Tuesday, January 31, 2017

people under pressure

1. when in doubt

I signed up to help with the Homeless Count because I have house guilt. (I’m also working on a story about homelessness in L.A. for Razorcake, because what is more DIY than building your own makeshift shelter?) As we’ve settled into our new place, the streets of Highland Park and Chinatown have filled with motor homes like the one my family camped in when I was a kid. It’s like a post-apocalyptic time capsule. Meanwhile my middle-class friends struggle to pay rent on tiny apartments, and a not-small percentage of staff and clients at Homeboy commute from Palmdale. It’s safe to say L.A.—despite all its blue-state benefits—has a housing crisis.

After watching two online training videos, I arrive at W.O.R.K.S., an affordable housing organization in Highland Park. I actually emailed them a while back to volunteer, but I never heard back. Ah, nonprofits. W.O.R.K.S. will be the starting point for counting NELA census tracts. I see my former neighbors, Micah and Saskia, at the other end of the table, and an old friend of AK’s named Barbra.

We watch the training videos again. I’d imagined approaching apparently homeless people and explaining the project, but we learn that this is a “visual count” only. It’s pretty simple: If you see a person who looks homeless, a car or camper that’s being used as a home, or a boxes-and-shopping-carts-type shelter, put a tally mark on a clipboard. Every group will have a driver, a navigator, a tally keeper and counters.

A man in a bright yellow vest announces that he needs six or seven able-bodied people to tackle some tracts that are likely to have high numbers of homeless people. I volunteer; so do Micah, Saskia and Barbra. Saskia later says she thinks her faux leopard coat scared the guy away; he doesn’t pick her or Micah.

The man with the yellow vest seems like some sort of authority, but soon we’re handed yellow vests too. His name is Erik, and he’s a civil engineer with the county parks system, as is our navigator, Eddie. Erik participated in counts in other neighborhoods earlier in the week, and he sees himself as an expert. He says “vehicle” instead of “car.” When we debate whether a given person is homeless or just kicking it on the sidewalk outside CVS, he announces “Remember, this is a visual count. We have to make our best guess.” Later he shortens this to a near rhyme: “When in doubt, count.”

The four tracts we cover comprise my commute to work, exactly: from Highland Park through Lincoln Heights, culminating in Chinatown. In true Angeleno style, there is no actual walking involved in our supposedly walking-intensive trip. We just weave through neighborhoods at a creeper’s pace (nothing suspicious about a big white van inching down the street at five miles per hour), talking, swinging our flashlights into parked cars and snacking on Chinese New Year candies that resemble miniature empanadas.

2. unintentional community

In addition to Erik, Eddie, Barbra and myself, we are: another Eddy—this one with a Y—and his wife, a high school principal; an attorney who has three children under six (HOW DOES SHE HAVE TIME TO VOLUNTEER?); and an older guy named Dan.

Almost immediately we see a guy sitting cross-legged beneath a lamppost near a gas station, smoking and making funny gestures with his hands. There’s an uncomfortable I-caught-a-fish feeling to the endeavor. I’m weirdly grateful that I wasn’t assigned to count, like, Beverly Hills. There are a few others like him throughout the night, but what becomes immediately, painfully obvious as we make our way down residential streets is this: A hell of a lot of people are living in cars.

It’s not just the putty-spackled motor homes, which stand out like turtles in a city of rabbits. It’s mini vans with curtains hung in back windows. Sedans with tilted seats waiting for sleepers. Hatchbacks packed with junk. It seems there are one or two on every block.

The houses here, in L.A.’s first suburb, are delicate Victorians and bungalows. The alleys are marked with tags from the Avenues and Dogtown. The businesses: Bi-Rite, a mysteriously lifeless drugstore; Jaime Caro, the guy who did my taxes up until last year; and Razzle Razzle Razzle, a bright clothing store full of H&M knockoffs.

How much do you want to bet they keep the sign and reopen as a hipster bisexual bar?
“Wow, they didn’t have anything like that when I lived here,” said Barbra, as if Razzle Razzle Razzle were Tiffany & Co.

We roll down Sichel, the street where she lived for eight years and where AK lived for three, in an “intentional community” (it’s a vaguely Christian thing) of young adults. One of their cohort, Meg, is now working as L.A.’s Homeless Czar.

The count doesn’t cover people who are crashing on friends’ couches or living in motels or sleeping in shifts in shared rooms. I met a Homeboy trainee who told me that he and his girlfriend once lived in an apartment with no running water, for which they paid $400 a month.

I get a text from a number I don’t recognize: How is your count going? All ok?

I bricked my phone a couple of months ago and am still gathering the numbers I lost. I assume the sender is Micah or Saskia, and I reply: It’s interesting. Lots of car shelters. No walking yet. Our driver is kinda bossy; I think he secretly dreamed of being a cop. How’s yours?

When I don’t get a reply, I realize the text was actually from Francesca, our site supervisor, who collected all our numbers. I hope she won’t rat me out to Erik.

Erik tells us about the time his Chinese grandmother tried to arrange a marriage for him, when he was sixteen. He refused, but he wiggles his ring-less hand for us now and says “I don’t know, maybe I should have gone for it.”

There is a sandwich-and-beer shop next to Bi-Rite called The Heights. The font and color scheme (red, brown and baby blue) all but announce Hi, we are here to gentrify! Lincoln Heights is being squeezed by a gentrification sandwich, between Downtown and Highland Park. It’s resisted this long mostly because it’s a tough neighborhood, I think. Maybe that resistance will turn intentional, like in Boyle Heights.

It looks kind of great, actually. That's how they get you!
Barbra points out a pale yellow building with an arched entryway. “It used to be a crematorium, but it was remodeled into expensive lofts.”

3. putting the grief in machtergreifung

This week my anxiety about Trump’s executive-order rampage reached a tipping point. All my coping mechanisms are dusting themselves off and preparing for battle. It’s disturbing and righteous. I spent my therapy session yesterday crying to my German therapist, who assured me that the Weimar Republic was a young, unstable government with a shaky economy. I felt mildly comforted; then I read about a rumored anti-LGBT order coming down the pipeline, which would deny federal funding to foster care agencies that place kids with queer couples.

As you can imagine if you know me, that pushed every button I have. I bought eggs and milk from the little Persian market next to my therapist’s office and wondered if the checker had relatives detained at LAX. I wanted to hug her, which would be obnoxious and presumptive, but there it is.

Heart of the beast.
Driving home, I felt almost like something physical was rearing up in me. A kind of…pregnancy, you might say, except my baby is an immense beast made of claws and duct tape and a beating red heart. It is ready. It has been through some shit before, and it knows what to do: how to act and compartmentalize, how to beat back its inner scaredy cat, the one who might choose safety over morality. It knows how to fight and rest and love, and do it all over again the next day.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

you gotta fight for your right to write

1. getting there is half the fun

“It doesn’t even look like we’re on Earth,” says Janice.

I am in a car full of writers I don’t know, driving toward wet black mountains half hidden by clouds. Today Donald Trump is being inaugurated as president. Our hearts and our friends will be at Women’s Marches around the country tomorrow, but we’ve decided to leave town and write.

Cole took the train from Santa Barbara and met us at Union Station in L.A. It arrived late, so we sat in Janice’s Prius for an hour, watching the rain. Not long after getting on the 210 freeway, Janice’s tire blew. We limped to an off-ramp and waited for AAA.

Sporting a new used tire from Moreno’s Tires New & Used Llantas in Irwindale, we are back on the road now.

Cole says she’s writing a book of lyric essays about uncertainty. I tell her I’m writing about uncertainty too, and proceed to tell my three fellow travelers “my story.” I don’t mean the story I’m writing, although I build a literary framework around it. I mean it the way the homies I work with do: the messy ball of events that reshaped your insides forever. Figuratively but also literally.

We talk about living with uncertainty, and how some people—perhaps violent men especially, perhaps our new president especially—are so scared of being wrong or unsure that they try to shoot their way toward something solid. I don’t understand the action, but I understand the temptation.

I say, “By middle age, most people have discovered that their defense mechanisms only work to a point, and they have to discover a new way of living with uncertainty.”

Jessica, who is sitting next to Cole, reminds me, “Or you can be born into chaos, like I was, and you have to learn how to live with stability.”

The freeway forks off, and we start to climb the mountain. The fog is so thick it’s like being in the belly of a ghost. It’s not snowing yet, but we pull into a cluster of cars at a turnout to put chains on our tires, since we know a California Highway Patrol checkpoint lies ahead.

We want visibility.
An hour ago, the other car in our party discovered they had the wrong kind of chains and hitched a ride to an auto parts store with a local. Putting chains on tourists’ tires for extra cash is a cottage industry in the mountains. Her name was Melody. She was seven months pregnant and behind on her rent. She told them locals don’t bother with chains; they know which roads to take to avoid the checkpoints.

2. tools from our mothers

We inch along the icy road, stopping at every turnout to adjust the cables on our tires. From the car’s undercarriage, we hear flapping and clanging and crunching.

“Is it supposed to sound like that?” Janice asks. We are all a little rattled by the obstacles we’ve already encountered today.

Jessica Googles it on her phone, and I think about how a kind of automotive hypochondria is possible. How, at a certain point, all the things that are normal seem like they belong on another planet, and vice versa.

We are just a mile from our rental cabin when we pull over to take one more look at the chains. This time we slide too far to the right, and one of the front tires ends up in a snow bank. When Janice tries to start the car, the wheel smokes. We use a doggy water bottle, an empty coffee cup and the metal lid of a rice pot to dig at the snow around the wheel. The chain has come off the tire, but seems to be stuck to a part of the car we can’t access.

A man in a Nine Inch Nails hoodie pulls up. “Having trouble?”

He thinks it’s just a matter of pushing the car, but when that doesn’t work, he says we’re screwed and need a tow. Phone service is intermittent, so he lends us his cell to call AAA (“Hi again…”) and then gets out of there.

I redecorated.
AAA tells us that the weather is too bad and they’re not sending anyone out. Once—and perhaps still, if I were the one driving—I would have been crying at this point, but I feel okay. There are houses nearby. We have a car full of snacks and coats. And when no one’s life is in danger, everything else is workable.

“Okay, we have two phones that are getting service,” Cole says. “We have a pot lid. We know the other car made it.” She and I have been doing less of the dirty work than Janice and Jessica, and she pauses. “I can’t do anything except narrate.”

While we wait for two of the writers ahead of us to pick us up, I make a sign that says Please don’t tow us, since it looks like we’re going to have to abandon the car.

Janice says, “Humor me” and does some more digging, this time with a multi-purpose, Swiss army knife-type gadget given to her by her late mother. This time, the car inches forward, and we’re able to pull the tangled chain loose.

Our rescuers—not AAA but Sara and Melissa, two curly-haired women writers in an SUV—cheer for us and lead us to the cabin.

“It’s crazy what busy working women will do to write,” Janice says. Our two-hour drive has taken us more than seven.

Why is it so much easier to write at someone else's kitchen table?
We peel off our wet clothes and pour ourselves red wine. We contemplate our hard-won, very short retreat, and also that any one of us could be going through the same motions—chains, tires, ice—for rent money instead of contemplative space.

One of the toilets is clogged, the WiFi is dead and more snow is expected tonight. We can’t do anything except narrate. But we have a big pot of pasta, a bag of mini marshmallows, stacks of books and a low hum of support—it sounds like percolating coffee and the tapping of keyboards—and that will get you through a storm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

it's always both

All the sentences I say to AK lately begin with "In Far from the Tree...." When I was reading the chapter about prodigies, she would say, "Ugh, what about prodigies now?" I think I've shown great restraint in not diagnosing myself or Dash with the various maladies and challenges covered in the book, but right now I'm feeling a little extra empathy for the schizophrenics in the schizophrenia chapter. Many of them know that the voices they hear aren't real; it just takes a lot of energy--spoons in the language of disability and chronic illness--to shut them out.

In the same vein, I know that my anxieties aren't grounded in a ton of reality, but it still takes effort to whittle them down to a manageable size. It's haaaaarrd, and I don't even have an official anxiety disorder, let alone auditory hallucinations. 

Here's what's on my plate today:

1) Is it a problem that Dash dropped a lot of height percentile points between his 18-month and two-year doctor visits? (His doctor thinks it's not. I may have Googled "pituitary dwarfism." There may be a chapter about dwarfism in Far from the Tree. I may have been a little bit wrong about not self-diagnosing. Also a main point of the book is that there's nothing wrong with being a dwarf, etc.)

2) Is it a problem that my right tonsillar lymph node is tender and swollen? I had a shitty cold last week that wiped me out and made my head hurt, so that's a far more likely cause than metastatic breast cancer. But then one of the (non-literal...but almost literal) voices in my head was like "How convenient, Cheryl. Do you really even have a cold, or are you just trying to explain away your tonsil cancer?" So I looked in my bullet journal to confirm that I had a note about my cold on Wednesday of last week, a full 24 hours before I noticed the lumpy tonsil. 

Behold the bullet journal, a beautiful container for your anxiety.
That kind of hyper-vigilance is insane, I know, but that's my history. I thought I had breast cancer when I "officially" didn't (but actually did) and then went through a year of treatment after it was already gone. In the same way dieting can ruin your metabolism, hypochondria can ruin your ability to monitor what's going on in your body.

3) Will AK and Dash and Nicole and Jamie and Kendra and Kim be safe at the Women's March on Saturday? I'm going to be out of town, and big crowds are scary. Like people who fear air travel more than auto travel, despite statistics that say the former is safer, I imagine that my presence would help control their safety. I worry, even though they all have excellent judgement (well, Dash does not, but he has an excellent Mama) and aren't really the type to taunt cops or sacrifice themselves on the altar of social justice.

I keep asking myself: What is this really about? Is my hypochondria a mask for my fears about Trump and the repeal of the ACA? Is all of it just a product of having lowered my dose of Effexor? What is real? Do we live in the Matrix? Does it matter?

Hyper-vigilance, meet hyper-reality.
My brain does these funny dances in part because I'm always trying to figure out whether I'm privileged or not, as if privilege were just one fixed, binary thing. 

I have race, class* and citizenship privilege, so therefore I must not really be worried about Trump, right? I might hate him and all that he stands for and all the ways in which he fails to take a stand at all, but that must just be a fun intellectual exercise, right? Just another college paper, another blog post. So if I'm scared, it must be because I have cancer or my kid is a Little Person, right? (Again, it is fine to be a little person--I was honestly more concerned with a note, several Google pages deep, that pituitary dwarfism can be the result of leukemia.)

This is the kind of book that would make me laugh during the day, then keep me up all night.
This is where the schizophrenia comes in. It's like I've forgotten that I'm a queer woman married to a queer woman of color and we are raising a little Mexican kid and I'm a giant, living, breathing preexisting condition. 

(Side note re: ACA: I have health insurance through my employer. I literally owe my life to it, and am eternally grateful. But if AK becomes a self-employed therapist, I won't have the option of being self-employed at the same time, because who would insure me? If I ever have the wonderful problem of earning a living as a novelist, it better be one hell of a living, because I will be paying for any healthcare I need out of pocket, which only multi-millionaires can do. Or I guess I could get much poorer and go on Medicaid, if it still exists.)

I don't know if my denial of these realities is a form of self-protection or self-flagellation. I.e., I don't want to be a victim vs. I don't get to be a victim. It's probably both. It's always both. 

But imagine if stripes weren't an oppressed group, and Bob's stripes were always telling his triangle-ness to STFU.
This morning Homeboy announced that it will be sending a contingent to the Women's March in L.A. Consuelo, a staff therapist in her sixties, gave a moving and intersectional speech about how Cesar Chavez didn't take injustice sitting down and neither should we. She tried to get a si-se-puede chant going, and it didn't really take, either because it was 8:30 in the morning or because a lot of people trying to leave gangs don't see national politics or women's issues as their cause. Probably both. Always both.

Consuelo reminded me that trying to contain my fear in a neat little box can be useful in the short term and when the fear is small enough to fit in a box. But the fear is always a pointy chip from a giant iceberg, sitting in oily black water. That fear will always flatten me when I try to battle it with my usual defenses: probabilities and carbohydrates. It can only be melted with a long hard Care Bear Stare, aka love-and-truth, the kind that leaves me in a puddle too.

Rawr, I love you.
I've read that Donald Trump is obsessed with videos of himself, and only wants to think about his big win on election night, not about the hard work he'll need to do as president. Something about that felt eerily familiar. I imagine him watching footage of the falling balloons, the cheering crowds and his own face as he tried to pretend he belonged there.  

"Hi, I totally believe I deserve love and am not ruining the world as a personal defense mechanism at all!"
Sometimes when I'm Googling cancer statistics, I'll come across that one reassuring number, and for a moment I believe I'm immortal. Later, when fear and reality set in (because even if I never get cancer again, I'm not immortal), I return to that webpage. It becomes practically etched into my screen. I recite the favorable statistic like a rosary. But it wears down, and the only thing that ever really saves me is living my life with love.

Donald, I see the shadow of your dark iceberg too. Maybe it's reductive to say you are the way you are because you've never felt loved, but is it inaccurate? Like a high school smartypants who gets to college and realizes he never learned how to study, your immense wealth and privilege kept you from ever having to deal with the ways in which you're not privileged at all. Your figurative walls are so much bigger than the real one you want to build, and we're all suffering for their success. So I tell you this as a fellow human with a fucked-up head: Googling won't help. The high will wear off. You know it will, because it's already happening. 

Writing, for me, is a form of Walking Into It. I don't know what your equivalent is, Donald. Maybe you don't have one. I hope you find one. The Homeboy CEO said recently "I am a big believer in people being transformed by their jobs." I hope he's right.

*Class privilege is its own can of worms and false binaries. What it means for me at this moment in time is that I have an education and a dad who helps me out in some ways and would help me out more in a pinch. It means I can pay my bills, if barely. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

tops of 2016

I just started reading Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon, a collection of essays about parents and children trying to love each other across different “horizontal identities,” i.e. non-inherited identities. (Being gay or, in most cases, disabled is a horizontal identity. Whereas being, say, Japanese or male or female would be a vertical identity.) Already this book is making my brain explode in the best ways, and I suspect it’s going to be on my Best Of list for 2017.

That is, if I finish it by 2017—it’s 700 pages long not counting the 200 pages of end notes. I’m still working on two other books that I hoped I could count toward my 2016 tally, but I’m writing this on December 30 and that doesn’t look likely.

Seven hundred pages of ways you can fail as a parent. Yet surprisingly enjoyable.
Every year I nerd out compiling my best-of list, because didn’t you know this was a culture blog? (I bet you thought it was a Cheryl’s-life blog. I can’t imagine where you got that idea.) Right now I’m really feeling how little I read, saw and wrote in 2016. But if I have a resolution for 2017, it’s to take a StrengthsFinder approach to life.

I didn’t read StrengthsFinder either.

I jumped straight to the quiz at the back to find out my strengths. Patience wasn’t one of them, haha.

Anyway, the thesis of the whole process is that you should work with others and yourself based on what your respective strengths are, not your deficits.

For example, don’t think “Cheryl is really whiny in the morning.” Think “Cheryl really kicks into gear around 10 am. Let’s schedule a meeting with her at that time.”

(On a related note, my dad and AK conspired to get me a latte maker for Christmas, which I think is going to change my life at least as much as any positive attitude. I mean, coffee is my positive attitude. Someone put that on a T-shirt, please.)

Thanks a latte.
Don’t think “You mentally ill hog, why do you keep eating every carbohydrate in sight?” Think “Now that you’re sort of getting a hang of this parenting thing, your food fails are fewer and farther between.”

As I told my therapist, I think I grew up with the popular narrative of hitting bottom, then making a change. So I’m always trying to shame myself into doing various things better. Eating better. Exercising more. Working harder at work. Writing more. Sending my work out more.

But shame isn’t very motivating, although it is somewhat motivating. A coworker once asked my former boss what her fundraising goal should be. My boss said “How about you-avoid-getting-fired dollars?” Not very motivating. If people knew how (sincere) compliments make me bloom like a happy little toadstool, they’d give me so many!

Is that too much to ask?
So I’ll say it to myself: Cheryl, you’re doing alright! You just had seven days of back-to-back socializing and travel—of course you’re tired and grouchy. That doesn’t make you ungrateful for your family and friends and travel opportunities. It makes you human, and a person who needs solo time with a laptop to refuel. Take this day, rest up, and worry about cleaning the house tomorrow. That is not a fail.

Okay, thanks for bearing with me through that bit of self-talk. Now onto my short list of favorites for 2016, chosen as always not because they are necessarily “the best,” but because they moved me.

Top three books I read in 2016:
I've had a small Colson Whitehead crush since 2003.
Top seven things I watched on screens in 2016:
  • Search Party, Season 1 (TBS): Starts out as a send-up of self-obsessed Millennials, but the characters’ self-centered behavior makes more and more sense as the plot thickens. No spoilers here, but thematically the ending reminds me of The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.
  • Nocturnal Animals: Queer Eye for the Toxically Masculine Straight Guy.
Tom Ford shows how trying to be a cowboy destroys everyone.
  • Zootopia: Takes full advantage of the animated form to show animals in their natural and not-so-natural habitats as bunny-cop Judy hops through giant rhino worlds and tiny hamster worlds. Also kind of an allegory about the CIA starting the crack epidemic. Quietly radical, lots of fun.
  • Orange is the New Black, Season 4 (Netflix): All the amazing character development of the previous seasons with less of Piper’s panty-ring nonsense. As with real life tragedies, the people caught in this season’s controversy are hapless, well-meaning and flawed. The institutions and those at the top are the guiltiest, and they get away with everything.
  • High Maintenance, Season 1 (HBO): Short stories whose only connection is a weed dealer making his rounds. This is the kind of show I’d normally like in theory and then lose interest in, but it was actually really, ahem, addictive. Funny and human and expertly executed. 
Maintenance men.
  • Arrival: I was one of about three people who liked Interstellar, but I liked Arrival more—it has similar afterlife-as-fourth-dimension themes and a lot less self-indulgent excess. Sci fi doesn’t have to be all danger, warfare and “science-lite” exposition. It can be about connection, love and language.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

to dashaboo, before your second christmas

This is one of my occasional letters to Dash. This time I used the #MomLists feature in Mutha Magazine as my prompt.

1. Every time you see a wreath, you shout “Nana!” She made the one with gingerbread men and red ribbons that hangs between our living and dining rooms. Nana is the Queen of Comedy in your book. Last time she babysat you, you stayed up till nine. She told Mama “He wasn’t interested in going to bed.” As if bedtime were a hobby you’d considered and abandoned, like golf.

2. When you see worms in books, you say “Mommy!” For a minute, I was scared you’d had some premonition about me getting cancer and becoming skinny and bald again. Then I remembered I have a tattoo of a snake on my back. You must watch me as I walk away.

3. We still don’t know why you say “Mama!” when you see one particular Andy Warhol drawing of a panda, or Eric Carle’s Red Bird Red Bird.

4. You say “Santa!” though you prefer the ones in books and store windows to actual men in red suits. Mechanical Santas are the worst. You don’t quite trust things that move by themselves. The other day our electric toothbrush, which you love, got away from you and rattled about on the wood floor. You backed away like it was a snake.

5. You have not said “Gramps,” “Granny” or “Grandpa,” although you can point them out in pictures. These are not easy words to wrap your mouth around. Your pronunciation is meh, your vocabulary is good, your curiosity is boundless. I want you to delight in your other grandparents the way you do in Nana, but I don’t know how to manage your feelings and theirs at the same time, or if I should. I probably shouldn’t. All in good time. Is there time?

6. Last weekend we visited Candy Cane Lane in El Segundo, one of those blocks where everyone agrees to go full National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with lights and decorations. I remember being cold and usually a little bored there as a kid. You were the right age for it, but overwhelmed by the crowds (which have grown). You wouldn’t let Gramps or Granny carry you, but you walked and held their hands with one of yours. First mine plus Gramps’, then mine plus Granny’s. Separately, they reported this holding of hands to your Aunt Cathy.

7. We’ve agreed not to tell you that Santa is real. At one point in my life this would have been a great moral quandary. Now I think that fictional characters are plenty magical on their own. Maybe more so.

8. We sent your birthmother an email and photos last month and for the second time she didn’t respond. When I think about her taking a break and getting her life together, I feel okay. When I think about the possibility of you growing up not knowing her, I don’t feel okay. But however things turn out, I know that she loves you and thinks of you every single day. I know that her distance is born of those facts.

9. You have her square teeth. Her bedroom eyes. Her happy disposition. Which is not to say that you or she will always be happy.

10. When she saw you at ten months old, she ran her hand through your wisps of hair and said “I think it will be straight, but full.” That is panning out. Your bangs have finally reached your eyebrows, and you’re due for a second haircut.

11. You have: a slightly funky bite (because of your paci habit, probably), long eyelashes, a mischievous glint in your dark brown eyes, long legs, skin that is not yet tan but promises to be.

12. You like: Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, trains, Masha and the Bear (which you call “ammul!”) and Chuggington (“’ain!”), vans, trash cans, Trader Joe’s Citrus Chicken Salad, “owl” (your word for the penguin-shaped pouches I pour smoothies into), eggs, laundry, sweeping, frozen bee teethers, baths, saying “Nigh-nigh baby” as you comfort a stuffed cat or monkey, jumping on the bed, petting cats and then tormenting them, and all the agua. Still and always agua.

13. You dislike: when one of us leaves, toys that move by themselves, quesadillas, plain avocados, swinging (ever since you fell off a tire swing and did a face-plant in the sand), sitting still in restaurants while grownups talk.

14. You know what letters are and say “Ay-bee” for ABC’s and point to the O on the Cheerios box and say “Oh.” When I wear a shirt with a word on it you point to my chest and start singing the alphabet song.

15. It’s fun to teach you things. Or rather, it’s fun to watch you learn—to watch the human brain as it clicks and whirs and unfurls, becoming a particular you.

16. Since I started writing this post two days ago, you’ve started saying “Papa” for “Grandpa” (Mama’s dad). It is a much more beautiful sound than Santa.

17. Tonight I took you to McDonald’s for dinner because it was my last day of work and I was feeling lazy and junk-foodie. I tried to make you eat apple slices while I drank a chocolate milkshake, and you were having none of it. You didn’t catch onto the milkshake, but you liked the muffin part of the Egg McMuffin we shared way more than the apple slices, and you liked the hash browns too. They’re so greasy and crunchy. How could you not? I felt like a fraud. Like I was lighting up a crack pipe in front of you and telling you not to do drugs. I have food issues. You have a genetic predisposition for heart disease. I’m not sure whether I’m being too hard on myself for taking you to McDonald’s now and then, or too easy.

18. The main draw of McDonald’s is, of course, the Play Place. But it was deserted, and unlike me, you don’t like empty playgrounds all that much. The plastic tunnels were dark. Why is the Play Place comprised entirely of tunnels? I tried to get you to go in one with me, but you fussed. I went further in, with the thought that I’d get to the open area at the other end, and urge you to follow me. But then I had this vision of me behind a Play Place net watching helplessly as some stranger snatched you on the other side. I said “Want to go home?” You said “’Ome.”

19. You call all your teachers “Debbie.” I think the word “Debbie” equals “teacher” to you. One of your teachers is named Debbie. The others are Kelly, Yesenia, Nyeli and Aracely. Kelly and Yesenia are my favorites. I’ve learned so much from them; they’re like a parenting pit crew. I’m going to miss them all when you move up to the toddler room in January.

20. Tonight we took home a package, wrapped in red tissue paper, containing all your holiday art from daycare. A tree painted greenish-blackish-blue and stuck with stickers. A snowman on black paper. A paper ornament with your picture. You look like a little boy in it, not a baby at all.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

a peculiar crisis

1. battle hymn of the rust belt over-achiever

“Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity,” writes J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir of growing up in a Rust Belt town inhabited by economic migrants from Appalachia, “in which some of the very traits that our culture inculates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”

I wanted the book to feel more like its cover.
I imagine New York agents and editors sending his manuscript around in emails sprinkled with “zeitgeist” and “the white working class” and “fresh, underrepresented voices.” I imagine them filling an unspoken quota that demands more work by conservative writers (Vance claims a conservative identity, although the book is only lightly political).

If that sounds like an ungenerous impression, it’s because the book doesn’t quite accomplish what it explicitly sets out to do: represent for an economic and cultural underclass, and offer some loose suggestions about what this group needs, and why the rest of the country doesn’t understand. As a memoir, it’s not poetic enough to fully reel me in; it’s written in the style of a very good college entrance essay, with Vance frequently interrupting his own narrative to ponder why his little Ohio town sent no students to the Ivy League, where he would eventually land in law school. (My own public high school in upper-middle-class Southern California sent one student to Yale and maybe one to Stanford. The vast majority went to community college; a fair amount went to state schools.) I’m not sure why Ivy League attendance is so highly privileged a barometer of success or failure other than the fact that he eventually went to Yale, after a stint in the military and a bachelor’s degree from a state school.

Yep, here's Chua (left) and Vance (second from right) at the book's launch party.
As a sociology text, it’s even less successful, tossing out a handful of stats and footnotes about the economic prospects of his region, as if they might accomplish what his storytelling alone cannot.

The book is most moving when Vance is simply writing about his family, which is threaded with violence, addiction and love, and when he admits that success born of hard work doesn’t pave over the scars of his upbringing.

He writes adoringly about Amy Chua, his professor and author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and I’m assuming she was his path to publication (insert sour grapes here). This memoir more or less advocates for tiger-mother/bootstrap methods; Vance sees “too many young men immune to hard work” in his midst, although he doesn’t view them entirely unkindly. The problem, he says, is that they are taught that their choices don’t matter.

This brings us to our current cultural moment, in which roughly half of the country was too busy struggling to care for women, queers, poor people and people of color to realize that the other half of the country was growing resentful of their power. Or “power.”

Vance’s peers, he says, are the ones who thought Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim. They were wrong, he says, but this belief shows how “alien” he is to them. The implication is that Obama might be a good guy and a Christian after all, but he and his cohort have somehow failed Vance and his, as opposed to the other way around. Apparently it’s Obama’s job to lean in.

2. i might make the woke olympic team, but i wouldn’t medal

I’ve been wrestling a lot with my identity as a white person since the election. When I read words like Vance’s, I feel frustrated with fake victimization. America has failed his people because it fails all poor people, and some of those people are white. But I don’t think it has failed anyone because they’re white.

Then I see a million memes and shallow first-person articles about how too many white women voted for Trump, and I feel kind of defensive and #NotAllWhitePeople. Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker, tweeted recently that she had read 300 think pieces about working-class Trump voters but zero about the large numbers of rich people who voted for him. It’s as if wealthy white men—the demographic Trump will best serve, and which probably voted for him at the highest rate—are either beyond help or beyond reproach, so let’s shit on the less privileged people who voted for him.

I figured out what was tearing me up—besides my general fear for our country’s future—in a Facebook conversation with my friend Courtenay. She posted some examples of white people centering themselves on Twitter, responding loudly to calls by POC to not do that by doing exactly that. Essentially a bunch of white people saying “Ugh, white people!” at the top of their lungs in hopes of performing perfect allyship and proving their own innocence.

Roxane Gay recently tweeted (in response to comments that she had made assumptions about a stranger’s gender and sexual orientation) “Some of y’all go hard in the Woke Olympics.” Yes, that. The Woke Olympics. I feel both the desire to win it and exhausted by its existence. I feel how it’s a cerebral exercise that takes over my consciousness and tramples my humanity. That’s not the same as saying “I’m so tired of political correctness,” because this is about competition between a bunch of people with roughly the same politics.

Anyway, when I shared some of this stuff with Courtenay, along with my own need and failure to just sit down, shut up and listen, she wrote:

Many white folks have anxieties about not being heard and not being included because they—especially women—experience this phenomenon all the time everywhere. But learning to how to sit with that discomfort in a situation that is not about them and to remain an active listener when their presence is not a necessary component is important, I think.”

So yeah, I think that’s my thing. As a woman, a queer person, a nerd, an introvert and—most of all—someone who spent several years recently trying to own my grief and pain and the ways that life maybe hasn’t been one hundred percent easy on me (though still at least 87 percent easy), I’ve struggled to speak up. But I’ve done it, and I’m proud of that. I finally learned to be the drama queen I never thought I deserved to be.

My challenge, then, is to hold onto that while being smart enough to know the difference between writing and speaking honestly about my own legit struggles without, like, running off to Standing Rock and declaring myself Leader of Indigenous Peoples.

3. law and (post-traumatic stress dis)order

On Thanksgiving night, AK, her sister and I saw Denial, in which Rachel Weisz plays a pleasantly unlikely heroine: a Jewish academic who doesn’t always know when to stop talking (in an unglamorous Queens accent). She writes about Holocaust deniers and gets sued by one of them for libel. She learns that in the British court system, the burden of proof is on the accused. Infuriatingly, she and her legal team are tasked with proving not only that the Holocaust happened, but that her accuser thinks it didn’t and willfully manipulated facts to serve his own anti-Semitic agenda.

Possibly pondering the ridiculous wigs that British barristers have to wear in court.
The movie does a beautiful job of dramatizing a story that is largely procedural and which takes many turns for the anti-dramatic: the crux of Weisz’s struggle is that her team doesn’t want her or survivors to testify. “Telling your story” is a big part of the healing process, not to mention American ideology, so being told to be quiet—to deny herself—is almost blasphemous. Trauma is being made to doubt everything about yourself, including whether it happened at all, whatever “it” is. Genocide. Rape. Even something as comparatively small as, say, a miscarriage.

But Weisz’s lawyers are right that the Holocaust-denying historian in question doesn’t deserve her words, and he definitely doesn’t deserve attention from survivors who’ve already lived through hell. He is a fire, and he must be smothered.

I’m looking to the movie as a reminder that there are ways to speak up and stay quiet at the same time. I’m also trying to remember that the fire currently finding oxygen in our country—the neo-Nazis and those who support them in whole or part—needs to be snuffed out, for sure, but that the people who are spreading it are still people.

When Fr. Greg first started working with gang members at Dolores Mission parish in the eighties, Homeboy Industries wasn’t some cool nonprofit being courted by a new documentary crew every day. Gangs were seen by both law enforcement and the communities they victimized as every bit as evil as the so-called alt-right. Fr. Greg said then and now that there is nothing good about gangs, and he doesn’t work with gangs; he works with gang members, who are human and inherently good.

Anyone who engages in hate is coming from a place of deep hurt. A neo-Nazi “men’s rights” dude typing and voting his anger from his mom’s basement isn’t any worse (or better) than a gang member shooting at his rivals. Neither activity should be given an ounce of credibility or glamour. But both practitioners are worthy of hearing, and if we listen long enough, I’m sure we’ll discover that they’re not pissed at the people they think they’re pissed at. Hopefully they’ll learn too.

Friday, November 11, 2016

my own private trumpocalypse

1. requiem for a dream

In college I read a short story in which a boy gets kicked out of school. He’s the child of migrant farm workers, and he has trouble keeping up. He knows his parents will be mad. On the walk home, he keeps thinking, Maybe it didn’t really happen.

Texas, 1942.
I’ve long forgotten the name of the book or author, unfortunately, but that scene stayed with me because it perfectly captured those moments in your life when you try to rewind time with your brain.

When I got out of work on Tuesday, I looked an animated New York Times graphic that depicted a needle wobbling between Hillary and Trump, showing the likelihood of who would get elected based on the count coming in. It showed an 82% chance of a Hillary win.

Like so many people, I’d showed up to my local polling place that morning feeling proud and optimistic. People chatted in English and Spanish, greeted their neighbors and sympathized with a toddler who wondered where the “boating” was.

The boating. Photo by Massimo Sestini.
By the time I’d picked up Dash from daycare and put him to bed, the NYT needle was at 80%...for Trump.

Like so many people, my first thought was Wait…what? Like so many people, I rapidly cycled through the stages of grief. Denial (polls hadn’t closed in the West), anger (duh), bargaining (more on this in a minute), depression (for dinner on Wednesday I ate half a bag of gummi worms and scraps from Dash’s highchair). I don’t know if I’ve gotten to acceptance in any but the most literal sense.

One of the weirdest and saddest parts of scrolling through Facebook in the dark, on the floor of Dash’s room, was seeing posts pop up from earlier in the day. People in pantsuits. Voting with their elderly mothers or young kids. Proudly sporting their “I voted” stickers. The algorithms pushed these posts upward and reminded us what the world we’d imagined hours earlier might have looked like. Maybe it didn’t really happen. I wanted to grab the NYT needle and pull on it with all my weight.

2. a lump in my throat, a lump in dash’s neck

Wednesday morning I woke up with the hungover feeling that follows any awful event. But I spent most of the day focused on Dash. He had a bad cold and, on Sunday, I’d noticed a little knot at the back of his neck.

When you’re Cheryl Klein, you do not take any lump lightly. I suspected a swollen lymph node, Googled the prevalence of lymphoma in children (very low) and took him to the doctor on Monday. She wasn’t too worried, but she uttered the word “ultrasound” before I told her my own cancer history and subsequent nervousness. And that was enough to keep my anxiety at a low boil right through the election.

The ultrasound was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. That morning, I realized I’d made the appointment on the four-year anniversary of the ultrasound that led to my own cancer diagnosis. In the same building.

My magical thinking started zinging and popping like oil on a hot pan. Why didn’t I make the appointment for a different day? But not everything was going as it had in 2012. After all, that election went great! So clearly, if good election = cancer, then bad election = no cancer. So Dash would be okay, right? But, oh no, was I really about to throw the whole country—the whole world—under the bus for the sake of my child? I would do it—it was my job to be biased—but what a terrible person that would make me! It was like that storyline on The West Wing when President Bartlett had to step down temporarily when his daughter was kidnapped so he wouldn’t make biased decisions and put the country in jeopardy to save her.

Magic, phrenology, the EPA under Trump.
Yep, just like that.

Dash fell asleep in the car on the way to the ultrasound appointment, and was still groggy as the tech gelled up his neck and rolled her wand over it. He was still and compliant, the model of a good patient or a sick child. I knew he was just sleepy, and he always takes a long time to wake up, but a small part of me wanted him to squirm and shout, just to show the tech (i.e. me) how healthy he was.

My heart raced and I wanted to cry. I kept telling myself This is an opportunity to be brave. Thinking of my story as dramatic and noble helped. I can be amazing for very short periods of time. I held his head and his hand and chatted with him while I watched the tech take measurements on the screen.

All ultrasounds pretty much look the same. If you’d told me Dash’s lymph nodes were jelly beans or my own ovaries, I would have believed it. Still, I tried to commit the images to memory. Later, as Dash ran around a hot, empty park, I searched the internet for pictures of malignant lymph nodes and healthy ones. Would I call Dash’s nodes round or oval? I couldn’t remember. It seemed to matter. Everything looked the same.

As I Googled, my body chanted danger danger danger, transporting me to the days of fertility treatment, miscarriage and cancer—all those times my future has hung on the results of medical tests. But as true as that feeling was, I knew with equal certainty that cancer wasn’t the end of the world. That’s the weird thing about trauma. It makes you stronger and more vulnerable at the same time.

I texted with Kim, my hypochondria sponsor and an epidemiologist, and she reminded me of the same: Most kids survive lymphoma and leukemia these days. (I have two friends who lost nephews—separate nephews—to leukemia. For them this parenthetical is not a parenthetical. For them “most” means nothing.) Most adults do too.

See that look on her mom's face? That was me.
And guess what, Dash is fine. I channeled my dad and harassed the doctor’s office into rushing the results, and they came back marked “mildly prominent, nonspecific, possibly reactive," which is medical speak for “yeah, he has snot draining into his head and it made his neck bulge.”

3. safety dance

The sun came out again in my little corner of the world. (I mean this figuratively, because in L.A. it was already so hot and dry that Dash’s hair stood on end after one trip down the slide Wednesday.) It wasn’t lost on me that I was where I was—breathing a deep sigh of relief that my son was healthy—because of luck and good health care. So many people forget that when they vote: Those nice things you have? Most of them aren’t because of you. Some of them are directly or indirectly on the backs of others. Some are just a roll of the dice.

To be the healthy parents of a healthy child you were fortunate enough to adopt. That is everything. To remember that my job isn’t to hoard what I can and hiss and scratch to keep others away—that’s only possible when I feel at least a little bit safe.

Working for safer factory conditions after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

I believe that people who voted for Trump don’t feel safe. Some of them are right about their vulnerability, but wrong about the reasons. To them I want to say: 

Dude, I get the fear. And I know how hard it is to walk toward the thing that terrifies you. Maybe for you a brown America feels like the Huntington Hill Imaging Center feels to me—like the edge of the abyss. But it’s made of metal and plastic, polyester and people. Only the abyss is the abyss. The rest you just have to walk into.