Sunday, March 29, 2015

in which i heed the siren call of a dreamy writing workshop

1. nice work if you can get it

It's all fun and postcard views till Mt. Vesuvius gets pissed off again.
This is the view from my window right now (well, it was when I started this post). You might be thinking: What is someone with an eight-week-old child doing tossing back cappuccinos on the Amalfi Coast of Italy? It was certainly a question I asked myself.

As with many things in my literary life, I applied to this workshop called Sirenland on a whim. I heard about it through One Story (Hannah Tinti is one of the conference co-founders), a literary magazine which recently sent me an encouraging rejection. In my mind, “encouraging rejection from One Story” = “various famous writers really want me to hang out with them in Italy.” The pictures of Positano, Italy, where it took place, looked pretty. There was a mermaid motif. I get along well with mermaids.

Trash can at Le Sirenuse. I felt bad putting trash in it.
I found out I was accepted to Sirenland on the same day I talked to Dash’s birthmom for the first time. I have a stupid, self-defeating superstition that when things go well academically, they’re about to take a dive personally. Because why should I get to be a mom and a writer? But here I am (thanks to a birthday/Christmas present from my dad, support from AK and babysitting from Nana), in Positano, working on my memoir about defeating my self-defeating superstitions and becoming a mom.

Nana and Dash reading "Peanut Butter and Jeremy."
Positano: a pastel mosaic of tile-roofed houses built on the side of a cliff, overlooking a beach where bits of terra cotta wash up on the black sand. According to legend, locals built the many, many stone staircases unevenly so that invading pirates would have a hard time chasing them up the mountains. (This would not be a terribly reassuring form of protection, especially since the pursued had to run up the same staircases.) Pirates got their comeuppance when a Byzantine portrait of Madonna and child became possessed and started yelling, “Put me back! Put me back!” They freaked out and dropped her in the ocean. She washed up on the beach and now hangs in the domed church visible from my hotel window.

Beach terra cotta.
More recently, Positano inspired Patricia Highsmith to write The Talented Mr. Ripley and John Steinbeck to write a funny and enticing essay about Positano. It would be a nice club to join.

In this storied little village is a storied little hotel called Le Sirenuse, once the summer home of the storied Sersale family, who converted it to a hotel sometime after the Second World War and who still run it, applying a world traveler’s sensibility and a curator’s eye. It is probably the nicest place I will ever stay, both in terms of luxury and charm. Bougainvillea vines grow up the curved arches of the hotel restaurant. The staff memorizes who you are and what you like to drink immediately.

If I were a mermaid, I would crawl out of the ocean and lurch up the beach just to stay here.

My bed at home is smaller, and frequently sleeps three humans and three cats.
In my room, I recognized the sound of Lamby, Dash’s stuffed sheep who makes soothing ocean noises. Then I realized it was actually the ocean.

After a hot shower—and just showering every day is pretty fancy when you have a baby—I reached for a towel and was surprised by how small it was. Then I realized that was actually the hand towel, and the bath towels—roughly the size of a twin bed—were over there on the heated towel rack.

Most of the attendees were blown away by Positano and Le Sirenuse, but they were nevertheless a somewhat posh crowd, as you can imagine. They tended to be white women of a certain age, some of whom had their supportive, high-earning husbands in tow. I say this without judgment, because most were also kind and worldly and, if the memoir workshop was any indication, had taken their share of lumps in life. And even though I have a tendency to act like Annie in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion (“Oh boy! What do I clean first?!”), privilege is always relative. I was there, after all. I am a white woman of a certain age. As I left, I saw a Facebook post from a Homeboy trainee who was excited and nervous about her first plane ride, to Syracuse, New York.

In the TV room with Tamara, Alice, Lucinda and Katie: incredibly good writers and good company.
Dani Shapiro’s workshop met each day—after a breakfast of smoked salmon, local mozzarella, homemade granola and little tarts full of butter and crushed pistachios—in the “TV room,” a breezy nook with tile floors, elegant chairs and no television in sight. It took on the immediate and lovably absurd intimacy that such things do. A woman cried when we went around the circle and described what we were working on, and it wasn’t even me.

A particularly outspoken woman named Sarla—a yoga teacher in her early sixties who screamed and gave me a spontaneous hug the day she found out her husband’s roasted coffee had been accepted into Whole Foods—asked me about my boob job on the first day of class. I took it as a compliment. She explained nonchalantly that she’d had two lumpectomies and was getting fed up with it. If she got cancer again, they were coming off. Sarla also asked Tamara, who’d written about her attraction to women, if she was still with her husband (she is).

2. skip this part if you think that reading about writing is boring

I had submitted three excerpts from my memoir-in-progress, about the whole miscarriage-breakdown-cancer-baby thing. Imagine showing up at a party thinking that you’re wearing a stylish outfit that you haven’t yet had tailored, then discovering that, in fact, you wore your underwear. That’s kind of how I felt after my critique.

“But it was really beautiful underwear,” someone told me after I shared this analogy. And it’s true that it wasn’t a harsh critique.

Dani Shapiro: so nice and smart you barely notice that she's telling you it might take five more years to nail this draft.
I heard some things which I probably shouldn’t have had to fly to Italy to figure out; namely, that my draft was underwear. I introduced the project saying that I was taking a “scrapbook” approach—partly because I wanted to play with form (and I still do), partly because I AM LAZY AND WAS HOPING THAT ALL THE GLORIFIED JOURNAL ENTRIES I WROTE STARTING IN 2012 ADDED UP TO A MEMOIR AND ALL I NEEDED TO DO WAS SPELL-CHECK AND ADD A FEW FLASHBACKS.

Yeah, that’s not gonna cut it.

There was a lot of talk throughout the week about voice, some of which I almost tried to tune out because it felt like thinking about driving or breathing. Something that could fuck you in the head if you thought about it too much. But Dani did say a couple of things that I scribbled in big letters in my notebook:
  1. The story is the distance between who you were then and who you are now.
  2. You can use your “now” voice to give words to your “then” character. If you’re writing about childhood, you may describe the light that spread like fire beneath the door whenever your father came in your bedroom at night (that piece was as disturbing as it sounds). The child version of you would have had complex emotions and observations, but would have lacked the language to describe them. You gift the child with language when you inhabit her.
  3. A memoir requires a frame, which could be made by time or theme.
  4. You can write from the center of a thing if you have sufficient self-awareness.
  5. But the notes and journals made at the time may not serve you as well as memory does.
Dani, speaking from her own experience, encouraged me not to get too hung up on the pile of journal entries that got me through my cancer treatment and beyond. I wrote them as if I was looking back from a slightly safer and happier place, a wonderful narrative survival technique that may become a literary clusterfuck. They were written as memoir-from-the-center-of-a-thing, but I don’t know yet how they read. I have an unfortunate habit of not listening to good advice that I’m not ready to hear (I guess most people do), but I’m going to do my best not to let another year or another draft go by before I finally see the red flag Dani was gently waving.

Doodle of Dani's advice to Ana (and all memoirists). (Note previous photo: Dani does not have weird lips in real life.)
After talking with her and taking some cues from my classmates, my next step, I think, is going to be to write the events of 2010 to 2011 in third person. I’m shamelessly stealing that approach from Karen Gentry, a wonderfully spare writer and subversively funny woman in my workshop. I started doing a bit of this my second day in Positano, and it felt right and exciting. It would have to be, in order for me to stay inside despite a sparkling ocean and much of Southern Italy at my disposal.

One of the things I’m writing about is the time when I became a disastrously unreliable narrator in my own life. It’s easier to write about your craziest self in the third person.

After that, I’ll tackle the 2012 to 2015 stuff. What I was surprised to hear in my workshop were comments like “This narrator obviously doesn’t see herself as a victim,” “She compromises over and over but just keeps moving forward” and “She’s so humorous, but I wonder if that’s not a deflection—I want to see some real pain.”

As a person, this is refreshing to hear. I feel like I threw a four-year temper tantrum (“the howl of thwarted ambition,” in the wise words of Carrie Brownstein), so the idea that I might be good-humored, pragmatic and/or uncomplaining often feels like wishful thinking. But here were strangers saying I was just that!

Then again…as a writer, the idea that I might unwittingly perform a coping mechanism on the page is embarrassing, not to mention unproductive from a literary standpoint.

And if I were the person and writer I aspire to be, I probably would have put more pain on the page and spared my family, friends, coworkers and innocent bystanders at Starbucks.

You can write to figure out what you think (did Joan Didion say that?), and I did/do. It might be harder to write to figure out what you feel. 

3. life beyond le sirenuse

When I wasn’t contemplating my underwear-clusterfuck of a memoir, I was usually eating seafood or pasta, or drinking wine or a Negroni. On Thursday night I had a lovely dinner with Frank, the father of co-worker Alexa, who just happens to live in Positano. Over a huge dish of seafood soup, swimming with miniature lobsters and tiny purple octopi, he told me most of the Positano facts and legends mentioned above. He grew up in New York, the kid of Italian immigrants, but he’s lived in Positano for something like fifteen years. He knew everyone who passed by our table, from waiters to tourists.

Appetizer at Tres Sorelle restaurant.

Negroni at the hotel bar. New favorite drink alert!
We talked about the double-edged sword of American ambition, meditation and UFO’s.

Earlier that day, I did my one big calorie-burner of the week, a two-hour hike along the Walk of the Gods, a trail at the top of the bluffs. It goes for quite a ways, but my workshop-mate Tamara and I just did the part between Positano and Priano, which was plenty. Tamara is an Australian who calls England home but currently lives in Jordan. She submitted a beautiful and tightly written essay about being a “hasbian” speculating about the sexuality of her personal trainer in a conservative Muslim country. It’s good stuff, and I hope she writes a whole book.

We talked about identity, rebellion and motherhood—whether it ambushes you or eludes you, and how similar those things can feel—and L.A. and Jordan and The L Word.

Mortal on the Walk of the Gods.

The vertical life.
We stopped for cake and lemonade at a tiny cliff-side shack. We ran into a herd of goats wearing bells and their minder, who all seemed straight out of another century. Another hiker described them as “full of latte.” I wouldn’t have minded a grande at that point.

We made our way on jello legs to the small town of Priano, a place of cobblestone streets and moth-eaten sweaters, where young kids played soccer in a church courtyard.

Most of the world has too little and some of the world has too much, but you get the feeling that Southern Italy has unintentionally found some sort of sustainable middle ground. Everyone was growing cabbage and lemons in small tiered plots on the side of the hill.

We asked about a cab, and they summoned a professorial-looking man who was eating an orange popsicle. He called a friend and soon we had a ride back to Le Sirenuse.

I think everyone at Sirenland would agree that the best night was Wednesday, when the Sersales hosted dinner and an open mic at their home, which looks like an extension of Le Sirenuse, right down to the colorful embroidered pillows. We ate pasta and prawns and tiny cakes sopping wet with some sort of delicious liqueur.

Students stood in front of the fireplace and read pieces that were funny (see Jonathan’s “The Panther in the Closet” and Karen’s meta piece about trying to describe a writing workshop to her husband over a bad phone connection: “It’s not crying like ‘boo hoo hoo,’ it’s crying like ‘the beauty, the humanity’”) or intense (Sandra’s story about a bulimic teenage girl who daydreams about being a high-priced prostitute) or sad (Antonio Sersale’s homage to his late father, whom many of the people present knew). Lauren ended the night by playing “Over the Rainbow” on her guitar, and I thought of my mom and felt grateful and sad.

There were times this week when I missed Dash so much I thought he was a figment of my imagination (although how egotistical is that?)—when it felt like I would somehow be starting from scratch upon returning home—but I’m just a few hours away now.

[Editor’s note: Home at last! Happy to return to the land of Dashaboo and AK, cats and friends, and readily available almond milk.]

Good night, everyone.

Friday, March 13, 2015

mise en garde!, or: baby stuff and the cathedral of time

1. watching yourself watch the leaves

Right now—when I’m not reading People Magazine or federal grant proposal requests—I’m reading Devotion, in which Dani Shapiro tries to address her lurking anxiety through a spiritual lens that includes the Orthodox Judaism of her childhood and a variety of Eastern practices that can (or maybe can’t) be boiled down to mindfulness.

Read this book if you're the kind of person who's drawn to AA meetings even though you barely drink.
I picked up the book because I’ll be taking a workshop with Dani Shapiro soon, and I didn’t feel like reading her more recent memoir, Still Writing, because reading about writing sometimes stresses me out.

Devotion really speaks to me, though. Some of Dani’s anxiety is a holdover from a serious illness her son had as an infant, and my own anxiety (well, arguably everyone’s) is equally bound up in birth and death. As grateful as I am for the medical and psychological approaches that have helped me tackle it, spiritual and philosophical questions seem to be the most fundamental ones, not to mention more interesting.

Paraphrasing another writer, she talks about the two axes on which we live: the world of time and the world of things. Time can be a cathedral, the writer says. And every American who needs to clean out a closet or two is aware that materialism can be a prison—even as Dani confesses that she doesn’t really want to stop coveting cashmere sweaters, which makes me like her as well as envy her book sales a bit.

But the time thing—how to make it a cathedral and not just a list of task we do each day until we fall in bed each night, exhausted?

I am a sucker for all things ombre.
She takes a road trip with her husband and son, and delights in beautiful fall leaves and her son calling her “Mommy,” but she’s aware of her own awareness the whole time. How do you savor something without going all meta and losing the thing you’re chasing?

2. target women

When I posted about Dash’s birth, one of AK’s college friends (who has four children) commented: “You are moms so enjoy the good parts and suffer through the bad parts, people who say you have to enjoy every moment miss the worst and best parts of mothering because it all gets watered down. And you deserve to just be his mom, without having to enjoy every second because he finally found you!”

Sweet and wise words.

One of my first parent-related observations was that I was going to Target almost every day. When I think of my own childhood and even my teen years, I think of going to Target with my mom, and before Target was Target,* we went to FedMart together, in the same box of a building.

It’s easy to get mired in the world of things, because although everyone says “babies don’t need much,” there are a lot of baby things out there, and figuring out which ones they need and which they don’t—and by they I mean we—is a task in itself. My parental daydreams always involved the purchasing of cute baby clothes and tiny shoes, but as my superego got thinned and squashed during our wait, the things (and the ideas of perfection they represented; thank you, advertising) became less and less a part of the picture.

World's shortest, saddest short story: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn."
I’ve been reluctant to reengage, because the dialogue around the world of things—what stroller do you like, what carrier, what bottle—seems to push away the essence of being a big creature taking care of a small creature. It turns parenting into a series of brand loyalties, and each consumer choice is shorthand for the kind of parent you’re trying to be. Tiger Mom, Free Range Mom, Helicopter Mom, French Women Don’t Get Fat Mom, all those terms that I seem to know without voluntarily participating in any of it.

But if you read between the lines of the baby things, that whisper of birth and death is still there. Almost every single baby item we own is equipped with a giant warning label in multiple languages.

That's some solid advice right there.
“Mise en garde!” I announced to Dash this morning as I buckled him into his car seat. The label (the English part) reminded me that children have strangled while sitting in unbuckled seats. Other products let me know that babies can fall off changing tables, drown in one drop of water, choke on teddy bear eyeballs.

The subtext of every baby product is: This will make your baby happy and healthy and make you a fantastic and relaxed parent. The text of every baby product is: This can kill your baby.

Baby-wearing is the thing now, and we are fond of our Baby K’Tan, which is essentially two infinity scarves bound together by a fabric loop. It cost about $40, which is on the low end of baby carrier prices. When I wrap Dash close to my chest, I feel snuggly, primal and vaguely European. Like, this is what being a parent is all about.

You are a fantastic and relaxed parent.
Dash’s car seat, on the other hand, is bulky, heavy and plastic. It has been heavily tested to withstand impact from various angles at various speeds. He is small in the middle of this big protective pod. When he’s in it, he seems safe, protected, American. I’m like, this is what being a parent is all about.

I dunno. It’s all too early to have any kind of real takeaway. I should add, maybe, that while I may have a certain immunity to the world of things, I have very few defenses built up against the digital world, and my personal battle may be to not scroll through Facebook with one hand and hold a bottle with the other (a battle I’ve already lost many times). Hey, at least Dash is learning a little French and Spanish.

*When Target moved in, I must have been around seven. From the name, I was worried they sold guns. Later I learned that’s Wal-Mart.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

never place a period where god has placed a dash*

1. acceptance. speeches.

I’ve been thinking about humility, and not just because we’re at the tail end of awards season, a time when people make tearful speeches about how humbled they are. I really liked Common and John Legend’s acceptance speech for the Selma song. They were humble not just in the way that is the opposite of bragging, which is how I’ve thought about humility in the past, but in a way that acknowledges they didn’t get there alone. They are part of a continuing history of struggle. They are part of a community, and they’re holding a statue because others have taken punches or even bullets.**

What I’m trying to say is, I think humility is knowing you’re just a character in a story. Humility is arriving at a chapter in that story a different person than you were on page one, and the values you had back then almost feel irrelevant, or at least foreign.

What I’m trying to say is, on Oscar night? Here is how I watched.

2. santa barbara

In December, AK and I started talking to an expectant mom I’ll call Erica. Like so many of the e-moms we’ve talked to in the past couple of years, she was friendly and sweet and seemed enthusiastic about possibly placing her baby with us. A couple of factors made us extra (cautiously!) hopeful: She was almost eight months along (I still remember talking to an e-mom who’d known she was pregnant for ONE WEEK, which is sort of like calling a publisher because you have an idea for a book). And she lived in Santa Barbara. She was only our second California contact, and our first fellow SoCal girl. Something about that connection made all three of us feel like, Yep, you get it.

We drove up to the leafy, tile-roofed outskirts of Santa Barbara and had a nice sushi lunch with her. Erica was easy to talk to, a person who seemed to inhabit our world.

Actually, sushi is usually not harmful to babies. Just look at these guys.
We had our official “match meeting” with her and our agency on January 23. We were all exhausted by the end of it. Erica drove home, ordered a pizza and then her water broke.

In a state of adrenaline-fueled delirium, AK and I packed her car with the unopened car seat we’d barely had time to order on Amazon and the gifts Jamie had just given me: a bag of baby odds and ends like diaper cream and gas drops, and a bunch of unisex baby clothes recently outgrown by her youngest daughter. All very useful things if you have a baby in your home. Not really necessary at the hospital, but we were basically chickens without heads. Imagine every sitcom dad you’ve seen, but turn him into two women who have a two-hour drive which they use to argue about whether someone needs to buy a changing table stat.

Are changing tables really necessary? Just one of the hot debates of modern parenthood.
We arrived at the quiet, tile-roofed hospital (everything in Santa Barbara has a tile roof) around 11 p.m. We found Erica in a softly lit room with the gentlest nurse you’ve ever met. Just after 1 a.m. on January 24, she gave birth to a baby boy we named Dashiell Taylor. First name because we like it and it’s literary and he certainly Dashed into the world (ha!). Middle name because it is my mom’s maiden name, not because we are fans of Swift or Lautner.

Dash in his hospital casserole dish.
Erica said, “Congratulations. You have a son.”

3. in the wise words of ‘90s band semisonic

So far, Dash has been one of those “easy” babies you hear about. My dad has been reminding me since I was about five what a loud baby I was, so I figured it was my karma to get a screamer. But if I’ve learned one thing these past four years, it’s that karma—at least in the simple, pop culture sense—is bullshit. You don’t get the child you “deserve” any more than you get a child because you deserve one.

We got Dash: calm, bright-eyed, curious and “athletic”—to quote his pediatrician upon witnessing tummy time—in the way you might expect of a kid whose mom went for a hike the day after giving birth. He’s really effing handsome. I’m biased, of course, but that’s not bragging because it’s not my DNA. He makes me laugh a lot. When I cry or freak out, it’s because I’m scared something or someone will take him away, but around Dash himself, I usually feel pretty calm. He has that effect on me, even though it’s not his job to heal me. It’s his job to learn to be Dash.

Bath time, Dash time.
This is like that song “Closing Time,” a song AK is considering adding to her regular karaoke rotation. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

I’m feeling very humbled, which for me is a mix of gratitude, connection and mild bafflement.

(Across from me, in his bouncy seat, Dash just farted and rolled his eyes as if to say, Mommy, let’s not get too mushy here.)

4. i’d like to thank the academy

And now I would like to thank some people—and inevitably, in true awards season tradition, forget some key players.

The obvious: AK, who didn’t give up on me. Erica, who trusted us to raise her son. The people I could say the most about, I have to say the least about here. There is too much. There are volumes and volumes.

(Dash just shared two long farts.)

A man of many expressions.
My dad, who has modeled parenthood by giving everything he can to make this happen, both financially and emotionally. My sister, who doesn’t always get me, but always gets me.

Both of our dads are a little bit like, Um, what are you supposed to do with a newborn?
My therapist, who told me this could happen every week, over and over, fanning the flame of hope every time it flickered and waned.

Our couples therapist, herself an open-adopter, who got AK and I through the roughest of rough patches and helped us truly rebuild the dynamics of our relationship.

The friends who held me through my darkest, bitterest moments. There are many of them, and I won’t list them all, but very especially:
  • Nicole, who always has my back so fiercely that sometimes I end up defending my own enemies to her;
  • Jamie, who endured my palpable envy and frequent workplace tears with more patience than I deserved, and taught me that friendships can ebb and flow and heal;
  • Amy, who GETS IT, who ranted with me about easily-pregnant friends until the day she sent me an email with the subject line the dreaded email – i’m pregnant. Even then, she listened to me sob on the phone to her; she gave me space but never used “space” as an excuse to slowly excise me from her life;
  • Meehan, who has stalwartly and subtly insisted on being my friend for years now, even when I’m like, Wait, you are such a wunderkind, why do you even want to talk to me?;
  • Alberto, Pedro, Stephen—Dash’s uncles, the men I would love to see him emulate in so many ways, the tall strong good listeners I leaned on when I hated everyone with a uterus;
  • Keely, whom I haven’t heard from in a year, but who got me through the early days of wondering what motherhood was all about, and knitted me beautiful things;
  • Kim, my sponsor in Hypochondriacs Anonymous, because the miscarriage/breakdown/cancer/baby story is all one story;
  • Joewon, who also GETS IT—the anxiety and cancer and fear of loneliness 
  • Wendy, the kind of friend you can call when you just desperately need someone to tell you that you are a good and deserving and talented person; 
  • D, who understands loss, sends me light, and is also a pet psychic. 

AK’s family, especially her sister, who also gets it. AK’s mom, a.k.a. Nana, has the patience to hold Dash in her glow for hours on end.

Nana, a.k.a the Baby Whisperer.
My Uncle Robin and Aunt Connee, who gave me hours of free therapy (literally; they’re both licensed therapists) when I hit bottom. My Aunt Vanessa, who is so quick and generous with her love that she’s fallen for Dash in just a few cell phone pictures; I like that the “Taylor” part of his name honors her a bit too.

The Squeakies, the first babies who taught me how to be a mom. I would have been a much more neurotic, confused mother to them—they took one for the team in the way that all firstborns (and first never-borns) do—but no less loving. I love them. I still do. Their presence isn’t such a daily pulse in my life anymore, but I will always love them. They were real. They are my babies.

My Homeboy family, who have held me and lived out the worldview I am trying to practice in this phase of my life. Especially my bad-ass boss Jacki, who never batted an eye at the prospect of an impromptu maternity leave and cheered me on at every step; Mary Ellen, an old soul who open-adopted her daughter twenty years ago, and Alexa, herself a late-blooming mom, who promised me it would happen and enshrouded me with warmth and wisdom.

Don't mess with our squabs.
My online support community, a fierce and diverse collective of Pigeon Moms. They GET IT too. They speak the shorthand of e-moms, b-moms, matches and TPRs. They say, at every turn, Keep swimming. It will happen. I never thought it would either, and then it did. KEEP SWIMMING. They are willing to analyze the minutia of e-mom communications like a swarm of schoolgirls looking at a text from a boy. They are willing to do mild surveillance work on sketchy e-moms. They would die for their children, but they also get that attachment takes a while and motherhood is rocky and weird even under “normal” circumstances. They all like drama just a little bit. They are my tribe.

In this picture, you can't tell that I have spit-up on my dress.
Going forward, I don’t want to turn Bread and Bread into a mommy blog any more than I wanted to turn it into a cancer blog—which is to say that you’ll be seeing a lot of mom posts just as you saw a shitload of cancer posts. I’m going to try to keep the pics of and stories about Dash to a minimum, for the sake of both privacy and obnoxiousness avoidance. His story is his own. He’s just started to write it. Mostly in farts.

*I couldn’t resist this riff on that sign you see outside progressive churches (“Never place a period where God has placed a comma”; i.e., don’t interpret the bible as literal, immovable fact), but I feel compelled to add that I don’t think God “brought” us Dash. I don’t think that’s how God works. I think God is love and lives in us and Erica and Dash.

**Which is not to equate my own cranky story with the Civil Rights Movement. But I did once write a college entrance essay using Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” to describe my experience not making drill team the first time I tried out. Strangely, I was accepted into that college anyway.

Monday, January 19, 2015

distilling and processing in oakland

This morning I woke up with the thought: If not for Martin Luther King, Jr., I wouldn’t be living the great life I’m living. I wouldn’t be able to move through the world easily with my Mexican-American esposa, hoping/planning to adopt a kid, having checked the “any/all ethnicities” box on our adoption preferences.

This was followed immediately by the thought: And if not for white privilege, we probably wouldn’t have been able to finance any of it.

Welcome to the smoothie of gratitude and guilt that is my brain. It’s okay, I’ve come to find it endearing.

We spent the weekend in Oakland*, site of historic and recent civil rights activism. With Pedro and Stephen, we walked the quiet Sunday streets downtown, looking for a place to have a late lunch amid shops with boarded up windows. On the sidewalk, in front of Gold Rush-era storefronts selling artisanal canvas bags or perfectly curated vintage Southwest sweaters, was the repeated stencil: Black lives matter.

Downtown Oakland.
I miss these guys so ridiculously much.
Earlier that morning, Stephen and Pedro visited Safeway and encountered a sudden in-store demonstration where people chanted the same mantra.

I love history so much because it promises me that all lives matter**, that gone does not equal forgotten. Saturday we visited the St. George Spirits distillery, which operates out of an old hangar at the end of a stretch of apocalyptic-looking military housing. The sun blinded us as it reflected off the weed-mapped white cement, and it was easy to believe that zombies had perhaps already invaded.

Zombie patrol.
Inside the hangar, we encountered men with Gold Rush-era beards; steampunk copper distilling machines; old techniques and newly legalized absinthe. Prior to our tour, I’d had a vague idea that vodka came from potatoes and gin came from juniper berries and whiskey tasted good, and that was about it. We learned all kinds of things: Brandy comes from fruit, whiskey comes from grain, bourbon involves corn and has to be aged in new oak barrels, and vodka can come from anything. What makes it vodka (and I suppose what makes it taste toxic and disgusting in my opinion) is that it’s 96% alcohol by volume, with all the tasty parts boiled out of it.

Turns pear mash into brandy that tastes like a pear Jelly Belly. This is a good thing.
We tasted all kinds of things, too. It was a weekend during which I was never quite drunk but seemed to have an IV drip of steady adult beverages.

This shark lives at St. George.

It might turn on you.
Sunday morning my sister and I got into a low-grade phone fight. We are still trying to rebuild our relationship post-cancer, and we’re both making a good faith effort, but it’s like I’m trying to build with wood and she’s building with stone. Or maybe she’s England and I am America: Once we spoke the same language, but now we live on separate continents. There is fallout to the fallout to the fallout, and it can be exhausting.

Sunday afternoon, I met my friend Annette for coffee, and we walked around Lake Merritt in the winter sun. Black ducks with white bills dove for fish. Annette and I went to CalArts together, and for years after we graduated, we processed our experience there every time we convened. Annette is a big processer, which my sister isn’t.

“It’s like I’m being stabbed with a bunch of ballpoint pens,” I told her re: Cathy. “I know it won’t kill me, and I know I probably deserve some of it. But it really hurts to be stabbed over and over with a ballpoint pen.”

Annette had cancer about six years ago; she is still processing it, although she is healthy and full of wild and interesting plans for the future. She described oncology check-ups as “like walking the plank.”

“When I get a call with my test results while I’m at work, I think my coworkers hear me and think I got everyday good news. I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. I just found out I get to live.’”

They're talking about something very important. I'm taking a selfie.

*Apologetic shout-out to the Bay Area friends I didn’t manage to see on this trip. Because NorCal is our home away from home, it’s nearly impossible to see more than a fraction of the friends we’d like to on any given trip. Linda, Patricia, Miah, Jenessa and Chris—we’ll catch you on the next round.

**I say “all lives matter” as a complimentary statement to “black lives matter,” not an oppositional one. We live in a world that needs to be reminded that black lives, specifically, are lives.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

happy (or something like it) new year

Having two full weeks off—twelve days of which were after Christmas—was head-clearing and house-clearing. Every day that I slept in felt luxurious, and I got a jump start on my New Year’s resolutions, which are really one resolution with a few branches: Be more mindful. Because gentleness seems to walk hand in hand with mindfulness, I’m choosing not to get mad at myself for the fact that I’ve already fallen off the mindfulness wagon at least a half dozen times. The point, I think, is that mindfulness is not a wagon.

The inside of my head is almost as tidy.
The house-clearing part came when AK and I lugged somewhere between ten and twenty bags of stuff from our office to Goodwill/recycling/trash. The office—a.k.a. our storage room (since my real office is Starbucks), a.k.a. the room OC gets shut in when he forgets to use his inside meow—has been hanging over my head for four years. It will hopefully be our baby’s room, but fixing it up preemptively seemed audacious. Not fixing it up at all seemed depressing, like the room was accumulating all my emotional baggage along with my unpublished manuscripts.

It’s still not a nursery, but it’s orderly. That feels great.

There was another loop in our parenthood roller coaster over the holidays. That did not feel great. I handled it okay, which means I was only a little not-okay.

I’m feeling kind of Zen about the baby thing right now—still sad and frustrated by our long and confusing wait, but willing to believe there’s a kid in our near-ish future.

Then I think, Well, maybe that feeling of peace will help us land a kid.

Then I think, So, maybe being torn up and impatient and pushy up until now showed the universe that I wasn’t ready for a kid, and this whole thing is my own damn fault.

I’m never more than a few inches away from self-flagellating magical thinking. Anyway, back to the Zen.

Despite the niceness of the break, I was happy to get back to my routine and back to Homeboy on Monday, especially to my creative writing class. For one of our prompts, I asked: What are you an expert on?

And despite the niceness of the break and the quiet hum of optimism I feel toward 2015, here’s what I wrote.

Kid, you've got nothing on me.
I am an expert at crying. I’ve cried so hard all my sinuses have swelled shut. I’ve cried while running and driving and doing yoga. I am a multi-tasker, a world explorer. I’ve cried at Starbucks and on curbs, in the prescription line at CVS, for both the medicine that’s making me cry and the one that will help me stop.

I’ve cried in exam rooms and pre-op rooms and chiropractic offices and on five therapists’ couches.

I could write a taxonomy of crying: the first swell of tears, when you’re not sure which way it will go; the single tear down the cheek, like the hero in a bad movie; crying with guilt and gratitude and happiness about the sweet fragility of the world; bitter crying into a pillow; look-what-you-did-to-me crying; crying until you turn yourself inside out and start vomiting because nothing will erase the pain; movie crying; sad song crying; thank-god-someone-gets-it crying; nobody-but-Stephen-Sondheim-gets-it crying; crying that stops abruptly because your session is up; crying that stops abruptly because you really need to get to work. 

I feel like I should say “crying that turns into laughter,” but honestly, that’s never happened to me. It might. But I think it will take years.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

the cheryl awards: best books, best movies and best cheryl of 2014

Roll out the cat-clawed carpet and put on your fanciest pajamas: It’s time for the annual Cheryl Awards (which I will not call the Cheries, because I only went by Cherie for one year, in third grade, when I was determined to have a nickname—but in fourth grade, Sheri-Lynn Bellflower came to town and quickly established herself as the main Sheri).

According to Goodreads, I read twenty-six books this year. Not bad for a year in which I started a new job, but choosing a top ten seems a little much. So, as in years past, I’m choosing the books and movies that, to me, form their own tier. I’m also—new feature!—including a quick “why you should read/see it” blurb. I recently stumbled across the (dormant-ish?) blog of writer Jefferson Beavers and was charmed by his end-of-2013 post, which he titled “10 Good Things That Happened to Me.” It’s such a simple way to express gratitude and give yourself a little love, rather than skipping straight to resolutions. In reading through his ten things, it became clear that these were actually, mostly, accomplishments, not things that just “happened to him.” But that made me like his approach even more, because it acknowledged that there’s a degree of luck in every accomplishment. So if you’re reading this, Jefferson, I hope you’ll blog more in 2015!

Homeboy Prose & Poetry Showcase: a top moment of 2014, hands down.
Some good things that happened to me in 2014:
  • I fell head over heels for Homeboy (thank you, loyal readers, for enduring the irritating voice of the newly infatuated). 
  • I spent an amazing week in New Zealand with amazing people (hi, AK and Emily!). 
  • I navigated two close brushes with adoption and months of no brushes with adoption without completely losing my shit or destroying my relationship. 
  • I navigated four cancer check-ups, which is kind of the ultimate mix of accomplishment and luck. Luck that none of them revealed any cancer, knockonwood, accomplishment because I would rather run through Union Station than wait for test results, but I did it because I had to.
  • I revised my YA novel; I wrote more of my so-called memoir. 
  • I published a story I’m really proud of in Blunderbuss Magazine
  • I discovered AfroFunk
I also spent a lot of time making fashion collages on Polyvore, let my good health habits slide some, drove AK crazy, gave my sister advice when I shouldn’t have, spent too much time on Facebook, compared myself to other people, bought too many shoes and cried a lot. But who’s counting?

Without further ado:

2014 had a Down Under theme.
Top six books I read in 2014:
  1. Wake by Elizabeth Knox Why you should read it: Parallel dimensions, flightless parrots and the human condition—the best character-driven sci fi you’ll find. 
  2. The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp Why you should read it: Are you dreading a doctor’s appointment? Wondering if you have value despite being disabled? Wondering about the meaning of life? Do you like to read? Do you need a good cry, emphasis on the good? Are you a person? 
  3. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann Why you should read it: The best September 11 book you’ll find, despite the fact that it takes place in the 1970s. 
  4. G-Dog and the Homeboys by Celeste Fremon Why you should read it: Local history as told by an unabashedly un-impartial journalist. More than Father Greg’s Tattoos on the Heart—which is great, but more interested in God-is-love parables than socioeconomic context—this is a must-read for any Angeleno who wants to truly understand his or her city.
  5. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn Why you should read it: All the best qualities of Gone Girl—the suspense, social commentary and abandoned places—with fewer of the frustrations and a delightfully downwardly mobile protagonist. 
  6. My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta Why you should read it: An obsessive, innovative, screamingly honest and often funny look at identity. My favorite piece: a conversation about Elissa’s rape written as an episode of Law & Order: SVU
Honorable mention: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, The Beach by Alex Garland, Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter.

You have to let it in before you can work it out.
Top six movies I saw in 2014: 
  1. The Babadook Why you should see it: A horror movie about why you have to go in the basement. 
  2. The One I Love Why you should see it: A surreal and incredibly relatable film for everyone who has seen the best and worst of the person they’re with.  
  3. Nightcrawler Why you should see it: Local news is perfect for psychopaths. Dark comedy at its darkest and funniest. 
  4. Wild Why you should see it: There are many reasons, but one is that I want to live in a world where a movie about a woman in dirty clothes going for a long walk and missing her mom is a blockbuster. 
  5. The Imitation Game Why you should see it: Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked Germany’s code and basically won WWII, was a gay nerd born a few decades too soon. But thank god he was. Otherwise the golden age of gay and nerd (a.k.a. now) might never have come about. 
  6. The Skeleton Twins Why you should see it: We are all just so fucked up. Also, Bill Hader is fantastic and subtle, plus the best eighties lip synch scene you’ll find anywhere. 
Honorable mention: Mockingjay Part I, Into the Woods (great casting, and my favorite musical ever, but not as moving as it might have been, for reasons I can’t quite figure out), Boyhood, Gone Girl.

Friday, December 26, 2014

a tale of two neighborhoods

1. boyle heights

During one of our roughly eighteen trips to Orange County in the past week, Waze rerouted us to side streets to avoid a bottleneck on the 5. The freeway spit us out in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood I’m always excited to discover more of, because it’s Homeboy’s original home and the site of a still unfolding story about immigration, violence, community and “gentefication.”

But what greeted us at the bottom of the exit on Christmas Eve was a giant square billboard encouraging us to take out a CareCredit account for a loved one’s funeral.

“Welcome to Boyle Heights, time to plan a funeral you can’t afford,” I muttered.

The assistant/map reader is right to be skeptical.
“Where’s my next turn?” AK said, perhaps a bit bark-ily. (We saw Nightcrawler recently, which is a dark, brilliant and extremely funny movie. The scenes in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s psychopathic, ambulance-chasing “journalist” character lays into his assistant about proper navigation technique hit a little too close to home.)

I’m familiar with CareCredit; I took out an account to pay some vet bills once, and it’s only due to the grace of the cats’ generous grandpa that I haven’t had to keep it open. I’m also familiar with how expensive, sudden and sucky funeral debt is. In the year I’ve been at Homeboy, I’ve contributed between $5 and $40 for at least a half dozen funerals of trainees’ loved ones (none for trainees, thank goodness). A couple of the loved ones died violently. A few died naturally and old. One was a baby who died of SIDS. Most were “in between” deaths; when a woman in her fifties dies of cervical cancer, you imagine that avoiding violence and starvation were more on her radar than regular PAP smears. 

In G-Dog and the Homeboys, Celeste Fremon writes about how the Boyle Heights community she witnesses comes together like no other, in good times and bad. It sounds clich├ęd when I write it, like some kind of terrible slumming when in fact I mean the opposite—that I am elevated—but I really do feel like homie culture has taught me to celebrate and to rally around both the living and the dead.

2. manhattan beach

Flash forward to Christmas Day. AK and I were out for a run/walk in the bright, windy morning in Manhattan Beach, having spent the night at my dad’s house. We ran along the wood chip path that bisects Valley and Ardmore in Manhattan and Hermosa. Two summers ago I ran it almost every morning while staying with my dad when AK and I needed some time apart. I was in better physical shape (except for the part where I had cancer and didn’t know it) and terrible mental shape then. I hoped AK would come around. I thought about how much she’d like running this path, and the thought of not doing these simple things with her ever again was nearly unbearable.

Watch out for friendly, free-roaming packs of volleyball zombies.
“You’re going to see what I had to grow up with,” I said yesterday morning, warning her about the packs of blonde volleyball players and yuppies with babies that we would encounter on the wood chips.

But almost none of them were out yesterday. Just a handful of mostly middle-aged dog walkers, because dog poop does not wait for Christmas.

For the first time, I noticed that most of the benches along the trail had dedication plaques. To friends and teachers and parents, with simple and earnest dedications. Someone had placed a small wreath on one of the benches.

Maybe Manhattan Beach knew how to celebrate the living and the dead too, I thought. I felt so lucky to be here with AK, to be here at all. I told her about my 2012 runs, which would end at the end of the Hermosa Beach pier. I would look at the big moody-blue ocean and feel small and something adjacent to okay.

There were also a couple of unobtrusive dog memorials too. To Barney, who loved this place so. My best friend. He has gone on the long walk. Godspeed. ~Fred.

The long walk.
Manhattan Beach is a place where (most) people die old and can afford buy headstones for their dogs. But the guilt and resentment I’ve so often felt toward my hometown don’t hold up to moments of true universality. The trick is to let these commonalities fuel the fight for justice, not lull me into a belief that if we’re all fundamentally the same, the world must be okay as is.

Today I’m enjoying that post-Christmas, washed-clean feeling. Time to put away the gifts, clean the house, stop packing my body with food in that fucked-up way that begins as indulgence and becomes, somewhere around the fifteenth chocolate-pecan pretzel, about punishment. I want 2015 to be a year of kindness and mindfulness, in a way that still allows for tumult and raucousness—the calm ocean and the choppy one. All of which is sort of code for Now I really need to lose ten pounds, I mean it this time, I want to prevent cancer and look like a pro volleyball player. After all, I grew up in Manhattan Beach.