Friday, March 24, 2017

conflict is not abuse, but interminable engagement is not an obligation

Dear Sarah Schulman,

I'm writing my review of Conflict Is Not Abuse as an open letter to you, because your book is about conflict and the importance of dialogue, empathy and repair (vs. disengagement, which you call "shunning"). So I feel like you'd be open to actually hearing about stuff I found troubling, as well as the stuff I liked. You draw parallels between conflicts on the personal, community and international levels, and you attempt to show how dividing people into the black-and-white categories of "abuser" and "victim" harms both parties and resolves little.

I love me some personal/political parallels, and I heartily agree that us-and-them thinking leads to much of the world's shittiness. After all, I work for an organization whose mission is to tell gang members that they deserve love, and that they are not the worst thing they've ever done. I try to tell myself the same. Without repair, we don't have much hope as a species.

So why did I find myself so very much in conflict with this book?

First, you open with a personal but super vague account of (as best I can tell) a time you liked a woman you met on the job, and she seemed to like you back, but then ignored you. Maybe she rallied a couple of people to her cause. You suspect she did so because she was afraid of her own feelings as a result of some past trauma. This is a common and likely occurrence. But it reads as condescending at best, harassing at worst ("How dare she ignore me?!"). In this instance and others in the book, you seem to always know people's feelings better than they know their own. That might be true sometimes. But how could it be true all the time?

Your argument focuses on wrongful accusations of abuse and how unfair they are to the accused. Maybe the accused isn't an abusive jerk who deserves to rot in hell; maybe the accused is even "right." But the idea that anyone owes anyone constant, unending dialogue is absurd. People often disengage not to punish the accused (deservedly or undeservedly) but because it's the healthiest thing for them.

An example from my own life: My dad is a kind, generous and hyper-logical person. Growing up (and still), he never got mad at me for mouthing off or disagreeing or asking for stuff I wasn't going to get. He just wanted a logical explanation of my opinion. But the catch was that he decided what was logical. We have an ongoing (twenty years and counting) debate about whether the majority of poor people are lazy and entitled or trying to survive in a system that has fucked them both economically and psychologically. (Guess which side I'm on.) Sometimes I just have to end the conversation, because his stance tends to be "You haven't convinced me yet." Why do I have to do the convincing? Why is the burden of proof always on me? Why does he get to set the terms? (And maybe it's your own setting-of-the-terms that rankles me most about this book.)

When I'm not in the mood to prove myself to him--especially if it's about a personal decision or even an emotion, the last thing anyone should ever have to defend--I shut it down.

Sarah, you might argue that my relationship with my dad is actually a great example of conflict without abuse (or accusations of abuse). It's true, my dad and I have a very healthy, mildly conflicted relationship over all. He is a good listener, and as long as I'm willing to put in twenty years of patient, carefully researched debate, I get modest results. I'm incredibly grateful for that. But sometimes the healthiest, most productive thing for me is to step back. And to imagine extending that same level of emotional work to someone who wasn't kind and generous and logical and my dad is incredibly unappealing.

Ironically, in your critique of defended behavior, you never interrogate your own. Your lack of self-critique seems defended in itself. All your stories are about times you were unfairly accused or took the high road. And you have a big beef with the family as central social unit, which I suspect is about your relationship with your own family. Personally, I don't think society has problems because of families so much as families have problems because of people and society.

I tried to read the section about "compensatory motherhood" and queers having kids with an open, "undefended" mind. I'm only two years past giving major envious side-eye to any gay couple with kids, at which point I probably would have welcomed your theory that lesbians have kids to gain social status in a culture that devalues their romantic relationships. It's an ugly truth, at least for myself: I think I wanted to prove I could do anything straight people could, which is one reason infertility hit me so very hard. But I was also self-aware enough to know that mainstream acceptance is a terrible reason to have kids, and that any satisfaction in that arena would be shallow and short-lived. Ultimately AK and I adopted because we wanted to raise a child. I know that's the truth because I am enjoying raising my child. (P.S. He's only two, but he's learning to clean up after himself; you seem very concerned about women raising their sons to be spoiled mama's boys. Lord knows those dudes are out there, but I'm not sure it's the epidemic you imply.)

Dash, take note. There's a sink full of dishes and a jazzy apron in your future.
What if queer parenting isn't a failure of feminism and a triumph of nuclear-family hegemony, but a triumph of feminism? It's true that families with same-sex parents don't inherently raise little feminists. But the option to live a fully integrated life is a feminist success story, as is the fact that more straight women are choosing not to have kids or get married. If people are behaving according to their desires and temperaments instead of some demographic mandate (picket fences for straight folk, radicalism for gays!), that's a good thing.

The part of this book I found most interesting and resonant was your case study about Canadian laws that slap people who spread HIV with prison time. You explain that by involving the police and legal system, which inherently divide people into perpetrators and victims, we take power away from the community and put it in the hands of the state, which does little to actually solve the original problems. You imply a need for a sort of tribe of elders devoted to conflict mediation. I think that would be awesome.

Wanted: a tribal council that doesn't vote anyone off the island.
And then there is the long, confusing section about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. You point to an incident in 2014, in which Israel used the killing of three Jewish teenagers to justify a military massacre in Gaza. You see this as a classic example of the "overstatement of harm"; and history is rife with others (Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as an excuse for the first Gulf War; the sinking of the USS Maine as an excuse for the Spanish-American War). But these horrors don't feel like the geopolitical version of a woman who gets hyperbolic about her boyfriend's behavior when she's pissed. They are orchestrated land grabs by aggressive nations.

It probably doesn't help that, rather than narrate the Israeli/Palestinian events and the reactions they spawned, you let us experience them mostly via excerpts from your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I'm one of those Americans who doesn't know enough about Palestine and Israel, and that's a problem. But I can't think of a worse way to learn than to scroll through fragments of someone else's three-year-old social media feeds.

All that said, I really enjoyed reading this book. That's where you and I are cut from the same cloth. I like reading a book that makes me jot "?!" in the margins every few pages. I don't mind a little drama. I like books (and people) that are broad and ambitious and difficult. Thank you for writing one of those.



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

anger management

At some point in my life, I decided that injustice was the only thing it was okay to get angry about. It could be a small injustice or a big one. It could be a boss blaming me for something that wasn't my fault, or it could be, like, homophobia.

I still think it's a good goal not to be the asshole screaming at a CVS clerk because your prescription isn't ready, but you can probably guess that my "injustice only" stance on anger has run into some problems. Because 1) anger isn't a decision, it's an emotion, and 2) there's lots of shit to get pissed off about that is no one's fault.

I spent many therapy hours and blog posts sorting through the rage that bloomed in the wake of infertility-miscarriage-cancer. None of these things was anyone's fault, but they were also categorically unfair and shitty. But weren't most of the good things that had happened to me (being born into a middle class life, having parents who loved me) equally unfair? That's when I'd get tangled up, at least until I discovered it was possible to harbor genuine gratitude and genuine rage simultaneously.

My anger has curly hair and a chocolate croissant in her hand.
My Anger Years were healthy for me, a good girl conditioned to bite my lip or cry or eat my feelings rather than yell at anyone. I did a lot of rage-blogging and filled my drafts folder with (mostly) unsent emails to people who pissed me off. My Anger Years were not always easy on others.

One nice byproduct of all that therapy is that it allowed me to enter parenthood with relatively realistic expectations. I expected to fail constantly, and I have, albeit in smallish ways SO FAR. I staked my money on love, resiliency and basic physical safety, and figured the rest would sort itself out. Despite the unspoken bargains I made with the universe, along the lines of If you just give me a baby I'll be good and grateful and graceful all the time, I never expected that I would actually be good and grateful and graceful all the time.

I am often exhausted and sometimes disengaged; I'm on my phone too much and I feed Dash granola bars for dinner too often and I let him drink milk before bed without brushing his teeth. But to my surprise as much as anyone else's, I actually do feel grateful most of the time. 

Or I did.

Dinner at our house often resembles Sad Desk Lunch. Lunch at work is also sometimes Sad Desk Lunch.
No, I still do. But as he fully blossoms into the two-ness of being two (AK and I have text exchanges that end with a resigned "#two"), there's something new growing alongside it: I get pissed off at my kid.

I know, shocking. 

In a rare moment of realism in Sex and the City 2, Charlotte breaks down and confesses how guilty she feels, having longed for her children for years and now needing so much to get away from them. Of course, she's breaking down in a deluxe hotel room in Abu Dhabi. 

Charlotte as harried mother, with a white kitchen and spotless apron. It's like they know us.
My most recent breakdown was on the floor of Dash's room on Saturday afternoon. It was raining. AK was out. Dash wasn't napping. Our deal is that I'll lay on the floor and look at my phone while he jumps around, cries, sings to himself and eventually knocks out. One time he climbed out of his crib and I caught him on his way down. But it seemed like a fluke, so I postponed the inevitable. 

On Saturday he decided it wasn't a fluke anymore. He kept climbing up and balancing on the crib railing on his tummy. Each time, I gently--then somewhat less gently--pushed him back in his crib with my bare foot or my hands. He thought it was hilarious. Then my toe grazed his chin and he pouted. 

"A Mommy!" he said, patting his mattress. Lately he'd been wanting me to climb in with him. Sometimes it was cuddly and sweet. More often it was anything but restful for either of us. Saturday he grabbed my hair and hit me and laughed. I held his wrists and pried his fingers open. All of a sudden sleep had become the stressful wrestling match it was when he was eight or nine months old.

"Stop. It. That hurts Mommy. That makes me feel ow." I wasn't yelling, but I wasn't quite achieving the "calm but firm" thing I was going for, either.

A terrifying movie of an angry mother, abused child and DCFS intervention flashed before my eyes. 

Instead I decided to be honest with myself: I was mad at Dash. It wasn't the first time, but this was the first time I didn't transfer my anger to AK (If she hadn't messed up his nap schedule yesterday, this wouldn't have happened...) or chalk it up to pure exhaustion. 

I had a flash-forward glimpse into the messy heart of our intermingled psyches. I understood--really understood--that Dash was a person with a complete and distinct personality, and we'd both go through the full range of emotions that any two humans in an intimate relationship experience. The kitchen of our souls would be as messy as our actual kitchen.

I also felt frustrated with my own frustration. What was the point of it? Not only had no act of injustice been committed (at least as far as I was concerned; Dash may have felt differently, and I guess that's part of the story), but something shitty and unfair had not even occurred. It just felt shitty and unfair. In reality, the events that were unfolding were perfectly developmentally appropriate. Two-year-olds are supposed to test their parents' limits, and parents are supposed to work with them to find and enforce those limits. 

I climbed out of his crib, stomped to the laundry room and returned with an Allen wrench and a screwdriver. I used the former to dismantle his Ikea crib. He used the latter to "help." Together we cleaned the dusty spot that remained with baby wipes. It was actually kind of fun.

Wait, it all makes so much sense now.
After the election, I shared some of my Trump rage with my dad--rage that is absolutely about injustice at like 75 different levels, and when I think about Hillary winning the popular vote it still makes my blood boil, not to mention the part where Trump treated America like his personal, typo-laden vanity publishing project--and my dad said something along the lines of "He won. There's not a lot of point in getting angry about it. We just have to elect someone else four years from now."

He conceded that if rage fuels activism, it might be useful. I countered that it has a purpose beyond that: "Anger helps you figure out how you want to be treated. If you were walking down the street and someone came up and kicked you in the head and then ran off, you could say 'Well, there's nothing I can do about that, so I guess I'll just get on with my life.' But that would be saying to yourself in some way that it was okay that it had happened. And then when someone else came up and tried to kick you, you'd think on some level that it was supposed to happen and you wouldn't run or fight back."

Later I realized I was describing at least one reason that people who get raped once are more likely to get raped a second time (there are undoubtedly others). 

So I'm going to try to take my own advice. In this case the person who kicked me in the head happens to be adorable; I happen to adore him; I would throw myself in front of a train for him. (He would happily exclaim "Train!" because he's on a train kick these days. But after that he'd miss me.) But I don't like getting kicked in the head. I don't like having my hair pulled or my house trashed. It is okay not to like those things. And the "point," I guess, is that my anger motivates me to teach him how to live in a world that has other people in it. People whose bodies and stuff you have to respect.

Ideally I'd throw myself in front of one of the trains from Chuggington. They seem nice.
This morning, before 7 am, I'd already cleaned up cat poop, changed a poopy diaper and wiped up coffee and milk he'd spilled. Dash has been demonstrating great gentleness and impulse control toward the cats lately, but not this morning. He kept pulling OC's tail, then looking at me, waiting for my (angry) reaction and his ten-second time-out. He was working something out about boundaries and consequences, and I was angry that he was working it out at the expense of a relentlessly friendly 16-year-old cat. 

The only kind of cat that's safe around Dash is a large wooden tiger.
"Tail!" Dash bemoaned as I pulled him away for the fifth time.

"OC's tail belongs to him, not to you," I said, not very kindly.

I woke up AK for her shift. "My morning is going okay, and this isn't a guilt trip," I prefaced, "but can I vent about everything that's gone down in the last hour?"

I concluded, "I'm doing my part to tackle rape culture by teaching Dash body autonomy. There. I have to pretend I'm doing something bigger and more noble to make myself feel like I'm not just hitting my head against a wall."

And it's not pretend--raising a kind child should be valued more highly in our culture. I am part of a great movement of unsung teachers and nurturers, goddammit, and no matter how much you love and pursued and longed for the opportunity to teach and nurture, it's not easy. Or at least this is the story I'll tell myself next time I'm up to my ears in poopy paper towels and we're on the fifth time-out of the morning.

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.