Wednesday, May 23, 2018

our night selves

Artist Minna Dubin started making #MomLists as a way to continue her artistic practice when time was fragmented but her parenting experience called out for documentation. She encourages others to make them too. 

Photo by Nong Vang / Unsplash
1. Our routine is already haphazard. You ate peanut butter crackers and a cookie for dinner. Can I even call it a routine? Or dinner?
2. Neither of us is good at this—the pivot from semi-solidity into liquid night.
3. Your other mom works late. We Facetime with her and you cry into the camera.
4. You shift again. We sing “The Scientist” (the Glee version). Your voice is sweet and I marvel that you already carry a tune better than I do.
5. Your bedtime babble: a pastiche of airplanes, police dogs, your school friends’ catch phrases.
6. The negotiation phase: You run to the living room for “one toy!” I eat the quesadilla you abandoned next to the bed.
7. Yes, we eat in bed.
8. You are distraught. It was your favorite “taco.” I make another one, but the tortilla crumbles like my will, and you want yellow cheese, not white.
9. Neither of us is good at this. You kick and howl and hit me in the face.
10. I text Mama: I’m a jerk who does not know how to put a child to bed. I shouldn’t have eaten that tortilla. She says: He’s three. I say: Am I one of those parents who, if my kid came out as gay in 1975, would sob “WHERE DID I GO WRONG?” like a martyr/narcissist?
11. When I was a kid I would stop my mom in the doorway after she kissed me goodnight. I lobbed the big questions like a slap: Am I normal? She always said yes; I always suspected appeasement.

Photo by Larm Rmah / Unsplash

12. Sleep comes. It is heavy, graceful, fickle.
13. My night self is an addict: for the blue light of my phone, the dopamine rush of its games, the thumb-flick of scrolling.
14. For handfuls of Goldfish crackers and time alone, off the clock for the first time since 6 am.
15. You half wake, angry about a handful of toy cars I put away. 
16. Our night selves suspect we are powerless—to the control of parents, the creep of disease, the threat of apocalypse. To dream demons.
17. Our night selves are not wrong.
18. Daylight always comes, but so does nightfall. I suppose it’s good that nature can find a rhythm, even as we fight it.
19. “The sun is up?” you say. During the night, you landed in our bed. My hand covers most of your chest.
20. We peer between the curtains. We see roofline and palm trees and sun.

Photo by Devin Avery / Unsplash

Friday, May 18, 2018

the girls i grew up with and the women of the year(s)

My predecessor at work just had a baby; this morning I did the math and realized that she must have been in her first trimester when she left to start a freelance career. Inexplicably (or totally explicably, if you have access to my therapist’s notes from the last eight years) this revelation filled me with rage, despite the fact that she has been nothing but generous to me, and I almost never see her.

When she departed, she left a 20-page, impeccably organized legacy document with links to relevant spreadsheets. When I spoke with her on the phone the day before her due date, she said she’d had her hospital bag packed since her second trimester. She’s that kind of person, the kind who makes a brilliant plan and sticks to it. My boss often gets wistful about the good old days of her, and that doesn’t help my feelings of inadequacy.

According to my messed-up brain, my predecessor is living a better version of my life, and I’m slopping along behind, splashing in the rainwater in her footprints. Therefore she is my new arch nemesis. (Sorry, Hillary Toomey.) Never mind the fact that, if my life had gone according to plan, I never would have met AK, let alone Dash. 


In one of the best storylines, New Becky plays a woman living a posh version of Old Becky's life.
I’ve been watching the new Roseanne. There, I said it. All of Emily Nussbaum’s beefs with theshow and its dog-whistle politics are dead-on. I do think there have been smart episodes about intergenerational childrearing debates, but I also know the real reason I am into it is because of Becky and Darlene. I grew up with them; the episode where Darlene got her period hit so close to home—I worried that having my period would make me bad at gymnastics and push me toward a sexuality I didn’t want to deal with—that I literally ran into the kitchen because I couldn’t handle the white hot shame of its truth.

Fewer Beckys, more scrunchies.
I—and maybe most people? But not everyone; not AK—have a deep need to See How People Turned Out. It’s not quite nostalgia, but it’s not unrelated to nostalgia, either. It’s the appeal of Fuller House, of which I also watched a couple of episodes. I know.

The new Roseanne killed off Mark, Becky’s high school boyfriend/husband, and Fuller House killed off DJ’s husband, leaving her available to rekindle a flirtation with her boring high school boyfriend Steve. Maybe it’s telling of the shows’ differences—in social class and commitment to reality—that the tragedy in Becky’s life has left her with commitment issues and a dead-end job, whereas DJ is left with three cute kids, a career as a veterinarian, and the opportunity to rejoin an idyllic home life. Even though, in both cases, I’m pretty sure the writers killed off the husbands for casting reasons.

Fuller House has also added one character of color; you can tell because she periodically points out that the Tanners are white. That is what POC do on TV--tell white characters they're white.
But in real life, spouses do die. And on some level, life has not gone as planned for Becky, Darlene, DJ, or Stephanie. Because if you look at twenty or thirty years of almost anyone’s life, things don’t go as planned. That’s the nature of life and plans; they are at odds with each other. But I happened to grow up during a long run in my parents’ lives where things went mostly according to plan, or at least they created a successful fa├žade of stability and meritocracy, even when my dad was lying awake at night worrying about money. So I am surprised over and over again.


I walked home from high school most days with Karen Hallett, a fellow JV cheerleader who was working on a novel in creative writing class about four high school friends who grow up together and then one of them gets AIDS. I never read her draft, but—no offense to Karen Hallett—I have my suspicions about its quality.

Still, there was something about this plotline that lodged in my brain, and even now, when I’m daydreaming story premises (which I don’t do as much as I used to because adulthood/bad phone habits/ugh), I tend to come up with stories about A Group Of High School Friends And How They All Turned Out—a mix of romance and tragedy, babies and alcoholism. These are not good novels. They are not my life’s work. But they are my default, and they have a sitcom quality that pulls in threads of both Full House and Roseanne.

Michelle is like, Get me out of this scrunchy-loving backwater.
The sitcom formula is to throw disparate personalities together and have them wildly insult each other with no real threat of change to the status quo. Twenty or thirty years later, the reboots admit that the status quo has changed, even as they try to recreate the feeling that it won’t. The originals are the plans we measure ourselves against; the reboots question—ever so mildly—whether that’s a good idea.


A few weeks ago, AK and I went to a luncheon celebrating Congresswoman Judy Chu’s Women of the Year, of whom our very own Suzie Abajian was one. There were plaques and photo ops and okay pastries. There were folding chairs and apologetic whispers from Suzie: “It’s like a graduation,” she said. “Really important and wonderful, but really long.”

It wasn’t, though. The Women of the Year had not only done vital and largely unsung things for their communities. They’d also all lived interesting and winding lives, from the Chinese immigrant housewife who became an advocate for children with disabilities after her daughter was born with Down Syndrome, to the woman who siphoned food from her job as a nutritionist to feed civil rights workers in the segregated South.

Suzie, an Armenian who came to the U.S. from Syria as a tween, has a PhD in education and regularly speaks truth to power in the friendliest way possible, which helped get her elected to the South Pasadena school board. She used her time on stage to speak out against the bombing of Syria, and in favor of education.

Collectively, they were a beautiful lesson in rolling with the punches and punching back in unexpected ways. They exemplified what happens when you allow that life is not a sitcom, but you don’t let it break you.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

someone needs to make my kid sit in a circle

Yesterday my friend Holly took a tour of Dash's preschool; she got a new job recently and needs to make a childcare change. She liked a lot of the same things that I like about the school, namely that teachers encourage play, meet kids where they're at developmentally, and take a constructive approach to discipline. But ultimately (and with more apology than was necessary) she said that it wasn't for them.

I had these as a kid. I remember chewing on Cookie Monster's eyeball.
Approximately 3% of me was like What?! It's a great school! Another 12% was like Uh-oh, maybe it's not a great school and I've been fooled for three years! But one of the factors on the "meh" side of Holly's pros and cons list was that the school has a fair amount of structured learning, i.e. lining up, sitting in a circle, and doing specific activities at specific times.

This might seem ironic, because I think of Holly and her husband Joel's parenting style as pretty structured. They cook at home and eat dinner together almost every night. They have a solid bedtime routine, after which W goes to sleep by himself in a dark room, usually no later than 7:30.

Last night was typically atypical at our house, meaning that Dash ate handfuls of grapes and goldfish crackers for "dinner" while he and I did a weird toddler exercise video from the '90s.

Maybe W needs a school where he can be a Wild Thing as a counterpoint to his orderly home life. And while there a few routines I would like to cement more firmly into our home life, I also kind of love the low-grade chaos of our household. If school for Dash is less like a cutting-edge fun-splosion of project-based forest learning and more like, well, school, then I can rest assured that someone in his life is teaching him to sit in a circle.

Circle time! White kids!
I texted Holly as much; I think we were both trying extra hard to value each other's parenting choices even when making different ones.

I am thinking right now about my senior year of high school, when I saw a row of four freshman girls walking down the hall and noticed that they all wore the same baggy corduroy pants and white V-neck T-shirts (because 1994). I was only a couple of years older than them, but I had friends who dressed like skater girls and friends who veered hip-hop. I was proud that we were mature enough to be friends despite listening to different radio stations.

This is not a revelation, but the older and more confident in my decisions I become, the less I need other people to mirror and validate them.

(That said, there's a particular brand of over-achieving helicopter parent who pushes my buttons, as do most upwardly mobile, unblemished specimens of humanity who have never had a nervous breakdown. They are not my people. Maybe someday I'll be mature enough to let them back in, but I'm not there yet.)

Rotary: not just a club that gives scholarships!
School is such a necessary supplement to home life. I know that parents decide to homeschool for all kinds of reasons--some excellent, some disturbing, IMO--but a through-line seems to be a desire to control the influences in their children's lives. I get the appeal--my default settings are to control everything--but I am so grateful that I have opted out of control on that front. It is nothing short of awesome that Dash's school is teaching him things I can't, things I'm too lazy to, and things it would never occur to me to teach him. If the price to pay is that they occasionally teach him something I dislike, well, I'll fight speech with speech, I suppose.

That is one part of Teacher Appreciation. The other part is the teachers themselves. I want to give a retroactive shout-out to Teacher Kelly, the lead teacher in the Infant Room when Dash was a baby. Fr. Greg always talked about the importance of receiving people, which I didn't understand for a long time. Like, just say a friendly hello? Isn't that kind of shallow? But for people who are still developing (or in the case of homies, rebuilding) attachment styles, there's no substitute for communicating You're important. I want you to be here. Kelly receives people like no one else I know, except maybe Fr. Greg. Her whole being exudes peace and warmth. She talks clearly and respectfully to each kid and lets them know she sees them. My friend Sawyer is sharing his Play-Doh with my friend Ari! 

Basically a Vespa for babies.
In a different universe, as many articles would be written about Kelly as about Fr. Greg. One day I heard Kelly chatting with another teacher; she mentioned something about expecting to braid someone's hair until midnight, despite working an opening shift the next day. "You know I go to work after work," Kelly told her coworker. She wasn't grouchy about it, but she probably should have been. In a different universe, we would pay preschool teachers a living wage.

I can't say that the other teachers at Dash's school have Kelly's beatific vibe, but they have qualities that make them Enough for Dash in the same way that I am (because lord knows I don't have anything beatific going on either). Yesenia taught babies to be independent with the calmest kind of sternness, while gossiping happily with parents (she's the main reason AK and I ever knew what was going on at the school).

The good old days when toys were made of tin and painted with lead.
His current teachers, Belva and Alfredo, are an enjoyable odd couple--an older East Coaster who gripes lovingly at the kids, and a chill Texas Millennial who told AK that he was going to redecorate the classroom to make it more bangin'.

I'm glad they're in Dash's life. I appreciate them truly; we pay them more than we can afford and much less than they need and deserve. I want to live in a different economic universe, but they help make our existing universe pretty bangin'.

P.S. I've been blogging a bit less here because I've been writing a monthly column for MUTHA. But I'll still blog here, my six loyal readers!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

pms of the soul

Back in the day, whenever a woman ran for office, some dude would fret about what would happen when she got her period (now we’ve found both more nuanced and more blatantly hateful ways to take swings at women running for office). The idea being that there were only two ways of being in this world: cerebral, level-headed Enlightenment machine or crazy, Medusa-haired PMS monster.

Me on Thursday.
I haven’t gotten my period in almost five years*, but if this week was any indication, my moods are still going strong. I will never be a level-headed Enlightenment machine—as mythical a creature as Medusa anyway—and, because of the way I was raised, I’ll probably never see that as completely fine. Even though it is.

I am thinking of the time I told our couples therapist I was hesitant to take anti-depressants because I didn’t want to put chemicals in my body. She said, “There are already chemicals in your body. You get to choose whether you want to flood your body with cortisol or Zoloft.”

This week was Cancer Test Week, in which I exchange several vials of blood for a number that will tell me whether it’s reasonable to estimate that I have thirty-something years to live or, like, three.

Back in December, when I celebrated five years cancer-free, I wondered whether my life and emotional landscape would look progressively more like that of someone who’d never had cancer—if I’d worry more about my lack of retirement savings than how to milk the most out of the present because What If I Had No Future.

Let's remember the good times, shall we?
But a series of small events conspired to blow the dust off the wagon ruts of worry that carved themselves deep in my brain back in 2011. I learned on Facebook that a friend’s initially early-stage breast cancer had progressed to stage IV (for her, this is not a “small event” at all, of course; I imagine her reading this and thinking: Must be nice. Must be nice to have such a diagnosis be just a dark fairy tale, not a haunted wood you have to actually walk through tree by grizzled tree). Also, I switched to Kaiser with my new job, and had an administratively crappy first visit, during which the nurse, typing in my pre-existing conditions murmured “Huh, I never heard of that before…. I guess there’s a first time for everything.” Emotionally, I shrank to my three-year-old self, wanting to scream IS ANYONE HERE GOING TO TAKE CARE OF ME??

I showed up to my new oncologist’s office Monday morning and was in tears by the time I got to the elevator. I couldn’t find her office on the directory (because it was listed under H for Hematology/Oncology rather than O), which made me late, and the mean voice in my head scolded: Why should you get to be cancer-free when you don’t even have the decency to show up on time?

But then Dr. Kwan turned out to be warm and casual, a sneaker-wearing woman about my age who spoke to me about tumor markers and longitudinal studies of Arimidex as if I were an intelligent person who had been through some shit and learned a thing or two in the process. She was everything I wanted in a doctor, and if I had to get cancer again, she seemed like a good person to help me through it. But hopefully I will never have to find out.

I emerged into the parking lot feeling relieved, and decided to look up statistics about the rarity of late (post-five years) recurrence to tide me over until my blood work came back.

Why do I ever think Google will reassure me?

My basic blood work—not the cancer stuff—came back almost immediately, and soon I was trying to read my white blood cell count like tea leaves. Depending which source I looked at and what I decided to extrapolate, I either had a neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio that would kill me in ten years, or bone marrow metastasis, or AIDS.

Who you calling chicken?
I texted Kim, my Hypochondria Sponsor, and she talked me down, reminding me of all the good factors I had and my side, and also that people who are stage IV are living longer and longer. I looked through some old emails and found almost the exact same pep talk from her, dated May 2016. God bless Kim.

But here’s the part that has me all existential, thinking about the nature of mood and emotion. Between Kim and a lot of work stuff that required my focus, I muddled through Monday and Tuesday. But Wednesday night I had a board meeting that kept me out until ten. I had too much coffee and didn’t get a lot of sleep. On Thursday I had to drive to the Far Westside for a meeting, and spent a total of three and a half hours in traffic.

Relentless work, minimal sleep, and maximal traffic are things that would put me in a grouchy mood during the best of times. But because I have the kind of brain I do, and because it was Cancer Test Week, I couldn’t just be tired and irritable. I had to—I mean, it truly felt like a mandate—fall deep into a spiral of Death Thoughts.

If I’m going to die in like five years, should I just upload all my unpublished novels to WordPress? Should I do that anyway?

I barely saw Dash today. And I didn’t give birth to him and I’m going to die before he develops clear memories of me, so I’m only like a Mom Lite, not a Real Mom.

How could I do this to my family? To my poor Dad, who has already had enough untimely death in his life without losing a child. To AK, who will be so mad at me and will probably get a bunch of parking tickets in her grief, even though she’ll ultimately become very nostalgic about me and also probably remarry and...oh fuck, I really don’t want Dash to have a stepmom. I mean, I suppose I should want him to have a good one who loves him like I would, but selfishly I totally don’t.

Aren’t the hard times supposed to reveal who we really are? And don’t I kind of suck right now?

In grad school I read all these postmodern theorists, who questioned the meaning of reality, and it was all very interesting and intellectually engaging. But when I live it—when I can’t tell whether my need for a nap is the most real thing, or the possible cancer cells in my blood, or the imaginary cancer cells in my head—it’s fucking psychological torture. Is mood a distraction from What Really Is or is mood the only thing that Really Is?

There is no spoon but more importantly DOES THIS CHILD HAVE CANCER?
And then, finally, I got a call from Dr. Kwan’s nurse late on Friday afternoon, with news that all my tumor markers were “within the normal range” and the sun came out and flowers bloomed and life turned into a musical—Singing in the Rain, not Les Mis. I got to play the role of Graceful Winner instead of Sore Loser. I got to eat pizza with AK and watch Game Night with her and Alberto and play pinball at a bar while Dash spent the night at Nana’s house. I texted all the good people who talked me through my anxiety all week.

I would love to be so self-actualized that I can enjoy the present without fearing the future. But how do you love the world without being impacted by it? And to be impacted by it is to buy, on some level, all its bullshit—the belief in winners and losers and money and Instagram. I’m an earthly creature for as long as this body will let me be, for worse and for better.

*I don’t miss it. I do still feel weird about being a premature crone. But hey, in another 6-10 years, all my peers will have caught up to me the natural way.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

everything else is salvageable


The girl who learned to shoplift
from her mother
builds websites for old family photos:
Here is the alcoholic grandfather
and the aunt with pancreatic cancer
and that Christmas everyone posed
with faces as serious as the 19th century.
Digitization as affirmation—
her story will not be stolen.


The archivist’s friend was stabbed
leaving a piano concert at 23.
Her blood slick black in the dim parking lot.
The man moved on to guns
and the archivist nursed
a fear of flickering street lamps.


The child who fled his empty house
for the thrum of the street
stabs a man in prison
but sends his daughter to college
and watches her fall
from an airplane, holds his breath
until her parachute opens. She flies
toward him, a nylon flower
billowing behind her.


The ex-gang member considered
his past a fading tattoo
until old enemies came for his son.
The boy’s headstone shows him stone-faced;
the cursive promises his smile broke
all sadness.


It’s no epiphany,
the forever of death—
so think instead
about the many lives
contained in one life.
The endless branches
of a family tree,
the breaking and the blooming.
Use that pain like a soft
old rag. Polish and pivot.
Bind a wound. Wring it out
and rest and start again.

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.”