Saturday, August 20, 2016

planting acorns: #parklit hashtag book festival free-write

At this very minute, my innovative writer friend Bronwyn is hosting a "hashtag book festival" about parks. What does this mean? It means that if you go here, you can encounter interesting things to read about parks, and post your own thoughts, writing, pictures and recommendations, all from the comfort of your phone or computer. A genius locale for a book festival in the middle of August.

I'm taking this as a call to jot down a few of my own #ParkLit thoughts; I was inspired by a photo Bronwyn posted of Mesa Verde, the national park where she just did a writing residency. I doubt she was housed in an actual cliff dwelling, but that's how I like to picture her: sitting inside an adobe house, laptop on her knees, gazing at the valley below.

Great view. Tough commute.
My family took one kind of vacation when I was a kid: We visited state and national parks in our 1979 Dodge Four Star motor home. We always left no later than 5:30 am. My sister and I rolled out our sleeping bags in the back of the cabin while my mom heated Costco muffins the size of our heads in an oven the size of a shoe box and my dad drove.

Sometimes we went places that were only impressive to adult palettes, places with a lot of trees but nothing my sister and I considered exciting. Things we considered exciting: rivers and lakes you could swim in, deer, gift shops, ice cream. The trip--to somewhere hot, I don't remember where--on which we discovered Pudding Pops was especially magical. We found them again in the freezer section of the grocery store when we got home, but they never tasted as delicious as they did from a vendor's cart by the side of the trail.

Here is a short list of my favorite non-natural memories from parks:
  • googly-eyed neon rubber animals from the Big Sur gift store
  • The Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe, the high-end hippie gift store just outside Big Sur
  • butterscotch pudding in tin cans
  • Junior Rangers badges
  • bringing my pet rat, Rosie, who liked to eat the crumbling rust-colored motorhome curtains
Do you need a rain stick? Turquoise jewelry? A CD of flute music? The Phoenix Shop is your place.
Sometimes we went places that even my parents admitted were duds. The Loneliest Highway in America and Dead Horse State Park became the stuff of family legend. Sometimes our motor home broke down, and my dad would swear and tinker by the side of the road. Eventually he started bringing a spare alternator wherever we went. My mom did as much cooking and cleaning as she did at home, making the concept of "vacation" somewhat dubious. She naturally woke up at 5:30 am, for the apparent purpose of loudly banging pots and pans and sorting through her underwear drawer, which was just below my head on the bench where I slept.

Sometimes we went places that were so spectacular they broke through my desire to go somewhere more "normal" and kid-centric (i.e., Disneyworld). Mesa Verde was one of those places.

Traipsing through Anasazi ghost towns, I was filled with fascination and envy. There was a part where you had to crawl through a very small tunnel, and another part where you had to walk on a very narrow cliff-side trail. My parents patiently talked me through my claustrophobia and my fear of heights, and it was worth it. The part of me that loved Sunset Magazine spreads about spectacular tree houses and cool little play-nooks you could build beneath stairs fell in love with cliff dwellings. (Never mind that my dad actually built us an amazing play house, complete with a linoleum floor, a loft and running water that we almost never played in.)

These lucky kids have a dog and a tree house! I only had cats and a playhouse. #HardKnockLife
I invented an Anasazi family with two daughters, Kachina and Mazli, and wrote stories about them. Typical plot: Mazli finds an injured deer and adopts it as her pet. They weren't very good plots, and they probably weren't culturally sensitive or accurate, given that the names I gave my characters were just imagined Indian gibberish. (Kachinas are real. But I don't think they're Anasazi.)

When I started fourth grade in the fall, we studied California history and were tasked with writing about Native Americans. Most kids wrote stuff like "The Chumash rowed very far in their canoes. They ate many fish." I pounded out a Mazli-and-Kachina story and volunteered to read it before I realized what I was doing. I was the only kid who'd written fiction about something completely unrelated to the assignment. By eighth grade, I would happily write "personal essays" about a huge network of cool cousins I didn't actually have, and now I can look back on my small rebellion with pride, but in the moment I wanted to sink into the floor.

Hopi kachinas.
Here is a short list of my favorite nature-involving memories from parks:
  • the rock water slide and swimming hole at Cuyamaca State Park
  • the big red rocks somewhere in the desert that I climbed and got stuck on for a while 
  • anything climbable, really
  • the sulfur stink of Yellowstone, and the bison traffic jams
  • singing loudly and badly at the mouth of the Grand Canyon
  • rafting in Yosemite during a drought, the water so low I could pop into the river and pull our boat on foot 
  • the mountain lion my mom spotted on one of her solo morning walks, proving that there was something to do at 5:30 am other than clang pots and pans
  • the time my dad--who likes water about as much as your average house cat--waded up to his neck in Lake Havasu; it was so hot that we were actually allowed to use the air conditioning in our motor home
  • the acorns we collected and discarded in the back yard when we got home; they're huge oak trees now

Thursday, August 04, 2016

planning, not-planning and recalibrating

I’m doing a few unusual things right now.

1) I am writing (an uncommon enough occurrence in itself) in our home office. This is notable because a) we have a home office—at our old place, half of the office was Dash’s bedroom and the other half was packed too tightly to do much in—and b) I am writing in it. Long before Dash set up his crib where our file cabinets used to be, I was a coffee shop kind of writer. Home was both too quiet and too distracting. Even now, I hear the siren call of a dishwasher that needs unloading. But new house = new habits, so I’m trying to start one today. Don’t worry, I’ll still spend approximately 73 percent of my disposable income on lattes, but I am determined not to let our lovely, light-filled office become a storage room.

Right now I’m enjoying a truly idyllic view: front porch, little yard with drought-resistant greenery, quiet street, small teal house belonging to the second neighbor we met, a filmmaker named Diane, who brought us a giant bag of oranges and gave us a few tips on dealing with the first neighbor we met, a mentally challenged woman who likes to abscond with our trash cans for several days at a time.

I just posted a picture of my blog on my blog. So meta!
2) I’m taking a mental health/self care day. Dash has been going through an 18-month sleep regression for the past couple of weeks. Google “18-month sleep regression” and the first thing that comes up is an article called something like “Why the 18-month sleep regression is worse than all the others.” Oh good.

It’s not actually worse; it’s just that his sleep is effed up because he’s going through some sort of developmental leap that is yet to be revealed and he is also simultaneously being a toddler.

Earlier this week my boss gave me some constructive criticism that really stung because it was accurate, and while my long-term response needs to be to work harder/better, I guess, in the short term I felt like I just really needed a nap. So I took a long one this morning after dropping Dash off at daycare. It was glorious.

3) I made a plan.

Longtime Bread and Bread readers will know that the last time I made a Big Life Plan it was shot to hell, and in recent years, I’ve really become an advocate of not-planning, at least if you’re a person who, by disposition and upbringing, tends to believe that planning will save your life and your soul. It won’t. I learned that the hard way.

As a parent, not planning is one of my greatest triumphs and anti-strategies. I don’t mean that, if we’re going to the beach, I don’t pack sunscreen and six changes of clothes. I do. (Between you and me, going to the beach with small children isn’t the funnest.) I mean that for reasons having to do with both privilege and its jaded opposite, I don’t spend a lot of time obsessing about developmental milestones or preschools or organic food or college.

This is good sun protection right here. If the Trumpocalypse doesn't get us, we're gonna need to prevent skin cancer.
I really believe that the best thing I can give Dash is my presence in the present. If I pay attention to him and love him and protect him from large pointy objects, the rest will fall in line. And if it doesn’t we’ll cross those rickety bridges when we get to them. And if we fall into the rushing waters below those bridges, we will do our best to climb out and dry off. And if we can’t climb out and dry off….

See, it doesn’t take long for me to get to a place of catastrophizing, even in metaphor. I’m superstitious that even writing about my impressive go-with-the-flow mothering will ensure that I’ll find out tomorrow that Cheerios (54% of Dash’s diet) cause brain tumors.

All of which is to say that not-planning doesn’t come easy, but neither does planning, anymore. I highly recommend not-planning to Cheryl types. Or rather, plan your day, but not your year. And expect that you’ll have to recalibrate about ten times a day. But like actual GPS maps, I’m getting faster at doing that.

Been there, driven that.
The other day, though, I made a veeeerrrrrryyyy tentative three- to four-year plan in my head. I was thinking about the things one considers: work, family, creative life. How to make sure that I prioritize the right pieces at the right times.

The only piece of acting advice I ever got, right before going on stage in a Cal Arts production in which I played a duck, a bartender and a transwoman, was: Don’t rush things, and don’t be lazy. When it comes to planning, I always want to rush things. If I really want something (a second child, for example; although I still don’t know if/how much I want this), I must want it right now, right? Sometimes this impatience has paid off. Other times it has led to sloppiness, settling and disappointment.

This duck's all "Rub mah belly. Bring me a beer."
In the microclimate of a day, I can be lazy. I don’t want to work out. I don’t want to initiate a meeting. I don’t want to read hard things. I procrastinate by telling myself that I will be my true, amazing, over-achieving self tomorrow. A healthier and realer statement would be As a regular human, I need both rest and challenges. How about I do one challenging thing and then one resty thing? (Ugh, who wants to even hang out with a person who is so well adjusted as to have that for an interior monologue?)

Today I did a resty thing. Now I’m doing a blog thing, which is, okay, maybe not a huge challenge, but it’s helping me think through some stuff. Thank you for bearing with today’s navel-gazing.

I just wrote and deleted a paragraph about Donald Trump. I was going to say something about how the demographic he appeals to most is blamers. People who like to watch other people get fired on TV. That’s a lot of people, myself not necessarily excluded—I just also check myself before I wreck myself/the country. But then I realized that the fact of a psychopath holding up scapegoats unconvincingly is not exactly new.

I really don't understand why Hillary is the one with the "likability" problem. Because screaming Cheetos are so charming?
So I’ll spare you a predictable rant. Even my own head is a more interesting and hopeful place to be than Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Amy Poehler for VP!
Needless to say, I’m With Her—a person who has been both patient and ambitious, and who has seen her plans shit upon periodically and who has recalibrated accordingly. Beyond the fact that she has the chops, sanity and compassion for the job, it would also be pretty sweet to see her hard work pay off. That’s not to say that our political system is even remotely a meritocracy. But the part of Hillary Clinton’s personality I love most is the part Amy Poehler has played up on SNL—the hair-tearing, un-concealable ambition of the smartest girl in class. And even though I don’t believe in a world where hard work, patience, impatience and flexibility always pay off, it’s the world I want to live in.

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).

Before
After
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.