loss Industrial Complex. Despite feeling a bit doughy these days, I do actually love my body. I don’t always like it, but I love it. Once you hit a certain age and/or have survived a disease or two, you have genuine gratitude for every day without organ failure. But I’m not so great at treating my body like I love it. Eating M&Ms (which, let’s be honest, are the Charles Shaw of chocolate) by the truckload is not love.

It's a salad bowl and a melting pot!
It’s so middle-brow: Weight Watchers sounds like something a forty-year-old mom should do, not a vibrant young person like…oh wait. Again, I feel like my cooler peers do CrossFit and Whole30. But my former Parenting for Social Justice group was quick to point out that Whole30 is classist because almonds and free-range chicken are expensive, and making everything from scratch requires a lot of leisure time. If you’re truly poor, you’re probably not joining Weight Watchers either; you’re living off ramen and Hot Cheetos and various combinations thereof, and there’s a certain pride in that. But Weight Watchers is like Phantom of the Opera or Jodi Picoult—to be ridiculed because it’s for the masses, but not necessarily the oppressed masses. To which I say fuck that thinking.

Why can’t I just eat a fucking salad? This is the big one. I’m a firm believer in the Michael Pollan Diet: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. If the solution is simple, what’s my problem? That’s what I wondered during so many shame spirals. Despite a predictable high school and college history of disordered eating, I managed to eat (pretty) well and exercise regularly for about 15 years afterward, so it stood to reason that I should be able to do it again. But should is not is.

Yesterday I had a small epiphany: In every area where I’ve had success, I’ve had help. Writing a book. Raising a kid. Recovering from cancer. Getting my head straight. I’m completely open and shameless about my writing group, my co-parent and family, my team of doctors and my therapist. So if I need some nutritional coaching, where’s the shame in that?

The shame is in 1995. Food and I go way back, and I realized I was applying my old-timey value system to a current problem. When I catastrophize about all the ways I could fall apart in life, I usually tell myself Well, if it [whatever it is] got to that point, I hope I’d be brave enough to ask for help. That’s the only guarantee that any of us won’t end up on an episode of Intervention or Hoarders. I could wait until I had 200 pounds to lose instead of 20, but why not save myself some suffering?

When I think about what I’ve learned from my miscarriage spin-out (in which I sought minimal help) and my cancer experience (lots of help), it resonates with what we say every day at Homeboy: Healing happens in community. Eating a lot of mediocre chocolate happens in private.

All the ick of canned tuna, all the horror of a whole fish looking at you.
Also: Meet people where they’re at. I’m not a naturally thin person who can eat based on logic. I’m someone who can be “normal” five days out of six, but on the sixth day I turn into an exhausted, ravenous monster who happens to work above a bakery, which is a dangerous combination. That’s where I’m at.

Feeling inspired to eat a croissant instead.
Also: Do what works. What I’ve been doing—trying and failing and trying and failing—doesn’t work. Or it works for five days out of six. Weight Watchers doesn’t work for everyone. It doesn’t work for people with extremely slow metabolisms or people with mean Weight Watchers group leaders. But it worked for my sister, who joined a little over a year ago and lost all the stress weight she’d put on during the (super stressful) year before. She shed pounds and also a lot of shame; WW became her therapy, despite all my years of proselytizing about actual therapy. To her credit, she never evangelized about Weight Watchers. She is a better woman than I am.

I feel really conscious of the fact that Weight Watchers has been “her thing” and here I am blogging about it before attending a single meeting. As most people with siblings know, almost everything is subject to becoming battleground for sibling rivalry. So in addition to not attending the same meetings as my sister, I’m going to try to be low-key about this in general, and to fight my flare for drama. I don’t particularly want Weight Watchers to be “my thing,” but for a while I would like it to be my body’s thing. I’ll let you know how it goes. But I’ll try not to overshare. Too much.  

Sunday, June 04, 2017

transcendence and the inner city

1. first, let us meditate on how we suck

I’m about to blog about yet another podcast. This strikes me as a problem—where are the books and movies in my life?—but arguably the bigger problem is that I think everything is a problem. During my Drama Years, I learned to be more forgiving of myself. I thought it was because I’d finally discovered the Meaning of Life or something, but recently my therapist suggested that I get really anxious about medical stuff because I think it’s the only thing I’m allowed to have Big Feelings about. Like, if it’s not a matter of life and death or a few central relationships, what business do I have caring? Doesn’t stressing about work just make me a banal cog in the capitalist machine? Isn’t my need for peace and a clean house and writing time just a first world problem? So instead I worry that seasonal allergies are cancer.

I just did a mandatory transcendental meditation session—long, very Homeboy-specific story—and it felt so great and necessary. It made me reflect, dejectedly, on the fact that my life consists of bouncing from grant to grant to child-chasing to exhausted Polyvoring (while listening to podcasts), with hardy doses of Facebook in between. Noah, the guy who led the session, said that while it can be hard to make time for TM when your plate is full, it ultimately expands your plate. That was appealing to me.

Like this, except I was wearing an old Homeboy 5K T-shirt, and instead of what appears to literally be Heaven, I was in an empty classroom where a train squealed by the window every fifteen minutes.
On one hand, I think I’d thrive if I had better life-hygiene, for lack of a better phrase (I guess the better phrase is “self-care,” but that’s so overused and abused). If I could actually put my fucking phone away at 9 pm, brush my teeth, wash my face, apply some kind of cream like girls in movies do. Rather than just sort of collapse at the finish line.

On the other hand, this running narrative of what I should do feels damaging in itself. So I really don’t know. My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to meditate. I downloaded an app on my phone and did the three-minute option most days up until January 24, at which point Dash came along and I never did it again.

Now that he’s a little older, my internal monologue is like Now what’s your excuse, asshole? And the result of this self-accusation is ugly—just a lot of shuffling around the house muttering about how chubby I’ve gotten, then feeling ashamed for body-shaming myself and by extension all the beautiful fat girls in the world; a lot of talking about writing I’m not doing; a lot of worrying that I’m not cut out to ever be a mother of two; a lot of frustration that I don’t have time for myself, followed immediately by concern that I’m not spending enough time with Dash and/or AK. I am exhausted; I’ve forgotten how to relax; I’m too needed and not useful enough; too obsessed with utility, because doesn’t that mean I’ve bought the lies of ableism and capitalism? (Although, isn’t communism obsessed with work too? I don’t even know the basic world economic structures that I should.)

I am a fortunate person, so I should be capable of more than other people. I am full of hubris for thinking I should be capable of more than other people.

Is there a way to meditate for ten minutes a day without beating myself up if I don’t? Is there a way to [eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, write more, read the newspaper instead of Facebook, be kinder, call my congressperson more often, wear that mouth guard I paid so much for back in 2011, steam clean the rug in the living room, stop giving Dash so many croissants, stop thinking so much about myself, etc. etc. etc.] without beating myself up if I don’t?

2. the comfort of being a tiny marble in a big solar system

Now that I’ve thoroughly downloaded the contents of my brain, here’s what I actually logged on to talk about: Episode 261 of 99% Invisible, Roman Mars’ beautifully produced art-design-and-sociology. It’s called “Squatters of the Lower East Side,” and it’s about the chain of events that preceded (and kind of pushed back against) gentrification in New York City. I’m going to summarize this poorly, but basically white flight in the 1950s led to plummeting property values in the 1960s and ‘70s, which prompted landlords to abandon buildings that were no longer profitable to keep up and rent out. The city took ownership of the crumbling buildings, and in the 1980s squatters—poor people, artists, folks who didn’t like rules and various combinations thereof—took up residence.

How the light comes in. (Photo c/o Peter Spagnuolo via 99% Invisible.)
My ears perked up because this was the backdrop of Rent. I wondered where Jonathan Larson, with all his affection for la vie boheme, saw himself in this historical arc. The lyrical banter of Rent actually does a respectable job of interrogating the idealization of urban decay, even in the midst of idealizing urban decay. But the musical stops before the podcast does: In the early 2000s, years of legal battles between squatters, the city, and private developers were finally settled, largely in the squatters’ favor. Imagine if the “path to citizenship” described in immigration reform pitches was a “path to home ownership.” I’m keenly aware that I live on a tiny island in a sea of overpriced housing, and I was heartened to hear a happy ending for a handful of people who didn’t rent from their dads.

La vie boheme. (Photo by Ashley Thayer via International Business Times.)
I say this with a certain amount of wariness, because I know that some people viewed the squatters as rich kids who were slumming, and that the happy ending did nothing to help the poor people of color that the landlords fucked over in the first place.

The idea of a ghost town slowly repopulating fascinates me, but here’s what else keeps tripping me out: In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the fallout and reversal of a major historical trend. (I guess another way of framing this would be “Yes, you are forty, Cheryl.”) 

My coworkers were cleaning out some old storage containers the other day and unearthed a poster advertising “Homeboy Tortillas: Our handmade tortillas provide jobs for inner-city youth.” The phrase “inner-city” is rapidly becoming dated as the city becomes hot property, and the poor move to Palmdale.

When I graduated from college, Jonathan Larson types were already a decade into their urban homesteading, but huge pockets of the city were still cheap and tagged up. (Now they are expensive and tagged up.) I remember looking at a one-bedroom in Silver Lake that was renting for $380 a month! I am old! But it’s not just inflation. I think about how lucky I was to graduate into a city of cheap rent and a good job market. Twenty-somethings now face the reverse—not to mention people without a college education who are trying to raise families.

Putting things in perspective.
It’s eerie and beautiful and humbling to see your life overlaid on history. Like seeing the Earth from the moon. On balance, I feel like the trends that have directly impacted me have done so for the better: medical advances, gay rights. It’s humbling to know that if you lived just fifty years ago, you’d probably be miserable or dead. (If I’d been writing in the ‘90s, I think I might have had better luck with publishing, but I guess I’ll take gay marriage over a book deal…not that I should have to choose; not that I get to.) Trump and his army of Twitter Nazis are so awful that it feels almost blasphemous to posit that some things are going well. But some things are, and let’s not give the bastards more power than they deserve.

Other things, not so much. When you look at your life, what trends hold it up? Trample it? What anvils fell just behind you, leaving you shaken and gasping?

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

there are no shortcuts, but that will never stop me from looking

1. genius vs. more geniusy genius

A couple of years ago I went all the way to Italy to learn that you can’t write a memoir by pasting together a bunch of journal entries. Even if they were pretty well written journal entries, if you do say so yourself, and even if you were kind of trying to write them from an imaginary point in the future as an exercise in convincing yourself you had a future…they are still not a memoir.

Dani Shapiro kindly suggested that my journal entries might not be as useful as I wanted them to be, but her advice took another two years to sink in. It took two years to walk that much farther away from the events I was writing about (infertility-miscarriage-cancer, that old tune) so I could see them more clearly.

Actually it's been forty.
Recently my friend Dan and I started a writing group. It’s had a couple of hiccups getting off the ground. One member was pregnant and got intense migraines that kept her from looking at screens. Another got busy with a book tour. We have a new member who seems great, but we had to postpone this week’s meeting. Still, it feels lifesaving to have an actual audience to share my work with along the way. Imagining them as I work helps me trick myself into thinking my writing matters. (I know that sounds sort of pitiful. Make no mistake: I believe deeply that I am a genius who has something to say. I believe with equal conviction that the world is fully of more geniusy geniuses and would be just fine without me.)

I try to accept that writing is a painfully inefficient process. I’m horrible at accepting that life is a painfully inefficient process, but I’m much more mature as a writer than I am as a human. I want to write an essay called Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My Writer-Self.  

But OMG writing is a painfully inefficient process. It doesn’t help that I’ve been grant-writing my ass off at work, and AK and Dash and I passed around two or three different viruses over the past month. I spent a lot of time asking myself How can the exact life I want be so fucking hard? I felt like I was trying to climb out of a hole, but more dirt kept falling in. I did so much coughing and crying and cough-crying that Dash still conflates the two words. 

My nostril and I are not a people person.
In a good week, I get maybe two hours to write. I have ideas for essays and stories and blog posts, but I have to ask myself whether I want to give up one of my two precious memoir hours to work on them. I can’t think about it too much, because then I’ll get sad and resentful, and where’s the place of sadness and resentment in the exact life I want?

2. bread and bread and bread

Jackie Kashian, my possibly-favorite comedian whom I’ve mentioned here before, tells a story on her new album, I Am Not the Hero of This Story, about the Armenian Genocide. It’s amazing; I literally burst into tears while laughing, which I don’t think ever happened to me before. I won’t try to retell it and spoil it, but she talks about how her teenage grandmother was at home baking bread when the Turks came for her family. As Jackie describes it, her grandmother was haunted by a nagging sense of what happened to the bread in the oven. (“I think it burned,” Jackie says.)

Jackie and her lizard Tiberius. You can see why I'm a fan.
I imagine that for Jackie’s grandmother the bread symbolized a life interrupted. The path you choose (though “choose” might be a strong word for a female Armenian peasant at the turn of the century) collides with the one you don’t. The latter burns the former to a crisp. I picture flames running along a wire.

But also: Say that bread in the oven burns to a hard black thing, and it becomes a story, and you tell that story to your granddaughter. And she has a hard life herself, but survives like you did and grows up and becomes a stand-up comedian. Goes on the road, does shitty gigs, works shitty day jobs for years. Then does better, gets to quit her shitty day job. Puts out album after album until finally she is the artist who can do your bread and your story justice.

It takes a hundred years to make art.

When life gives you lemons, make grilled cheesus.
The whole point of art, in my opinion, is to connect to something bigger than ourselves, to own what tried to own us. In that case, so what if it takes a hundred years? Time is a cast-iron skillet seasoned by the generations.

But also, fuck, life feels so short. No wonder the internet is so appealing. There are diseases and war. We have Kim Jong Donald for a president. It could all end so quickly. I don’t want to be the person whose bread burns. I want to be the granddaughter who triumphs and hears her audience laugh and cry. But we don’t get to choose.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

we're here, we're queer, we're not yet used to it: s-town and my uncle bob

Like all my favorite novels, the podcast Shit Town is about a lot of things: the tension between home and the larger world; the many sides to every story; what it means to care for another person; the curse of genius; depression; time; clocks. Like all my favorite novels, it's a mystery whose answers are both bigger and heartbreakingly smaller than the questions initially posed. It is a work of art, and you should listen if you haven't already.

But today I'm blogging about Chapter VI: "Since everyone around here thinks I’m a queer anyway." Our protagonist, John B. McLemore, embodies many paradoxes (worldly hick, tender asshole), but he especially straddles a generational and regional divide between Out Gay/Bi Man and Shadow-Dwelling Pervert. I listened to Chapter VI with a growing recognition that was one part empathy, one part dread. 

Uncle Bob was a redhead too.
My Uncle Bob wasn't a suicidal mad genius. He didn't have gold buried on his property. He was an accountant who lived in a tract home in Torrance. But he was born in 1943 and died in 2013, and those decades encompassed a sea change in how America views gayness. I have to imagine that trying to contain such radically different messages in one lifetime could make a person a little neurotic.

Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob had a tendency to rant ad nauseam about topics in a way that made me wonder, Is that really what you're mad about? Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob was obsessive about his cultural passions: ancient Egypt and British comedies. He spoke about the latter as if we'd all caught the last episode of [insert random Britcom here] because it must be as popular as American Idol (which I also didn't watch). I believe the stories we consume can save and sustain us, and that both high and low art forms are as important to our culture as most elections. Yet hearing Uncle Bob prattle on about TV shows always made me cringe a little; it seemed not just nerdy, but like a painfully transparent substitute for a life. And to consider that he was lonely is to face the fact that loneliness was the only semi-acceptable option for queer people until incredibly recently. 

"Did you see that one Bucket Woman where...."
Uncle Bob wasn't my biological uncle. He was my dad's best friend from childhood, and they both hung out with the funny, eccentric lady who lived up the hill from Bob, who I know as my Grandma Jac. It's a credit to my parents that they both accepted Uncle Bob when he came out to Grandma Jac's crew in the '70s, and were candid with me about the fact that he was gay, and didn't pass judgement. That shouldn't be a lot to ask, but in the '70s and '80s it was.

Uncle Bob brought various "friends" to holidays at Grandma Jac's. Some must have been his boyfriends, but I don't think they all were. I think gay men back in the day defined relationships in terms I wouldn't completely understand. Take John B.'s relationships with Tyler and Mike--he never acted sexually or inappropriately with them, and yet it doesn't seem like a coincidence that they were both young, good-looking men who needed him, loved him and ultimately rejected him. My parents talked in vague terms about men who'd taken advantage of Uncle Bob's generosity. In his latter years, Uncle Bob lived with a younger man named Dean. Everyone in our family liked Dean, but none of us quite knew whether he was a boyfriend, a friend, a roommate or a sugar baby. Maybe because he was none and all of the above. 

When I was first inching toward coming out, I decided Uncle Bob was super interesting, and I wanted to talk about all the musicals under the sun with him. Later, when he struck me as painfully old school, when his conservative politics got under my skin, I cooled my affection in a way I'm not proud of. Part of my internalized homophobia was not wanting to see the ways that earlier, deeper homophobia shaped who he was. It's easier to love and accept John B., because I'm not John B.'s niece.

All good stories are a maze.
In my Parenting for Social Justice Facebook group, which I recently left (on friendly terms), I often got frustrated with how the recognition of oppression seemed to follow trends. Currently race and transgender issues seem to get the spotlight and the benefit of the doubt. If a comment contained the faintest shadow of a racial micro-aggression, the admins were all over that commenter. But I--and some of the other queer women in the group--were often left with the vague feeling that the group was like "Sure, yeah, of course we're all pro-LGB here, but we wrapped that up in 2015 with that one Supreme Court decision, right?" It's not that anyone would say that (and it's not that I think racial micro-aggressions aren't real; I strive not to participate in the Oppression Olympics), but most people didn't seem interested in considering the deep, insidious ways that, even for someone like me--born in 1977 to accepting parents--the message that "Your desire is disgusting at best, evil at worst" still lingers. Slavery still lingers in major ways--in DNA itself, according to epigenetics--so why wouldn't widespread systemic and cultural oppression against queer people?

My friend Nicole runs a social media/storytelling campaign called #StillBisexual that sort of speaks to this. I admit to going back and forth over the years as to how much of a thing biphobia (as distinct from homophobia) actually is. But the underlying message of the campaign's title, as I read it, is "Look, you can change the term to 'pansexual' and change the laws every five minutes, but there is a group of people who have always loved both men and women and dealt with the consequences of it. We are here and our stories are particular and worth telling." Maybe John B. McLemore was one of them.

I guess my point is It wasn't that long ago. And one of Shit Town's many beauties is how it conveys this point, not in social justice lingo with pointed fingers and manifestos, but in an intricately woven personal story. 

A long time ago I read a profile of an elite swimmer who'd had a serious and poorly treated injury early in her career. Eventually she got a new coach and the treatment she needed, but you could see how the muscles in her back had grown around the injury to compensate. Her back was her story. I think we are all like that.