Tuesday, January 23, 2018

to memoir or not to memoir

Here’s a problem that, like much of what I write about on this blog, exists mostly in my head. But that’s why I have a blog, so here goes: What if I should not be writing a memoir?

Flashback to November 2012. Coming off the Great Mind-Destroying Miscarriage of 2011, I was diagnosed with cancer, and my third thought (after Am I going to die? and Will I die before I get to be a mom?) was: Fuck it, I’m writing a memoir. I know that a memoir needs to be more than just the story of several shitty things happening in a row, and soon enough, I found a theme for my series of unfortunate events. My memoir, in its current half-draft form, is about how my mom’s death led me to worry I didn’t deserve parent-child love, and how I eventually convinced myself otherwise. It’s also about what a bitch imagination is—how storytelling can be the hypochondria that nearly kills you, or the hopeful meta-memoir that saves you.

How’s that for an elevator pitch?

When I write it out like that, I think this book is the thing I should be writing. It might even be the most important thing I’ve (half) written. I have written five books—weirdly and sadly, only the first two are published—and each represents a period in my life. My if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest question is: If I don’t write about the Shit Years, did I really live them?

Part of me feels like I have to write about them, because if I don’t, then I got cancer for nothing. It’s a greedy, writerly, almost cannibalistic way of thinking: What’s the point of anything if you don’t get a story out of it? But, the unexamined life and all that. I’m determined to wring a silver lining from cancer. And, more tenderly, I want to honor the babies I lost, and to prove to myself that they really existed by writing the havoc their death wreaked on me.

Another part of me absolutely doesn’t want to relive any of that shit, which is why this project has inched along so slowly (that, and a certain family member who is constantly demanding “Mommy, do my bus puzzle!”).

A couple of times now—enough to know I have to sort this through and not let it fester—I’ve wondered if I’m writing it for the wrong reasons. Or rather, what would happen if I gave myself permission not to write it? Would it be betraying myself, or being true to myself?

I know there’s not a right answer, but I can’t help living my life as if it’s already been written, and I just have to dig through the dust to unearth the plot. (That fatalist mentality is part of what I’m ostensibly writing about in my memoir.)

I have an urge to start a collection of short stories loosely based on my experiences at Homeboy. I may have already drafted the first. Right now, this project seems infinitely more fun to me. With almost every book I’ve written, I’ve started a new one before the first is finished. It feels deliciously sinful, and because editing and writing are such different processes, it allows me to write (which I like) while still editing (which I like only very, very reluctantly). But the memoir isn’t nearly close enough to finished to let my short-story impulses run wild.

I want to make this decision intuitively and thoughtfully, rather than anxiously staving it off, as I have been known to do with various life things. Like coming out when I was 23 instead of 13. I don’t want to waste a decade trying not to be gay or trying to write a memoir just to prove cancer wasn’t a waste of time!

A draft of my memoir exists, piecemeal, in various publications (but mostly MUTHA Magazine, because they are good to me!).
I want to make this decision for artistic and emotional reasons, but certain practical considerations feel relevant. Memoirs are usually more marketable than fiction, so if I have one in me, why not go for it? Three unpublished novels would suggest that I might not be such a hot fiction writer and/or it’s an absurdly tough market.

On the other hand, short stories are a great form for a working parent who can only write in fits and starts. (I mean, by that measure I should stick to haiku.) Fiction is my first love; it does something for me—a sort of arousal of the imagination, some kind of alchemy—that even the most satisfying nonfiction writing does not.

I guess I’ll let this percolate a bit. It may take another year of working on both projects (or neither—let’s not rule out a complete creative standstill or yet another tangent) to figure it out. I’ve always been much more patient and process-oriented with myself in writing than in life.

UPDATE: So I wrote all of the above in my therapist’s waiting room yesterday, and then rehashed it in my therapy session. Therapy and writing are so fucking similar. I guess that’s why I’m such a therapy junkie. It’s all just storytelling. My therapist talked about how there’s always a push-pull between processing trauma and leaving it in the past. And you know you’ve processed successfully (if not completely, because there’s probably no such thing) when you have a clear, integrated narrative about whatever happened. And of course when you stop being such a hot mess in your daily life.

That helped me see that I have a good internal narrative about the Shit Years; the question is if and how I want to create an external narrative.

And then we talked about another nice-problem-to-have question that’s periodically on my mind, which is whether we should try to adopt another kid in a year or two or three-but-probably-not-more-than-three. In both cases, he said, the important thing was to give myself permission to choose. Having and seeing choices make us free, if neurotic.

I told him that I’m going to file this under what he said a few weeks back (that time in reference to some toddler challenge with Dash), which was “It’s all fine.” You can do this thing or that thing. Chances are, neither will destroy you, and neither will ensure your perpetual happiness. I was raised by parents who literally spent years choosing what color to paint the living room, so the idea that there are multiple good choices—and life is random and also you’re always at least a little bit fucked no matter what you do—is a constant revelation to me.

It’s all fine.

Monday, January 15, 2018


1. people vs. principles

I’ve been thinking a lot about ideological vs. relational ways of moving through the world. Bear with me. I was raised to put the former on a pedestal, and in my unpublished novel (one of them...), the protagonist takes a stand against foreign adoption and risks her relationship with her partner. I still think it’s a good novel, but I’m no longer interested in critiquing foreign adoption in any kind of definitive way, and I now give hard side-eye to people who stand on principle at the expense of their loved ones.

For many years, AK’s mom—a Catholic-raised Mexican-American woman who currently attends an evangelical Christian church—wasn’t really down with AK being gay. Because the bible and all that. But in practice, she always accepted AK and, later, me. I came to understand that while her ideological world is homophobic, she’s relational by nature. Ideology may close borders or open them; relationality (spell check tells me this isn’t a word) usually opens them.

The best kind of Oscar-bait is the kind that deserves an Oscar.
But seeing The Post made me check my semi-newfound anti-ideological stance. It also renewed my faith in humanity and America. Meryl Streep plays Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who in 1971 must decide whether to publish information from the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study revealing that the U.S. has long known the futility of the Vietnam War. The study was commissioned by Robert McNamara, a close friend of Graham’s. Publishing its contents will destroy him.

The movie could have portrayed McNamara as a cowardly Nixon yes-man or a hawk who didn’t care about American or Vietnamese lives. Instead it depicts him as I think he was—a tortured soul who did not know how to climb out of what he helped create. As such, we see how hard it is for Kay Graham to betray him. They speak about what she must do with kindness and honesty, in the way of old friends who have both lived through tragedy.

2. in praise of discomfort

She’s able to take this stand and risk her company and her family’s legacy in part because she’s already an outsider—a woman who doesn’t fit in with Washington society wives or in the boardroom. Streep and Spielberg portray her discomfort by depicting her always adjusting her clothing and bumping into furniture. It’s not slapstick; it’s subtle and human and awkward.

The '70s: when even rich people wore polyester?
Needless to say, a movie about journalists telling the truth while fighting a corrupt, punitive president is rather timely. And while Kay Graham is the clear protagonist, a big part of what I loved was the film’s portrait of teamwork. It takes a village of publishers, editors, reporters, whistle-blowers, interns, typesetters, spouses and ambivalent politicians to stop a war. 

I saw the movie Sunday afternoon, by myself, because AK had seen it and liked it so much she wanted to talk about it with me. (Seeing a movie in a nearly empty theater with a soft pretzel and a Coke Zero in my hand was pure introvert luxury.) I told her afterward that one of my big takeaways was that you can come from privilege and still be a  good person. AK suffers through a lot of my class-and-race guilt, and I think it buoyed her to hear me say this.

Katharine Graham, in a talk with her grown daughter that made me tear up, acknowledges that she inherited her position from her father via her husband. She loved both of them deeply and doesn’t want to run the company into the ground. But as a woman living through the 1960s and ‘70s, she doesn’t occupy the same world that they did. She can’t adhere to the same principles and allegiances they might have. Her job is not to banish her privilege, but to leverage it.

Taking down Nixon is a great team-building exercise.
This might sound silly, because I’m hardly a publishing heiress, but I really related to the push and pull she feels. My parents were so good to me, and I want to honor them in so many ways, but I don’t share my dad’s politics. His financial help has made it more comfortable for me to work low-paying nonprofit jobs over the years, and when I pour my energy into things he either doesn’t value or actively disagrees with (this includes everything from voting Democrat to paying to have my car washed), it feels like a small betrayal. Lucky for me, he is a good compartmentalizer and genuinely doesn’t hold these things against me. But I can never be a true rebel who forsakes where I came from, any more than I could be one of the many Manhattan Beach kids I grew up with, who seem to live slightly updated versions of their parents’ lives, sometimes in their parents’ houses. I feel like Kay Graham, who gives dinner parties even as she sides with the long-haired protesters in the streets, and who looks a little uncomfortable doing all of it.

I’ll end this MLK Day post (which, granted, was all about a white woman) with a quote from Bayard Rustin, an MLK associate who as a queer man knew a thing or two about straddling worlds, and who perhaps knew the strength in this: “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”

Sunday, December 31, 2017

tops of 2017

In keeping with last year’s pseudo-resolution to focus on my strengths rather than my deficits, I’m making a list of…well, “accomplishments” isn’t the right word, because I’m always trying to be more process-oriented and to just be period (while also trying desperately to accomplish all of the things). Most of the items on the list below are just milestones in ongoing challenges. Of all the generic inspirational quotes I might want to paint on a chalkboard in a curly font for 2018, Progress Not Perfection would be the winner.


With that caveat, here are my favorite things—about myself and in the arts—of 2017.

Six things I’m proud of:

1. Joining 826LA/knowing when it was time to grow: I was happy at Homeboy Industries. Or so I told myself. I’d gotten the hang of grant writing and I liked my coworkers. So what if there was a low hum of sexism and an organizational culture that didn’t cater to quiet worker bees like myself? I’d built a little box for myself and I was comfortable there. It took an encouraging boss and an opening at an org I’d admired for more than a decade to help me see that I wanted more. Changing jobs is a major life event—something I remind myself when I wonder why I’m so tired—and the past three months haven’t been easy on me, AK or Dash. I still have a lot to learn about development and leadership, not to mention doubts galore, but 826 is a delightfully functional organization, where I feel surrounded by my people (word nerds who care about social justice). I feel like I’m in the right place, and I hope they agree.

2. Raising a nut: Dash likes to streak through parties naked, sing mash-ups of “Jingle Bells” and “Wheels on the Bus,” yell for us to chase and tickle him, tell jokes (in his toddler way), pretend to cry, and pretend the spices in my dad’s cupboard are trash cans and that he’s a garbage truck collecting them. His imagination if in full bloom right now, and his energy level is painfully high. This makes him a pretty typical three-year-old, although I think he might be a little extra on the goofiness front. He loves to laugh and make other people laugh. I was always a well behaved kid, and while my parents never stifled me, they were serious types who either didn’t know how to cut loose or didn’t value it. When Dash is a little out of control in public, I get a vicarious thrill. I get to be the relaxed parent who has defied my own upbringing and I get to be a crazy preschooler whose brain is always asking What would happen if I threw this….

What would happen if I put my shoe in the water while driveway surfing?

3. Joining Weight Watchers/kicking my perfectionism: I’ve lost weight, but more importantly, I now have a handy little app and an encouraging support group to remind me that one cookie won’t kill me or, as used to be the case, make me feel good at first, then bad, which led to punishing myself by eating ten cookies and half a loaf of bread, which led to feeling even worse emotionally and physically, which led to declaring that tomorrow I would be perfect, and so on.

Until WW, I don’t think I realized quite how much I still equated food with moral purity. If I only ate carrots, I felt superior to the mere mortals around me; if I fell to their level, I would convince myself I was much worse than all of them and be overcome with shame. So WW is just one more stop on a lifelong journey of accepting my own humanity. I’m a fallible but lovely mortal who is capable of eating a smoothie for breakfast and a rosemary shortbread cookie after lunch (just finished one of those) and returning to vegetables at dinner.

"Encase it in gelatin" is the "put a bird on it" of vintage Weight Watchers recipes.

4. Continuing to think critically and speak respectfully, even (especially?) on the internet: We live in a time of extremes, where you’re either punching Nazis or one of them. I really value writers and thinkers who look for a third thing—something outside the standard narrative and the counter-narrative. Myriam Gurba is one, and I’m glad to see her getting buzz (even though I’m so envious because she’s a peer and that’s how I am wired; but if you’d asked me a year ago what kind of voices should be elevated and celebrated, hers would have been at the top of my list, so I’ll handle my envy in therapy). It wouldn’t be 2017 if I hadn’t blocked a couple of right wingers in my feed, but I try to call in rather than out, own my flaws and avoid easy virtue-signaling shit. Sometimes that means I just post pictures of snakes in sweaters, which I am not sure is the answer. But isn’t it, kind of?

Yet another stick-thin model promoting unrealistic body images.

5. Giving good text/being a friend when time is tight: I don’t see my friends as much as I’d like to, and I’ve never been much of a phone person (who knew I was such a Millennial?). In person I’m prone to interrupting and talking about myself, a habit I’ve been trying to break since college, but texting sort of forces me to pause and provide a thoughtful, if brief-because-text, reply. My sister and my friends Holly, Nicole and Sierra often text me down from my anxiety, and I like to think I do the same.

6. Still writing: It’s hard. It doesn’t happen enough. When it comes to my memoir-in-slow-progress, I swing between wondering why I’m dwelling on such an unpleasant chunk of my life (because I just want to force a silver lining on it?), and thinking it’s the most important thing I’ve written. But I’m writing. I am especially proud of this piece in Blunderbuss.

Twelve cultural things (books, movies, TV shows and podcasts) I loved:

1. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: an immigration tale that is simultaneously hopeful, realistic and surreal.
2. Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon: a deep journalistic look at parenting kids who are different from the people who are raising them; this book will stay with me for years.
3. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond: Is capitalism (in the sense of land ownership) even more destructive than we thought? Is racism worse than we thought? Does eviction itself essentially push drowning people under the water repeatedly? Yes, yes, yes. Despite the depressing truths revealed in Desmond’s book, it’s a page turner.
4. Wind River: a murder mystery that draws attention to the dangers of being indigenous and female.
5. S-Town: a mystery and a study of thwarted genius in rural America.
6. Coco: a story about the tensions between following your family and following your dreams, covered in glowing marigold petals. I realized a week later that it’s also subversive: Calavera Hector first appears as a tricky criminal trying to illegally cross into the land of the living. Once we get to know him, we see he’s a hardworking guy who wants to be with his family. Take note, America.

No tiene papeles.

7. Carol by Patricia Highsmith: sumptuous mid-century prose, nuanced character development and a happy ending for a queer couple.
8. Closer Than They Appear: Carvell Wallace’s new podcast about race in America, as seen through an interpersonal lens. As co-host of Mom and Dad are Fighting, he made me love the way his brain works. In a cultural landscape of white people shouting about how awful white people are, I find it incredibly refreshing to listen to a black guy (and guests ranging from Van Jones to Carvell’s Aunt Bea) talk—thoughtfully, honestly, unflinchingly—about how complicated all people are.

Carvell Wallace puts the pieces together.

9. Better Things: formally odd, fantastically feminist TV show about a single mom and actress played by Pamela Adlon. Or as my co-worker Kenny has framed it, all the truth and awkwardness of Louis without the problematic Louis thing.

Sam, Duke, Frankie, Max: some of the best names on TV.

10. Get Out: as good as everyone says, for all the reasons everyone says, and it would probably be higher up on my list if it weren’t so terrifying as to be extremely stressful viewing.
11. Big Little Lies: juicy and true, with a great soundtrack and a great cast. Reese Witherspoon, keep going with your bad producing self.
12. Silicon Valley: Everything I know about coding, servers and the boom-and-bust tech world, I learned from binge watching the witty and sweet SV while recovering from the flu.

Happy New Year, friends!

Thursday, November 09, 2017

seasons of love

Everything Cheryl does, she’s totally joking and completely serious.

2,628,000 minutes
2.6 million moments so dear
2,628,000 minutes
How do you measure, measure five years?

In new jobs, in boob jobs, in blog posts, in cups of coffee
In coffee, more coffee, in coffee, and tea
In 2,628,000 minutes
How do you measure five extra years?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love

2,628,000 minutes
2.6 million plans gone awry
2,628,000 minutes
How do you measure public places I’ve cried?

In grants that I wrote, and novels on the side  
Facebook rabbit holes are no source of pride

It’s time to kiss Dashaboo
Though he’s sticky with jam
Let’s celebrate, remember five years

Remember the love
Remember the love
Remember the love
Measure in love

Rent rent rent rent reeeeennnnnnt!
In diapers, in houses
In homies, in couples therapy
In contacts, from birthmoms
who never wrote back

In 2,628,000 minutes
How do you figure five years on earth?

Figure in love
Figure in love
Figure in love
Measure in love
Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

fear-based life

Putting Dash to bed has been an ordeal lately, an up-to-two-hour affair involving multiple requests for milk (yes, after he's brushed his teeth; I judge me too!) and kisses from whichever mom isn't in the room. He wants "one more book." He wants to sleep on the floor. No, wait, he wants to sleep on the bed. No, the floor. He wants "that pillow." No "my pillow," which might look like that pillow, but is in fact inexplicably different.

He wants "Dinosaur Boom Boom," a game I used to play when he was a baby, which has recently enjoyed a revival. He lays down and I hold his legs and chant "Boom boom, boom boom, dinosaur walking, dinosaur walking. Swish swish, swish swish, dinosaur dancing, dinosaur dancing." Etc. Recently he added a part where he kind of kicks me in the face. Good times.

He has successfully sleep-trained me.
He is, as you may have gleaned based on the behaviors described above, 2.75 years old. My emotions swing along with his, from charmed to exasperated to near tears as I contemplate what it means to be the kind of person whose toddler doesn't fall asleep until 9:47 pm. Surely it's because I haven't read enough parenting books or been tough enough or kind enough or created a sufficiently predictable routine.

(Sidebar: Yesterday I was part of a work email exchange about using strength-based language when it comes to describing the kids we serve. Except I learned that "serve" is not the most strength-based word, because it smacks of missionary language and savior complexes. My first thought was OMG, I am THE WORST at strength-based thinking! I tried to amend that to I am willing to learn! But as I shared with my therapist later, I always worry that if I'm not asking myself "Cheryl, are you a piece of shit?" then I won't even bother trying at life. I don't actually think I'm a piece of shit. If that was true, I wouldn't be able to maintain healthy relationships or apply for jobs or blog. But I am convinced--especially when under-caffeinated--that I must maintain constant vigilance or I will tumble down a slippery slope made of peanut butter cups, and land in the shit pile that is my true destiny. I'm working on it.)

Anyway, I have varying degrees of empathy for Dash's bedtime shenanigans. One more book? Sure, kid. Reading is fundamental. Throwing books off the shelf and biting Mommy's leg? Not so much.

Last night he was heavy-lidded and SO. CLOSE. TO. SLEEP. He sat up and said, in a small sad voice, "Mommeeeee."

"What is it?"

"Scary masks."

Contemplative little monkey, refusing his monkey head (which isn't a mask, but why risk mask-adjacency?)
Two weekends ago, AK's dad invited us to a Halloween festival in Orange County. We imagined a fun day in the park with Nana and Papa. But it turned out her dad couldn't even go--he just thought we'd enjoy it. And it wasn't a park so much as the parking lot of Tarbell Realtors, with some bounce houses and stickers. And when Dash spotted a seven-year-old in a Scream mask and hood, he leapt toward me, burst into tears and clung to me like the monkey he's dressing as for Halloween.

His fear was as abject and visceral as my need to comfort him. I wondered if that made me a little fucked-up--to take such pleasure in hugging my kid when he was so sad. Do I want him to be miserable? But I'm going to try not to overthink this one. My most important job as a parent is to keep him safe, and I will fail at it. The world is full of war and disease and unprotected left turns, so if I can be a hero in the wake of this one made-up danger, I'll take it. I'll milk the hell out it.

Drew thinks this mask is scary too.
Two more Halloween parties this past weekend solidified the scary-mask thing. He also finds puppets and animatronic toys highly suspect, and I agree that moving things that are not quite human are fucking terrifying. But I was surprised to hear they were haunting his thoughts after the fact, which feels like a more adult category of fear.

My heart sank a little. Do anxious cycling thoughts set in so young? I was a scaredy-cat kid, and managing fear has been a major theme of my adult life. Temperament-wise, Dash seems to be outgoing but cautious, not the first kid to jump off the top of the slide, but not the last. But if ghoulish masks were floating through his mind--more terrifying because you can't just step away from your own thoughts, because that kind of fear doesn't recede on November 1--it was a new category. And I could relate.

"I know masks are scary, but they can't hurt you, and Mommy and Mama will always do our best to keep you safe," I said, trying to walk that line between validating and fanning the flames. "Let's try to think of something happier."

I proceeded to lead an ad hoc visualization exercise, dreaming up the toddler equivalent of a walk through a calming meadow. "Let's imagine we're on a train with all your friends. With Patrick and Wendell and Serenity."

"And Claire," he said. (Claire is an older kid at daycare. The other day he announced that he'd hit her, and she'd hit him. "How did you feel when that happened?" I asked. "I like it," he said, and I had no answer.)

"And a bunch of dogs and cats, and our big train is going by the ocean," I said.

During this time, I was hugging him but also stretching out my arm to text my friend Holly and look at Facebook, because I suck a little. But my therapist and I have also talked about how being a slightly distracted parent frees kids up to become themselves without feeling a bunch of pressure. So let's call that a strength.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

dirty john and the domestic sphere

Yesterday I cleaned the house while AK took Dash to Orange County for some tia time, and I binge-listened to the L.A. Times’ Dirty John podcast. I’m one of those true crime podcast junkies: I was into both seasons of Serial, I squeal and laugh along with the sloppy-funny hosts of My Favorite Murder every week, and I loved falling deep into the Southern gothic tragedy of S-Town.

Orange (County) is the new noir. (Photo credit: Christina House, L.A. Times.)
At first Dirty John seemed like a well reported but relatively unremarkable imitation of other true-crime cultural phenomena, right down to the Making a Murderer-esque soundtrack. The title character is not an affable possible innocent a la Serial’s Adnan, nor a tortured genius like S-Town’s John B. McLemore. Dirty John is a fairly typical conman with some power and anger issues, who has perhaps seen too many mob movies. It’s not that I don’t think literal psychopaths are interesting (if my not-completely-scientific study of My Favorite Murder is any indication, the equation for psychopathy seems to be horrific childhood abuse plus head injury, which is reason #493 Dash doesn’t get to play football). It’s that psychopaths are kind of defined by their immunity to outside influence, and I’m interested in the ways people are shaped by culture, systems and family.

Debra Newell, part of the interesting part. (Photo credit: L.A. Times.)
Then I realized that Dirty John was not the interesting part of Dirty John. (Some vague spoiler-esque comments follow, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.) Having worked with formerly incarcerated people for a few years, I thought a lot about the injustice of the justice system and the humanity of criminals. To the point that every now and then, I’d be surprised all over again by the realization that Victims are real people too. My Favorite Murder—in its tripping-over-its-own feet, non-didactic way—does a good job reminding its audience of this. Also that victims of violent crimes are disproportionately female. Also that they are sometimes as fucked up as anyone.

At first I thought Maybe I’m unimpressed by Dirty John because it’s about one psycho asshole, and it doesn’t reveal anything about a system or a culture. Then I realized Duh, the system at work here is the family system he insinuated himself into. And maybe I think of family as uninteresting because I’ve been taught to devalue the domestic sphere.

Once I shifted my focus, I was fascinated. Debra Newell, an Orange County interior designer who’d had chronic bad luck with men, is the mother of two daughters with the most intense SoCal upspeak you’ll ever here: Jacquelyn, who takes no shit, and sweetheart Terra, who seems a little dumb, who lives for dogs and The Walking Dead.

Long ago, Debra’s sister was murdered by her controlling ex-husband. Debra’s Christian mother decided to forgive her son-in-law and even testified on his behalf in court. This family culture of forgiveness seems to impact Debra’s willingness to “see the good” in Dirty John long after most people would have given him the boot. Without revealing the ending, I will say that Jacquelyn may not be the only family member who realizes that forgiveness can be a slippery slope to victimhood.

Georgia and Karen staying sexy and not getting murdered. (Photo credit: Entertainment Weekly.)
Almost a month after leaving Homeboy, I’m still processing my time there. I’ve complained—both good-naturedly and seriously—about our lack of systems, and how we haven’t totally realized you can’t run an $18 million organization like a one-man-show in the back of a church. But Homeboy’s reluctance around rules goes beyond nonprofit growing pains. I also witnessed how sometimes our mantra that “You’re not the worst thing you’ve ever done” got flipped into “You can keep treating people poorly with no consequences.”

I don’t personally know where or how to draw the line. But I know that empathy for perpetrators (who inevitably were victims first) can’t carry more weight than empathy for victims. Or maybe that we can love perpetrators all we want—deeply and truly—but only victims should be in the business of deciding what’s forgivable and when.

The domestic sphere. But imagine that instead of rolling dough, I'm microwaving mac n cheese.
I was thinking about family systems in a less dramatic way (though it felt very dramatic at the time, largely because I missed a dose of Effexor) on Monday night, when Dash was losing his shit over the fact that I wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk before bed. He kept yelling, “I need milk! I’m talking to you, Mommy!” His face was red and puffy. He sobbed and pounded on his bedroom door. I held my ground because I think that’s a thing I need to do more, but wondered as always: Really? Is this the hill I’m going to die on? 

I offered water and applesauce and goldfish crackers. I kept my voice calm and may have literally said at one point, “There’s no way out of pain but through it, but I am here with you.” I fought the urge to cry and make it all about me, and encourage him to take care of my feelings, the way my mom sometimes did, unintentionally, to me. He continued to rage, tragically and adorably. I felt like shit.

Last week AK and I debated the merits of timeouts, or lack thereof. She knows more about child psychology and development than I do, and sometimes that makes me feel like a loser, although no one but me is stopping me from reading a few childcare books.

I started feeling that by discouraging me from giving Dash a timeout for biting me, she was taking his side and leaving me to take care of myself. My therapist rightly pointed out that I was casting AK in the role of my mom, who I believed always took my younger sister’s side. Cathy was smaller and needier, and I was up shit creek, as far as I was concerned. (This is why I pay my therapist the big sliding-scale bucks.)

Of course that was my highly biased, sibling rivalry-influenced child-view of things. My mom loved me like crazy, and certainly didn’t turn me out on the streets as soon as my sister came along when I was three. But a piece of me still totally believes that’s how it was, and that part was wild and desperate on Monday night as I threw myself under the bus for a wild and desperate little kid.

First, second and third.
But we heal the damage of past relationships through current ones. I hope that Dash’s cheery, utterly forgiving (forgiveness at its best) greeting the next morning helped both of us heal. He realized that the person who wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk—the person who couldn’t or wouldn’t magically make him feel better—was still there for him. I realized that his needs wouldn’t kill me.

I won’t give away the ending of Dirty John, but I’ll say this: It’s very satisfying. Debra and her family reclaim the narrative for themselves, along with a cameo from a truly badass junior lifeguard named Skylar and a miniature Australian shepherd named Cash.

Monday, September 11, 2017

imposter syndrome and the second coming of fred savage

Last night AK and I binge-watched the first three episodes of Friends from College, a Netflix comedy starring Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage, and Annie Parisse as, well, friends from college whose lives get re-intertwined when they all end up in New York. Keegan-Michael Key is Ethan, a literary novelist in search of commercial success. Fred Savage is his agent. Annie Parisse is the woman he’s been casually hooking up with on out-of-town visits for twenty years, despite being married to another college friend, Lisa (Cobie Smulders). The show is clever and real, despite some loopy plotlines (replacing a dead bunny, writing while high, etc.). I enjoyed many literal lols, like when the group tries to figure out whether Marianne’s (Jae Suh Park) experimental, cross-gender production of Streetcar has started or not.

Having a creative crisis in a very spacious apartment.
I also paused the show a handful of times to nervously ask AK things like “Do you think I’ll ever publish another novel? If there was a character who’d published a couple of small press novels and was struggling to get her third out there, and only had a little bit of time to write, would she be seen as sympathetic, or a failure-slash-joke?” and “Oh no, their son on the show is named Dashiell. Do you think it will blow up? Do you think, like, even if we didn’t choose the most unusual name, it’s still not at a Jayden-slash-Noah level?”

Don't underestimate Marianne or her bunny.
I’ve blogged about this before, but when I was in middle school, I could not watch The Wonder Years because I was constantly comparing myself to Fred Savage. He was supposedly a struggling preteen, but he kissed Winnie Cooper years before I kissed anyone. He was a giant mess of first-world problems, as far as my seventh grade self was concerned.

And now he’s a super successful literary agent with a doctor husband (a deadpan Billy Eichner) and an immense New York apartment. Damn you, Fred Savage, must you haunt my whole life? Why must you always be three degrees cooler than I am, even when you are not playing anyone particularly cool?

Ethan has "won a bunch of literary prizes no one has heard of." I would take that!
I’ve been thinking about imposter syndrome, which stems from comparing other people’s outsides to our own insecure insides, as I head into a new job.

It seems like I was just writing about leaving Poets & Writers for Homeboy Industries, but in fact it’s been almost four years. An entire college education, complete with amazing teachers, hard lessons and unforgettable friends. As I told Fr. Greg, Homeboy has redrawn the shape of my heart for the better.

It’s a frenetic, beautiful, fascinating, rare place to work. It is a privilege. It’s also really hard at times, especially during the moments when I didn’t have the mentors I needed. Now I have Ed, who is a sweetheart and an incredible mentor. He and a handful of others helped me see I might actually have something to say; that despite my continued belief that savvy implementers and independent thinkers are every bit as important as leaders, I might want to actually, um, lead.

Nerd alert: I have nonprofit crushes.
That’s part of what brings me to 826LA, an organization I’ve had a nonprofit crush on for years. Starting a week from today, I’m going to be their Development Manager. The other part of what brings me to the doors of 826’s Time Travel Mart is, of course, creative writing. The opportunity to immerse myself in a world where people love words as much as I do—where they invest in empowering underserved kids to write—was too good to pass up. So I didn’t pass it up.

Heading up fundraising for a small-but-not-tiny organization is mildly terrifying to me, which is where imposter syndrome comes in. As I waited to hear back about the job, I kept picturing my hypothetical competition. She would have a ton of experience with major donors. She would be fluent in Spanish and a snappy dresser.

You can see how I envied these smooth operators.
The good part about being as old as Fred Savage is that I can recognize imposter syndrome for what it is. I don’t think of myself as an amazing fundraiser, or even a fundraiser at all, but I have faith in my ability to learn. I have faith in my ability to create a to-do list and go through it methodically, which is all a development plan is. I have faith in my ability to communicate what’s exciting and important about a thing I love, and that’s all nonprofit fundraising is.

Homeboy tries to help homies see that they are not the worst story they’ve heard about themselves (one undoubtedly told first by a parent, reinforced by legal and educational systems, and most damagingly repeated by themselves). So I try to take that to heart. The voices in my head say I’m over-privileged, lazy, selfish, trauma-scarred, destined for failure or at least mediocrity, and undeserving of most of the many good things that have happened to me.

It would be easy to channel those insecurities into a belief that nowhere besides Homeboy, my beloved Island of Misfit Toys, would put up with me. It’s the same thinking that causes trainees to relapse during the 17th month of an 18-month program. It’s the job of those of us who love damaged people to help them see beyond us. (Dar Williams has a song about it, where she says The farther you go, the closer you are to me.)

I landed at Homeboy breathless from four years of trauma, and it was hard for me to believe that there would be a post-post-traumatic period, but I think I’m entering it. Which is to say I am still a little jumpy, but I have a renewed faith in the sun’s likelihood of rising the next day. I am willing to consider that I am not destined to be a lifelong drama queen, even though I will never again be the straight-A student on a steady upward march. I’m looking for that third thing. That third or fourth self.

Ooh, she's got a point.
Sometimes I think that all this Brene Brown-ish self-talk, while true and necessary, might be better activated through service to others. Like, sure, I’m beautiful and good and all that, but how about a little less posting of Pinterest-y quotes and a little more volunteering? Still, maybe the latter begets the former. Or vice versa. The stream of love and self-love flows in many directions.

Mine is flowing west down Sunset to Echo Park, site of my next wonder years.