Monday, November 23, 2015

10 things never to say: a rant and manifesto

1. humans vs. assholes

The other day, a writer I’m Facebook friends with posted: “I’m tired of personal essays. I really don’t need to know anything else about any stranger’s breakup, dysfunctional friendships, epiphanies, condescending cultural affiliations, or childhoods. Can the age of the universalizing snowflake transition into something else now?”

I basically agree; the thread that followed attached some qualifiers, and I admitted I like reading and writing personal essays when they’re good (well, I like reading them when they’re good; I probably like writing them even when they’re bad). But two things became evident: First, the universalizing snowflakes in question are usually middle class white women, rapidly turning their angst into a bid for internet fame. Guilty as charged, Your Honor.

Let me tell you all about my night and how dark and stormy it was.
Second, there’s a particular subgenre of the universalizing snowflake personal essay that especially bugs me, and that is the What Not To Say essay.

I just Googled “10 Things Never To Say” and here are some actual articles that came up:

10 Things to Never Say to a Woman Who Has Had a C-section
10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who’s Asexual
10 Things to Never Say to a Person with Sensory Processing Disorder
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Tall Person
10 Things to Never, Ever Say to Someone Struggling Financially
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Guest in a Worship Service

They have the prettiest What Not To Say lists.
Look, I’m not advocating that you tell your financially struggling friend to get a job, or your asexual friend that he just hasn’t met the right person yet. (I didn’t click on these links, but I and most non-assholes can make educated guesses about what not to say.) But the prevalence of such articles seems like a giant passive aggressive move on the part of people with hurt feelings. Maybe when someone asked the tall person what the weather was like up there, she replied that actually, she’d heard that one before. Or she laughed politely and then wrote a list for the internet.

My real beef, though, is with the implicit idea that if you study hard enough, you’ll avoid getting it wrong, and that getting it wrong is a thing only insensitive jerks do. Because that’s not the world I want to live in.

I have been on the receiving end of some ignorant questions and comments—about gay people, about cancer, about the adoption process—and at times I’ve been offended. Can I tell you how many times people have said, re: Dash’s birthmom, “So, are you still in touch with the mother?” (If you mean AK, the answer is yes. If you mean Erica, who is certainly a mother of his, but by no means the mother, the answer is yes.) Much more often, people have said sincere, respectful things. Because I know a lot of humans but very few assholes.

And guess what—it’s all good. It’s okay to fuck up and say something offensive. It’s okay to get offended. And then you talk about it and you both move on. Ideally.

I’m feeling a little cautious about this post, because I realize it could be a slippery slope to complaining about how “the PC police are taking away my right to make racist jokes and it’s so unfaaaaaair.” Regarding people who freak out over political correctness, I’ll repeat what a friend of mine said in college: “If you knew someone named Joe, and one day he wanted you to call him Bob, wouldn’t you just do it? Because he gets to decide what his own name is?”

I’m not saying it’s cool to be a jerk on purpose, to prioritize your own agenda at the expense of someone else’s emotional wellbeing, but, well, I am saying it’s better to call Bob “Joe” accidentally than it is not to call him. It’s okay to ask Bob why he wants to go by Bob, as long as you’re really willing to listen to the answer.

2. the repair manifesto

In the world of trauma therapies (a world I only half know, a world I get wrong all the time), people say it’s not about how trauma fucks you up, but about if and how you repair it. This idea gives me a lot of hope.

I spent the first twenty-ish years of my life afraid to rebel, because I thought that if I got in trouble, my dad would never forgive me. In a way, it’s a shame I never put it to the test, because now I have no doubt that he would have. Slowly, but he would have. I’m not such a goody-two-shoes these days, but I still haven’t gotten over my desire to be perfect. All I can say is that now I know it’s a losing battle.

Raisins contain antioxidants and anti-zombie properties.
So, repair. Maybe you managed to take some long walks and cook a couple of healthy meals over the course of your much-needed weekend. But then when the kid woke up at 3 am, you just started pounding cinnamon raisin bread and Trader Joe’s chocolate honey mints as if your mouth were some sort of bunker and carbs were going to be in short supply after the zombie apocalypse.

Repair it. Ignore your jiggly belly for now and eat some fruit and whole wheat toast for breakfast.

Maybe your partner was stressing out about some work stuff and you did the wrong things with your eyebrows and it led to a big fight.

The price of salt and kids' train sets.
Repair it. Remind yourself that she’s always been rattled by big changes and there’s a lot of change right now, and it’s okay and reasonable for her to be stressed out. It’s also okay and reasonable for you to get tired and resentful sometimes.

Ask Alberto—the aswesomest friend and godfather ever—to babysit and go eat pupusas at your neighbors’ house and go see Carol, a beautiful movie that pushes against the queer tragedy narratives of the past and the everything-is-awesome queer narratives of the present. Remember how much you love love love going to the movies together.

Monday, November 09, 2015

village people

The other day at work, in an admittedly cynical moment, someone said: “Let’s start a drinking game at staff meetings—every time someone says ‘It takes a village,’ we do a shot.”

Let's talk about this mother of at least two and her 19" waist.
Today I brought Dash to work with me and asked one of my coworkers to watch him while I met with a foundation officer. He was cuddled by coworker after friendly, generous coworker, and when someone asked how he’d spent the past hour, I found myself saying, “It takes a village.”

I also used to joke that It takes a village to raise a Cheryl. This was during the time when I had two oncologists, a radiologist, a reconstructive surgeon, a physical therapist, a regular therapist, a couples therapist, a hypnotherapist, a nice lady at church named Margot and a couple of cancer pen pals, all working overtime to keep me alive and sane.

High five.
Three years ago today, an ultrasound tech told me the doctor wanted to do a biopsy on what looked like early stage breast cancer, and I nearly blacked out from fear. My memories from that day are impressionistic flashes, but I remember sitting in AK’s car, begging her to promise me we could still try to have a kid, one way or another, even if I had cancer.

Four years ago this week was the Squeakies’ due date, 11/11/11, although they would have inevitably been born earlier. I think of them every time the clock says 11:11, and also when it doesn’t.

Put a bird on it.
This is the month of the “Gratitude Challenge”—which can come across trite or even braggy, but is undeniably less obnoxious than the “Selfie Challenge” I saw making the rounds last month (isn’t taking selfies almost by definition the least challenging thing a person can do?). But trying to wrap my mind around my gratitude feels like looking at the surface of the sun, a thing not to be done head on.

Almost immediately I get tangled up in existential questions and survivor guilt. Or my good luck seems as random as my bad luck—and it is; oh, it is all so fucking random—and then what? The best thing I can do—the real Gratitude Challenge—is stay humble and realize that life isn’t so much a story you write as a giant Exquisite Corpse poem.

The other best thing I can do is make something useful out of my continued existence. On one hand, I think I’m a pretty decent person. I’m nice(ish) to my family and friends and I get grants from the rich to give to the poor and I recycle when it’s convenient. On the other hand, I feel like the world is overpopulated, and I’m not sure that any of my good deeds have made up for my carbon footprint. But I’ve done enough therapy that I can accept my tendency toward self-preservation for what it is: animalistic and just fine.

This was going to be a post about World Adoption Day, but I’m not sure what I have to say. I’m so grateful to be alive and in partial charge of a small friendly human that I could cry. And also: Various types of injustice are at the root of most adoption situations. And also: This week feels heavy with the weight of what might have been. If the village hadn’t stepped in. If I’d lived in a different village.

And I still don’t know what the future holds. My mantra—one of the few phrases that has ever felt semi-divinely planted in my head at the time it was first needed—is hold it lightly. I’m not even totally sure what I mean by that, but I picture cupped hands.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

the halloweens of my people

1. turnips and sugar skulls

The other day I caught a lighthearted BBC News Hour story on Halloween. Two reporters with crisp English accents discussed the fact that Halloween had been exported from Ireland and Scotland to North America, altered, then re-exported back to the British Isles.

“Pumpkins are a new world vegetable,” one of the reporters said. “If we wanted to truly celebrate a local holiday, we’d be carving turnips.”

“Turnips!” the other exclaimed. “Well, that sounds quite mushy.”

Turnip spice latte, anyone?
Around the same time, I read a Huffington Post piece titled “Dia de los Muertos is Not Halloween,” which included some good (and sadly not obvious?) points like: Dia de los Muertos is about “paying respects to late loved ones, honoring their lives, and acknowledging the fragility of life,” not just painting your face like a calavera and partying.

Fair enough. But one (white) activist in my Facebook feed posted a long admonishment to her fellow non-Latinos, telling them that if Dia de los Muertos wasn’t “their” culture, best to just stay away. If invited to a DdlM celebration, you could attend, she said, but to actively participate would be to engage in cultural appropriation and racism.

In heaven there's always a bike lane.
I agree that white people could stand to contemplate the radical notion that they don’t have to put their grubby little hands all over every interesting thing that comes along. But thinking back to some of the non-Latino-specific altars I saw at Hollywood Forever last year—the ghost bikes honoring fallen cyclists, a tribute to Robin Williams—I was irked, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

I asked AK what she thought, since after all, I’m not Latino and I shouldn’t be the one who decides what my activist Facebook friend doesn’t get to decide.

AK paraphrased something she’d heard Lalo Alcaraz say on KPCC that morning, which was that Dia de los Muertos, while having roots in indigenous practices merged with Catholicism, has always been a Mexican-American holiday. Its modern incarnation, he said, was the result of a back-and-forth dialogue between Mexicans in the U.S. and Mexicans in Mexico.

As for the “non-Latinos should opt out” stance, AK said: “There’s kind of a hipster quality to it. It’s like not participating in cultures that aren’t your own is the new participating. Like saying you liked that band before everyone else did, and now you’re over them.”

To me, it seems like a bolder choice to have to get your hands dirty when it comes to cultural phenomena—to have to risk exposing your own ignorance or maybe even hurting someone in order to live in the world as it is: blended, postmodern, a salad bowl with some rotten tomatoes. There hasn’t been such a thing as cultural purity for as long as there have been boats (maybe longer), and in my book that’s not inherently a bad thing.

2. alter/altar

When I see Homeboy’s own Dia de los Muertos altar, I see the darkness and the beauty inherent in cultures pushing against each other, falling into each other’s arms, leaving scratches.

Los muertos.
About 80 percent of the homies I work with are Latino, and the majority of those are American-born (or at least American-raised) Mexicans. They grew up speaking English or Spanglish. Colonialism and other forms of oppression have contributed directly or indirectly to whatever landed them in gangs or prison—immigrant parents who worked too hard to properly supervise their children, or a “justice” system that levies heavier sentences on people of color. As a group, many of them haven’t grown up thinking they’re part of a rich tradition—quite the opposite—and so their loyalties lie with their neighborhoods, not with ancient Aztecs.

I would venture, then, that Dia de los Muertos, for many (though certainly not all) of the Mexican Americans in my little workplace, is a rediscovered, reclaimed holiday. But do these folks with their arms and necks and eyebrows tattooed with the cursive names of the fallen know about “paying respects to late loved ones, honoring their lives, and acknowledging the fragility of life”?

Hell yes.

Do I? I can rattle off a dozen ways that my privilege has shielded me and my loved ones from death, but also…it hasn’t. Lady Death in her flowered hat comes for all of us. Death took my mom and my babies, even if they weren’t gunned down or even born yet. It came for me, even if it didn’t get super close (knockonwood). So I’m gonna say it: hell yes.

I don’t think anyone is saying that non-Latinos shouldn’t mourn their dead; I’m just adding that when you find a ritual that speaks to you, even if it’s not one you’re born into, maybe it’s okay to respectfully speak back.

Our famous last words may be "Nice hat."
So my mom’s picture and a post-it shout-out to the Squeakies (because I have nothing concrete to remember them by) reside alongside the pictures of young black and Latino men who died too young and for stupid reasons. They’re surrounded by marigolds.

3. pussy riot

Friday night, AK and Dash and I, and our friends Andrew and Danny, went to KillJoy’s Kastle, the lesbian feminist haunted house art installation that had been getting rave reviews. Here I had no doubts: This was my culture, and I could relax into it. Queers, feminists, artists. And no, I didn’t mind that there were men and straight people there. I even brought one very small man.

No male babies were harmed in the making of the Emasculator.
Our group—we named ourselves the Drooling Screampuffs—listened to a spoken word artist/singer-songwriter while we waited our turn to go into the castle (a.k.a. the Plummer Park Community Center). She had us do a silly-serious-ish call-and-response number about the power of the pussy.

“Why do we say someone has ‘balls’ if they’re strong and call someone a ‘pussy’ if they’re a coward?” she demanded.

I was dancing with Dash on a bale of hay, enjoying the warm night and thinking about how this was the exact life I always wanted to live. I was acutely aware that I had previous generations of feminists and queer activists to thank for the fact that I could be here, alive, open, with my female spouse and our adopted kid. I loved being part of something so clever and fun and CalArtsy.

Then the spoken word artist/singer-songwriter started in on how we should celebrate the egg, giver of all life!

She was joking, mostly, but it brought out the grr in me nevertheless. Or maybe the grrl. I don’t think I was really radicalized (whatever that means—but I think it means that something in you decides to hit back) until I started seeing how much society, and the parts of society I have internalized, valued me based on how functional my tits and ovaries were or weren’t. Fucking egg-based essentialism, I thought. I’m no giver of life, but so the fuck what?

Resting in varying degrees of peace.
With that, the whole point of KillJoy’s Kastle (I think) was playing out in my head. All the wise winks to lesbian feminist history that followed—from naked ladies checking out their genitalia with mirrors to a graveyard for the good (the Woman’s Building) and the bad (the gender binary)—evoked a mix of gratitude and mild squirminess.

Honestly, it was the perfect art exhibition: thought-provoking, well crafted, collaborative, interactive, hilarious, self-aware and friendly to all. And even though I had no role in it personally, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit proud that my people had created it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

the old college try

Today I sat in on the creative writing class at Homeboy (yeah, the one I used to teach; another teacher took over while I was on maternity leave and ended up staying, and I try not to have an ego about it), and the topic was: Write about a place. I've already written about all the L.A. neighborhoods I've lived in and about the South Bay, where I grew up, so I decided to write about dorm life. 

I just realized that living in a triple at UCLA is not unlike living in a two-bedroom with minimal storage space and a baby.
We were stacked three to a room in ten-story residence halls, concrete walls as thick as our freshman skulls. The carpet hid stains. Our mini fridges were stocked with diet soda and apples growing soft, as we filled up on waffle fries, Froot Loops and build-your-own omelets.

We'd fled the suburbs to be here--Manhattan Beach, La Jolla, El Cajon, Walnut Grove. We circled the city, curious about its secrets but still removed. A guy down the hall from me said he was on the Palestinian Olympic karate team. A guy in the other direction had a mattress-sized Israeli flag on the wall above his bed.

The halls smelled like Lysol and microwave popcorn. A guy named Matti stayed awake for three days playing video games, then disappeared from school. Or that's how I remember it. Some other guys pooled their money and bought an old boat of a car for $200. We rode around the parking lot, sinking into its vast swaths of duct dape.

Squish into mah sweet ride.
My roommate had wanted to go to Rice, but couldn't afford it; she held it against us that she was here. My other roommate sang "Nacho, nacho day" to the tune of "Macho Man" every time they served them in the cafeteria.

We were young and dumb and smart. There was email, but nothing good yet on the internet. We watched The Simpsons and had deep conversations. If I wasn't deep enough, Andy would let me know. He was an IRA sympathizer and a sophomore.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

find a stranger

When I was in high school, I usually walked home with my friend Karen, who was taking creative writing as an elective. She was working on a novel.

“It’s about four girls who are best friends, and then one of them gets AIDS and dies,” she said.

At the time, it struck me as both melodramatic (I was pretty sure Karen’s experience of AIDS, like mine, was limited to watching And the Band Played On in health class) and genius.

Googling '80s YA book covers is actually really getting me in the mood to write. It's Pavlovian.
Over the years, I’ve started hundreds of novels in my head. Most of them are terrible, influenced more by sitcoms and eighties YA books than by the authors I name-check as my favorites now. The low-stakes playing-around is the whole point.

A lot of the bad-novels-in-my-head are variations on Karen’s theme. Not the AIDS part, necessarily, but the best friends and how they turn out. I’m a little bit obsessed with the idea, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because part of me is perpetually a high school student, waiting anxiously to see what my adult life will look like.

Four friends! What will happen to them??
When I was having my four-year temper tantrum about not being a mom, I imagined a sort of Tale of Four Women, in which the one who seemed to have it all and to work the hardest saw her life go to shit, and the one who was a trouble maker or a wild child or an asshole got everything she wanted. Moral of the story: Life is unpredictable.

More recently, I actually started writing—in the most casual, noncommittal way—vignettes from a novel I called Turning Out. Again, four female high school friends, now grown up and facing their twentieth reunion. One of them was mysteriously missing, and another became obsessed with finding her. Or something. I imagined that the missing one had maybe been an alcoholic for a while and then some sort of ascetic for a while, but didn’t really have the answers any more than her more boring friends.

Don't do drugs!
The theme was going to be something about how the longer you live, the less life has a predictable narrative arc.

Because this is true.

On Saturday, I went to my actual twenty-year high school reunion. The disjunction between what I would have imagined thirty-eight looked and felt like in 1995 and what it actually looks and feels like is pretty much indescribable, but if you’re old enough to feel old, you get it.

Seven or eight years ago, I went to a casual, unofficial reunion that was basically beer pong at the Neptunian Women’s Club. Any fantasies I’d had about all the popular kids coming up to me and demanding to know what I’d made of my life were quickly shattered. I spent most of the night yelling over the bad music so I could talk to Kristy, the member of my high school group with whom I’d had the least in common.

Has someone taken Jessica's place as "most popular girl"?
I expected the twenty-year reunion to be equally boring, more expensive and pretty much unnecessary in the wake of Facebook. But I’ve hung out with my friend-since-third-grade Bonnie a couple of times lately, and I’ve been impressed with what a kind and thoughtful person she’s grown into, and she was interested in going.

So when they lowered the price from $100 to $10, I decided I would Go For Bonnie. As in middle school and high school, though, she was much more at ease talking to people from all social groups, and I just sort of hung around like a sidekick. I felt mildly frustrated: No, I’m totally comfortable in my skin! I’m not an awkward hanger-on!

Novels about BFF drama were right up my proto-lesbian alley.
Monica, the perky girl who’d tried to give me a scholarship to our ten-year reunion, saw me and said: “Cheryl! You’re so cute with the glasses and short hair! I would totally talk to you right now, but I have to go play a prank on someone on the balcony. Otherwise I’d really want to catch up.”

I don’t think Monica and I have ever had a full conversation in our lives, but sure, let’s catch up.

Mostly, though, there wasn’t much to be angsty about. I had a nice conversation with Stuart Sellers’ wife and a woman named Lianne about legal billing. In the same way that you might end up in a conversation about legal billing with some nice strangers at a party.

I observed, for the zillionth time, that people from Manhattan Beach don’t get fat. In fact, as Bonnie noticed too, our fellow cheerleader Sarah appeared to have spent every day of her life since 1995 doing yoga or playing beach volleyball, except for maybe the day she spent getting a perfect haircut.

If Blubber had gone to Costa, she'd be a yoga teacher now.
I actually did catch up with Kristin, the friend who’d gotten me through regular P.E. after I’d dropped out of track. I have fond memories of standing on a tennis court, rackets dangling, and gossiping while not playing tennis. She’s a teacher now, after having worked in museums for a while, and is married to a guy from my sister’s grade, who was also really nice and who got into a low-level debate with someone’s douchey-seeming husband about whether climate change or El Nino caused warm-water lobsters to appear locally.

My big takeaway from the evening was: Huh. Well, that was a bunch of people in a room.

I think this is a book about someone searching for her birthmom, so I guess I should reread it. It seems to also be the story of women with Brooke Shields eyebrows.
A few waves of the aforementioned high school feelings aside, I felt very neutral about the experience going in, neutral while I was there and neutral in retrospect. Despite having made complete peace with the fact that I absolutely do want to show all the popular kids that I’m much better than them now. That neutrality—that gut-level feeling that these were in fact just people, if generally well preserved, slightly provincial and upper-middle-class people—convinced me that maybe I have had some success in smacking down my ego in the past few years.

I was willing to believe that Gina B. didn’t remember me as pathetic and that if we had lunch together, I’d probably think she was a lovely and genuine person.

But I’m not about to find out. I left after about an hour and a half, bought a fast food churro and drove home to my real life-in-progress.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

the face of acceptance, the belly of someone who likes bagels

1. embracing your wiggly kid (even if he wiggles right out of your arms)

Dash is super wiggly these days. Whereas once the edge of the changing table was a place to put diaper cream and hand sanitizer and something called “bottom spray” that is just a made-up product invented for baby registries, Dash now sees those things as clay pigeons for him to knock over with one sweep of his magnificent grabbing arm.

This guy will steal the glasses right off your face.
I imagined his near future as a wiggly bigger baby and then a wiggly, curious, running-everywhere toddler. I thought of Matea, Jamie’s year-old daughter, who is gentle and cuddly, though plenty curious as well. I thought about how it wouldn’t be hard, if you were so inclined, to mourn the not-having of a certain kind of baby. Bouncy if you wanted cuddly, cuddly if you wanted bouncy. But just as quickly I dismissed the thought. It would be so much work wishing for another kind of kid! You’d waste so much time! You’d be anxious instead of excited to see what the future held for your particular brand of kid!

This is easy for me to say, since I have a great kid (ahem). But I also know that love is what makes acceptance, is what makes your own kid seem great. A couple of years ago, when artist J. Michael Walker photographed me all bald and proudly chemo-skinny, he described the look on my face as “pure acceptance.” I laughed, because I kicked and screamed my way through cancer. Acceptance, when applied to one’s own life, always struck me as an admission of defeat—the thing that society pushed on you because it wanted you to shut up and be quiet.

Then again, acceptance can be like what Dani Shapiro describes in Devotion: After trying and trying to have a second child, she takes a good long look at her only son and thinks, This is my LIFE, and it is a joyful and obvious thought. I imagine her thinking, Oh, so I’m in the story/universe where I have one child, not the one where I have two.

2. rejecting your aspirational pants

When I can back up and see my life as a story I’m living, not one I’m writing per se, acceptance becomes the only way, even for the stubborn. Especially for the stubborn. Just as I like to get the most bang for my buck, I like to get the most out of my life, and to do so, you have to steer into the swerve sometimes. You have to fall off your bike and shout “I meant to do that!”

What I’m trying to say is that—following up on a post I wrote a couple of months ago about my adoptive-mom-bod—I have decided to accept the fact that I am not an anxiety-chic size 3/4. I am a busy, chocolate-loving “American” 6/8 (meaning that before courtesy sizing, I probably would have been a 10 or 12).

Last night I purged four bags of clothes. Goodbye, butter-yellow Anthropologie pants I wore only once. Goodbye, tiny jeans I wore horseback riding in Puerto Rico. Goodbye, burgundy lace dress that demands a flat stomach.

We'll always have PR.
It hurt a little. But not that much.

It feels weird not having a semi-unachievable goal hanging over me, fucking up my otherwise nice days. I immediately logged onto Amazon and ordered a pair of Lucky Brand jeans in my current size, plus some tops for work (eBay) and some new shoes (DSW) just because. And though I still hunted down bargains, I bought brands I knew would be flattering versus the fashion fixer-uppers I’m always drawn to. (I’m the fashion equivalent of the girl who can’t stop dating alcoholic biker dudes.) It was almost as much fun as shopping for my skinny-mini body, simply because I wasn’t punishing myself.

I’ve been eating about 83% healthy with no bingeing spirals for a couple of months. I haven’t lost weight, but I do feel like I’m doing right by Dash and myself. In a way, I think my new acceptance diet thingy will actually help me, because I’m not pretending Tomorrow Will Be Different. Whatever decisions I make today—about parenting or writing or nutrition or exercise—This Is My LIFE.

I mean, this all sounds pathetically obvious. How many “Best Jeans for Every Body” articles have I read in my life? But there’s always such a huge gap between knowing something intellectually and knowing it in your now-less-visible bones. Maybe it’s just the lovely fall weather, but I feel like I’m turning a corner, and steering into it.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

the demons of exhaustion: kate gale and white sloppiness

1. first, a bit about MEEEE

I’m starting this post a little after 5 am; I’ve already been up for an hour with Dash, who is teething or mildly hungry or maybe just needs to pontificate. His new thing is closing his eyes and waving his arms while shouting, “Ah blah blah wah!” I think he may be doing an impression of me.

My point is I know a thing or two about being a tired white person. The past week included mind-numbingly boring yet crazy-making home repairs that resulted in me doing three solid hours of dusting; lots of emotional work stress on AK’s end; and an all-clear cancer check (woo!) that was front-loaded with a ton of anxiety and a margarita and a Klonopin and an emergency mini session with one of Homeboy’s therapists. (“I think I need a quick dose of some of that trauma-informed therapy I’m always writing grants about,” I emailed Theresa.)

By yesterday afternoon I felt like I could happily sleep six hours, wake up, eat cereal and go back to sleep—and repeat this cycle for a week.

2. kate gale is us

By now, those of you who are more in the literary loop than I am have read Kate Gale’s post “AWP Is Us,” which started as a riff on her blog and then ran in the Huffington Post (which really needs to stop passing off blog riffs and press releases as journalistic essays…but that’s another post). To summarize: Kate’s point—I think—was that people are always complaining that AWP is misrepresenting or under-representing them, and they act as if AWP is The Man rather than a membership organization made up of writers, including those doing much of the complaining.

Kate in a great necklace.
I do think that academics have a habit of critiquing their own ivory towers so intensely that they fail to do more than glance at the brambles and villages around the towers.

But Kate’s point was quickly lost by the odd and sloppy satire-type riff that followed, in which she adopted the stance of one of the complainers, using her own identity (half Jewish, “30% gay”) as an example. It was weird. It didn’t make much sense. It touched down in touchy territory and then flitted away. It read like a part of a dialogue I’m only on the margins of, and I think that’s part of the problem. It’s inside-baseball in a world where there are only like six people on the field and a zillion in the dugout and the stands.*

Meh, I'm like 87% gay.
She’s since deleted the post and apologized, and the literary internet has blown up, and writers of color have posted outraged and thoughtful and outraged-and-thoughtful replies. Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s blog post on the subject is especially personal and honest, while illuminating the larger issues at play (hint: Kate’s awkward humor is the least of our problems).

3. cheese & crackers

No one really needs me to weigh in on this, but hey, isn’t that what we do as white people? Add our own ah blah blah wah! to the conversation? So here goes.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine started hosting Cheese & Crackers nights for white people (crackers, get it?) to discuss racial issues. At first I was skeptical—yes, the world desperately needs to talk about and act upon racial injustice. But how could a handful of liberal white queer women talking over wine and snacks possible help anything? Wasn’t the idea just kind of…embarrassing? Cautiously intrigued, I left my Mexican esposa (who likes to be invited to the party, both literally and figuratively) at home with my Mexican baby and went to the first official whites-only event I’d ever been to.**

The cracker blues.
When I asked my friend why she decided not to include people of color in her get-together, she said: “I know myself, and if there were people of color in the room, some small part of me would be trying to show how down I am. I want to be liked. So I want to make a space where that’s not my prevailing intention, and I don’t think any person of color should have to ‘represent’ their race while I sit here trying to work my shit out.”

Good point, I conceded.

The topic of the night was white fragility, another concept I was a little vague on, but when it was reframed as wanting-to-be-down-and-liked, it made all too much sense to me.

I think Kate Gale wants to be down and liked.***

4. having it all

I’ve known Kate for about a dozen years, and I count her as a casual friend. Ironically or not, Red Hen Press (which she co-founded and runs with her husband Mark Cull) probably has one of the more diverse rosters of authors out there. I’ve always been inspired by how much she does: In addition to running a press, she teaches, travels, raises kids (now grown), sits on panels, runs marathons, and writes and writes. She blogs almost every day. Or maybe every single day. I don’t know because I don’t even read as much as she writes.

I’ve also always been a little suspicious of the breadth of her endeavors. Maybe this is my envy talking, but for once I don’t think so. Can you really do all of that without a lot of cutting corners and/or semi-invisible help? Like so many arts organizations and nonprofits in general, Red Hen is largely powered by unpaid interns. And I think Kate would be the first to admit that she often writes her blog on planes or while watching movies in hotel rooms. I.e., she writes off-the-cuff and when she’s exhausted.

The blog’s raw, clever, loving-my-full-crazy-life tone is part of what I’ve always enjoyed about it; it’s what I like about her poetry too, although her poetry is much more distilled and thought-out. Poetry is the opposite of blog. As such, that particular blog post was a window into how many white people act when they let their guard down. They admit—just-between-us-white-folks-and-the-internet?—that they’re tired of the tiredness of people of color. Even if they don’t think they are.

Of course, when a white person gets tired and sloppy and slips up, the cost is hurt feelings and some internet yelling. When a person of color gets tired and sloppy and slips up, the cost is occasionally but too often life.

Spend five minutes around Kate and you will know that her daughter is gay and kinda militant about it; I think she’s been out since she was a young teenager. Kate shares this information like any proud mama, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with how quickly she volunteers it. Was she trying to ingratiate herself by showing how un-homophobic she was? She always gave off a bi vibe herself (30%!); was she flirting? No, that wasn’t it either. I think she just wanted to be part of an us, while also perhaps enjoying the perks of other identities.

She once told me a story about traveling to South America to bring home her nanny’s relatives, who were in some kind of danger. Kate Gale has always struck me as the kind of person who has a nanny, feels a little weird about having a nanny and will genuinely put her neck on the line for said nanny, but will then make sure you know about it.

What she isn’t: a textbook racist, uncaring, all talk.

What she also isn’t: someone who can be content doing just one or two things, a good listener.

5. the only bravery

How we act when we’re tired and stressed says a lot. Once, in the midst of a tearful phone call with my friend Amy—when she was pregnant with her twins and I had just been the subject of another birthmom disappearing act—I confessed, “I’m a really good winner. I can be so kind and generous when I don’t feel threatened. But right now I’m not the winner.”

In this moment, I feel like a winner. I have my family and my health; I’ve fought incredibly hard for both, but I also know that a huge, humbling part of my current good life is out of my control.

This past Tuesday night, I didn’t feel like a winner. I felt a little like I imagine Xochitl felt when she thought, upon realizing that the press that had accepted her work wasn’t going to serve her or her community well, I can’t have nice things. Because I had one nice thing (family), I was superstitious that I couldn’t have another (health).

This is what comes up when you Google-image-search "family health." I love it when we all watch Dad and Sis play pat-a-cake for hours!
I pulled into Dash’s daycare after work with teary red eyes. My Babadook was so fucking huge, just a terrible tank I was drowning in. I stepped into the heat and walked a hallway of waist-high cubbies with names written on cards: Ixchelle, Micah, Mia, Juliette, a half dozen Owens.

It hit me—all over again and also sort of for the first time—that I was trying to raise a baby and have a mental health crisis at the same time. Who the fuck did I think I was? I knew I had to choose my baby, and yet I also desperately wanted to be a baby, to just curl up in a fetal position and not have to witness other people living their nice lives while I proceeded to die of cancer.

Fr. Greg says kindness is the only bravery there is.

On Tuesday night that meant chatting with Dash’s daycare teachers and hugging him and feeding him and getting the both of us to Villa Sombrero and handing him and the keys to AK before my margarita-and-half-a-Klonopin cocktail kicked in. It was the only way I could be kind to both of us. It meant joining AK for a margarita rather than hounding her to parrot reassuring cancer statistics back at me.

I won’t pathologize Kate too much, but I know she has her demons, and I suspect they fuel her best actions—the true and good work she does to make sure that queer writers, writers of color and otherwise outsider writers are heard. She probably knows what it’s like not to be heard. But I bet those same demons mix dangerously with her privilege at times, and she gets too busy trying to have it all to recognize that the kinder, braver thing to do would be to pause and listen.

Xochitl in a great dress.
By walking away from Red Hen’s offer to publish her book, Xochitl is being brave by being kind to herself and to her community. It might not feel like an act of self-care in the moment, but every time a writer refuses to say “how high” when a publisher says “jump,” it serves us all.

*What? I don’t know how many people are on a baseball field. DON’T MAKE ME UNDERSTAND SPORTS.

**I say “first official” because, well, I did spend the first eighteen years of my life in Manhattan Beach.

***Isn’t that part of why I’m posting this post? To think things through, yes, but also because I want to distance myself from Kate on some level and therefore ingratiate myself to the writers of color I know and respect. Because it’s all about me, right?