Sunday, September 14, 2014

honest living, without jessica alba

Like every Angeleno without air conditioning, I’ve been slammed by the heat these past couple of days. But it took me a while to notice. I’m the kind of person who will wear shoes a size too small and wonder why she couldn’t walk five miles. I.e., overly cerebral, self-blaming, not very mindful. By the end of the night last night—despite having a really fun time at Lori’s birthday party—I was kind of a mess. Crabby, over-heated, under-caffeinated, mad at myself for not doing more that day and every day, and especially mad at myself for eating two vegan donuts* and a piece of birthday cake on top of the cupcake my writer friend Sandra bought me earlier in the day.

At Lori’s house, I flipped through a lifestyle book about “honest living” by Jessica Alba. It was surprisingly sane and encouraged readers to give themselves one day a week to eat whatever they wanted. But I don’t think that works for people with addictive personalities and a history of eating disorders and cancer that feeds off fat cells.**

I hope that somewhere in the book is a really “honest” paragraph in which Jessica Alba credits her ghostwriter and the makeup artist who made her and her family look so gorgeous in all the illustrations. Another pro tip for healthy, honest living: be filthy rich. It’s not everything, but it helps.

Have a cup of green tea. Do not have four desserts.
I believe in honest living and honest writing, which is not to say strictly factual, but I want to put my energy into getting at something real, not ignoring what’s scary, not repeating old habits or lazy linguistic tropes just because I want them to work.

AK and I have been doing a lot of processing (which is to say arguing but in a constructive way) lately, and she thinks it’s good. I think it’s good that she thinks it’s good. Today she made potato tacos for her work party this afternoon, and I sat on the kitchen steps, sweating and lamenting my exhaustion.

“Why don’t you go somewhere cool?” she said. “Not just as a short little reward for spending the first part of the day working and sweating, but, like, for a long period of time.”

What I heard her saying, applied more broadly, was: Don’t try to force change; create a kind and healthy space for yourself, and change will happen.

Oh, MacDowell. Those were the days.
The composer who inhabited the cottage down the meadow from me at MacDowell talked a lot about how he had to trick himself into working on the hard parts of his composition. He’d give himself an easy or fun task and ease into the tricky bits.

If I want to have more energy and better eating habits, and not be such a bitch to AK, telling myself to just try harder is probably not the best approach. Instead, I want to check in with myself—am I hot? Tired? Hungry? Not hungry? I’ve been getting better at doing that emotionally, now that I don’t view anxiety as so terrifying it must be stomped back into place the minute it rears up. My fears are just my fears. A day I feel all grouchy and wrong might be just the heat, and not proof of my failure and not a reason to eat four desserts. Thinking you control the world with your mind, even when it manifests as a lot of seemingly humble hand-wringing, is the biggest ego trip ever.

Dogs are all about honest living.
Second to mindfulness, I’m going to experiment with changing my surroundings—not in the sense of place, but time. This is going to be really boring, so feel free to skip ahead to the part where I talk about movies, but if you’re like me and kind of fascinated with other people’s day-to-day, minute-to-minute lives, here’s my plan: Instead of waking up, drinking coffee, working, then drinking more coffee so that I have the energy to write or work out, I’m going to try flipping my day.
  •      Wake up really early, read on the train, drink coffee and write at Philippe’s or somewhere else that’s open early. Or work out.
  •      Work; stay a little later and stack the stuff that takes less energy at the end of the day, when I will not be drinking coffee.
  •      Walk home on non-workout days.
  •      Spend a little time each evening cleaning, so the house doesn’t feel like such a daunting, failure-inducing time-suck every weekend.
  •      Remember that this is just an experiment. If it doesn’t work, or if it takes time to work, c’est la vie.

One of the better movie posters I've seen in a while, too.
On Friday, AK and I saw The One I Love, a flawed by really interesting movie about a couple (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) who are trying to put their marriage back together after an affair. I won’t give away the twist (although it comes early), but by injecting some magic into the plot, writer Justin Lader makes a story about a long-term relationship tested in ordinary ways feel high-stakes and exciting and true. Not enough movies even try to do that. The story gets messy and confusing, and I had trouble figuring out the film’s ideology, but their core problem as a couple seems to be that he wants to move on without processing, and she wants to fixate without moving on.

The movie also pits their real selves against their idealized selves—and perhaps romantics against idealists, although I couldn’t quite make that read work. Their best selves dress well, do sit-ups and are prone to heartfelt monologues. Their real selves wear sweats, eat bacon and fail to thank each other for the sacrifices the other has made for the relationship. Except for the bacon, that sounds about right. Here’s to trying to be better, but keeping it real.


*At first I just wrote “donuts,” but then I added “vegan” to make it sound healthier. But sugar and oil are completely vegan foods.

**The type of cancer I had eats estrogen, which lives in fat cells. So I have more of a stake than most people in not having more fat cells than necessary. The fact that this didn’t stop me from a carb binge terrifies me a little. Also, at first I wrote “the type of cancer I have,” and now I’m feeling really superstitious that it was a Freudian typo. What do my fingers know about my health status?? (Probably nothing, but they may know plenty about my fears.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

route 66 and other kicks: plus what i read in july and august

Last week was seriously culture-packed. It made me happy to live in L.A., grateful to know so many artists and arts lovers, and a little tired.

On Thursday Bronwyn and I ate the only non-meat items Phillippe’s serves, then walked across the street to Traxx, the dinky bar at Union Station that Chiwan Choi has turned into a pop-up literary hub this month. One of my favorite writers, Myriam Gurba, read a moving essay about her schizophrenic uncle and showed slides of her face Photoshopped onto famous pictures and famous people. Myriam as ET, Myriam as Kim Kardashian. Her work lives at the intersection of funny, intense, weird and joyful.

Mari Naomi presented a graphic personal essay—meaning a personal essay in graphic form, like with drawings, not an essay with a bunch of severed heads in it—about a troubled guy she’d dated. Then a real-life troubled guy wandered into the bar and started standing super close to her and kind of harassing her. (Must be a Union Station thing.) One of the show organizers very gently and very heroically led him away, as all of us stood there watching it like the world’s most uncomfortable TV show. It was a strange life-imitating-art-or-something moment, but it could have been a lot worse.



Friday AK and I got a rare opportunity to see Ben Folds and Elvis Costello from box seats at the Bowl. We would have happily watched grass grow from box seats, but I love Ben Folds and loved him more after he played the piano with his whole body and gave a sweet speech about supporting your local symphony. I think Elvis Costello might be one of those artists who is culturally adjacent to everything I love, but whom I don’t quite love. I dunno. I like his songwriting, but his voice is a little too talky/crooner-y for me. But still: really good company and did I mention box seats?

Ben Folds, can I be one of your five?
Saturday we celebrated my dad’s birthday by taking him to the Autry to see the Route 66 exhibit. My dad is obsessed with Route 66—he’s traveled every remaining mile of it, even when that means bumping down a crumbling road in his RV when the newly paved highway is one mile away (much to his girlfriend’s chagrin). You wouldn’t think there would be much he hadn’t seen at a one-gallery exhibit, but he easily killed two hours there and tried to talk the security guard into letting him take pictures of previously unseen artifacts (i.e., a rusty highway sign).

Ed Ruscha en Route.
I joke, but I dug it too, as well as the exhibit of modern Native American floral beading next door. Really, I should go the Autry all the time. I love the West. I love that the exhibits get so specific. Not just Native American beadwork, but floral beadwork from the nineteenth century onward. Like me, the exhibit is interested in the weird intersections of cultures.

I Tweeted something about how the Autry had free parking—it really is the Wild West—and saw later that the museum had re-tweeted it, and then my family thought I was one of those obsessed social media types.

I didn’t read that much these past couple of months. I’m in the middle of a lot of books. My palette is persnickety lately.

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: I love Michael Cunningham endlessly for asking the big questions--about life and death and art and God and chance--and doing so in a beautiful way. The story's protagonist, a middle-aged gay dilettante (or a Renaissance man who doesn't need to prove himself to the corporate Man, depending how you look at it), also asks these questions after he sees an ethereal, sentient light in the sky one night. Shouldn't it mean something? If he *applies* the meaning, is it still real? Is it responsible for saving his sister-in-law's life? Will it notice his and his brother's selfish, petty wishes and punish them accordingly? I'm always trying to parse God Is Love/Meaning vs. Everything Happens For A Reason (which I don't buy). So I appreciate Barrett's endeavors. Nevertheless, the novel feels slight. I like it more if I think of it as a novella, but even then, a lot of what we're told about the characters--like that the sickly sister-in-law is a stand-in for their mother--seems to happen offstage, or it gets lost between the big lovely descriptions and ideas. But even a three-star Michael Cunningham book is a four-star anyone-else book.

Amalee by Dar Williams: Like a lot of the over-ten crowd who read this book, I picked it up because I'm a fan of Dar Williams' songwriting, which is always clever and gentle and tells a story. Amalee is and does these things too, but in a slightly less awe-inspiring format. This is a novel about an eleven-year-old's relationships to adults in general, and to her father's gaggle of hippie-ish friends in particular. I enjoyed it, but I also kind of understand why so many YA books dispense with the adults at the outset. About two thirds of the way through, Williams added subtle touches of magical realism to illustrate the power of love in caring for a sick person. That was fun.

Girl, interrupted, but with a tasty lunch.
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp: Upon learning that her son has a rare, degenerative, fatal illness, Emily Rapp's first instinct is to call everyone she knows who has lost someone close to them and say, "I know your heart." The beauty of this book is that Rapp's impossibly frustrating, heartbreaking journey is one that opens her to other people's hearts and to her own--through books, spiritual practices, friends and of course sweet baby Ronan himself. As such, I want to hand a copy of this book to everyone I know and say, "She knows our hearts."

Rapp wrestles unflinchingly with topics no one wants to take on, but which most people must, to varying degrees: grief, luck, God or lack thereof, the impossibility of true empathy (although she seems quite empathetoc, never suggesting that her own staggering sadness is worse than other people's, despite her periodic thoughts along those lines).

I hate self-help books as much as Rapp hates sympathy cards with birds on them. They seem striving and mean, and indeed, one of the topics Rapp takes on is our culture's obsession with planning and achievement. Is it really more tragic when a child with "so much potential" is murdered than when a child with severe disabilities is murdered? What do we mean by the words that fall carelessly from our mouths?

Without being remotely prescriptive, this is the kind of book that actually *can* help the self. By trying to live in the world and experience her son for as long as he is in it, Rapp acknowledges her human struggles, big ones and petty ones, then sets them aside for the more important stuff. When people and institutions and thought systems crumble in their inadequacy, she'll simply say something like "(Rage.)" The book is rigorous and philosophical, poetic and kind. At its heart, though, it is a bit like the baby she describes: simple and true.

Monday, September 01, 2014

the egg and the pigeon

1. all my omelets become scrambles

I’m lying here in bed, full of eggs and fresh tomatoes. Yesterday Nicole and I saw The Hundred-Foot Journey, a movie that will make you want to cook an omelet. It takes place in the present day—as evidenced by the presence of molecular gastronomy, racism that disguises itself as nationalism and a fleeting glimpse of a cell phone—but you would not know it from all the bicycles, cobblestone and charmingly eroding cottages, all shot in the same buttery light as the food that the main character cooks.

Eat, drink, homme, femme.
The movie is about a snooty French restaurant that competes with a new Indian restaurant across the street. It’s a nostalgic, fanciful and predictable movie, but also one that treats its characters with love and respect. It is middle-of-the-road—the characters literally kiss in the middle of the road that cuts between the restaurants—but in the best way. A movie you would take your mom to, but which would remind you that previous generations have plenty to teach us.

It’s been so nice to have a three-day weekend and to stretch out in my own imagined buttery light, to remember the things that center me while reminding myself that it’s fall (all but technically and weather-wise) and time to buckle down, train for that 5K I registered for and read serious books. I mean, I make these resolutions every few days, but they seem more doable when accompanied by an external change of seasons.

2. battle coo of the pigeon mom

Speaking of inspiration, I’ve been admiring the extinct animal plates my other friend Nicole is selling on Etsy. “There is an extinct totem animal in each of us,” her page claims, so I immediately started considering mine. (AK recently pointed out, with minimal judgement, how every story becomes a story about me. Other friends have observed this over the years in kind and unkind ways. SIGH. I should call this blog Bread and Bread and My Own Fucking Bellybutton. But it’s my blog and I will navel-gaze if I want to.)

Spirit of a survivor, bones of the massacred.
I chose the Passenger Pigeon. In my new favorite book The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp describes herself as a Dragon Mom; she sees this club of mothers of dying children as fierce, fire-breathing and mythic (after all, in a society with a low child mortality rate, you don’t encounter dragons every day). And of course we’ve all heard of Tiger Moms, who make their kids practice violin nine hours a day for their own good.

If I’m fortunate enough to become a mom, I will be a Pigeon Mom. Pigeon Moms have taken the world’s shit. They are greasy and most often missing toes. They don’t seem mighty on the surface—speak too loudly and they’ll flutter off. But they’ll return almost immediately. They will get those donut crumbs you dropped. They will feed their little squabs, the one baby animal that lacks an online following.

Some ugly ducklings grow up to be very stately looking pigeons, thank you very much.
They are scrappy, persistent, imperfect, un-admired and numerous. Maybe you’re one yourself. On one hand, they’re survivors, making the best of things in any eave not covered in nails or netting. They do what is necessary. On the other hand, consider their extinct ancestors—who were also considered pests, who were wiped out because no one can survive everything. Pigeon Moms are breakable. Pigeon Moms (and of course I mean Pigeon People, who may or may not be parents or female) bounce back, almost—but not quite—infinitely.

My friend Jamie had a bird-rescuer friend. Once she made a comment in his presence about pigeons being rats with wings (which, again, I would consider a compliment; what’s cuter and smarter than a flying rat?). The bird rescuer, who had really looked closely at pigeons, said: “But they’re beautiful flyers.”

What’s your extinct totem animal?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

open letter to emily rapp

Dear Emily,

When I was going through some dark times a few years ago, I read a couple of your essays about slowly losing your son Ronan to Tay-Sachs online. At the time, when I was grieving the loss of much-wanted, miscarried twins, I devoured your writing greedily and gratefully. My experience was one part catharsis, one part relief that It could always be worse. I couldn’t hear such statements from my caring but baffled friends who didn’t get why something as common as a miscarriage should flatten my identity and shatter my sense of safety in the world. But I could hear it from someone who was living out everyone’s worst nightmare.

When I picked up your book in Vroman’s last weekend, I paused. Would reading it—as I’d wanted to since it came out—be indulging a kind of grief porn? It could always be worse. Would it ward off the evil spirits I still feared surrounded my fate, or would it invite them in?

Since my 2011 miscarriage, I’ve had the time and opportunity to ask nearly all of the questions you ask in The Still Point of the Turning World, which I’m now halfway through. Since 2011, things did get worse, then worse again, then better; at times I have squirmed under the world’s At least I’m not her gaze, and I’ve wanted to shake them, or the imagined them, and explain that my life isn’t better or worse than theirs so much as it is better and worse.

The questions: What is luck? What is quality of life? What is life? Is defeating death the ultimate accomplishment? (Spoiler alert: no.) What is time? What is meaning? What is probability?

Redhead and book.
One of the many passages I marked is the one where you write about having rare red hair, a rare birth defect, a rare eye problem, a relatively rare (benign) heart irregularity and a child with a rare disease caused by even rarer origins (not Ashkenazi Jewish genes but Moroccan ones you didn’t even know you had).

I’ve grappled with a fear that I’m a chronic ten-percenter. About ten percent of the population is queer. About ten percent is left-handed. I’m both. I got breast cancer at 35 because of a rare gene mutation (BRCA-2, which is also common among Ashkenazi Jews, but came to me via my shiksa mom, not my half-Jewish dad, whom I can only blame for my big nose and curly hair). The twins I lost were identical, my doctor murmuring, One in a thousand. I survived—am surviving, am trying every day to survive, am trying to make my survival mean something, and knocking hard on wood always—because I am lucky (whatever luck is). But I have, by the most optimistic estimates, a ten percent chance of recurrence. If I’m always in the ten percent, what does this mean for me?

Love is for everyone.
Of course, we are both smart, educated, middle class white Americans born to loving parents, which makes us both lucky, if prone to self-destructive ambition when paired with our freakishness. (And I can’t help but note that when you are in the depths of despair, you turn to Thomas Mann and I turn to My Strange Addiction and other TLC fare. So I aspire even as I read about your most confounding moments, which led you to shun a certain kind of aspiration.) I find kinship in how you exile the American (human?) obsession with the future. I know that you know—as I know, sporadically, in my better moments—that God and love and joy are not to be found in plans and ambitions and writing fellowships, even though I doubt either of us will ever be totally content with just watching beautiful sunsets.

I read your book this week as I waited for the results of my every-four-months cancer blood test. I held it with me in the waiting room to remind me of this, the most important passage I’ve encountered so far:

Ronan helped teach me a lesson I had long been resisting: this world belongs to everyone. We all have a place in it, no matter how long we live and no matter what we look like, how we move or don’t move, how we exist. What matters is that we lived.

I needed to know that if I got bumped into the terminal category, if I couldn’t look forward to adopting a child let alone watching one grow up, the world was still for me. I had no idea how I might manage to face my friends with babies—whom I can face now only with great effort—my friends with lifetimes to write that book, build that house, visit that country. But in this alternate stage 4 universe, I could, thanks to you and a shitload of therapy and more informal philosophical counseling, imagine living with dying.

I’ve always been self-aware and empathic, which are good qualities for a writer, but which have had the side effect of making me overly aware of my “place.” As a kid, I knew which popular kids I shouldn’t even try to talk to and which I might make into at least casual say-hi-in-the-hallway friends. I knew the adult rhetoric that no one was better than anyone else, but I also knew, as all kids do, that it was bullshit.

Except that it’s not. The world is for everyone. This has environmental and socio-political implications that we should pay attention to.

But in the waiting room at City of Hope yesterday, I clutched your book and repeated to myself that The world is for me.

My tests were clear. I have that feeling of relief and clean-slated-ness that is the unique territory of the anxious and doom-shadowed. Because I’m lucky. Because I have insurance and good doctors and the ability to take care of myself. But the world is for me not because I have but because I am, for however long I am.

Sincerely,

Cheryl

Saturday, August 16, 2014

historical reconstructions

1. is gratitude porn a genre?

The other day while driving home, listening to Fresh Air, I decided that The Knick was my new favorite show. Dave Davies was interviewing the creators and a medical historian who’d served as a consultant on the show. I can’t imagine that there are a lot of job openings in the field of medical historian, but I kind of want to be one. If my other career as the person who names nail polish colors doesn’t work out.

Medical theater.
Apparently the show is set in one of my favorite eras (New York at the turn of the last century, a.k.a. Newsies times) and centers on one of my favorite topics (the weird, dark, earnest trial and error that needed to happen so that I could live to get fake nipples—more on that in a minute).

The creators pointed out that the surgeons of the time were seen as gods because they were the main reason people were starting to live past their mid-forties. As gods, they were allowed to poke and prod patients in front of a theater full of colleagues. The patients just sat their naked, vulnerable and grateful.

A lot of them probably ended up dying anyway.

To say that I am grateful to be living in the time/place/social class that I do—even though I suspect that in another hundred years, we’ll be re-growing lost limbs/boobs from stem cells and not messing around with anything so unrefined as surgery—is an understatement. I can’t even fully wrap my head around it.

A long time ago I saw a cartoon of a man walking down the street; behind him, a piano had just crashed into the sidewalk. The caption said Thursday the 12th.

I feel like I lived through Thursday the 12th, and sometimes I just glance back at the piano and say, Huh, so that happened. Weird. Other times I feel the sidewalk shake, the breeze whisk past my ears. And I worry that Friday the 13th is just around the corner.

Yes, I'm chicken.
This morning I read Emily Nussbaum’s review of The Knick in The New Yorker, and I discovered it wasn’t my favorite show after all. She’s my favorite reviewer, and I knew that all the things that bugged her—clunky characterization and Dr. Quinn smugness—would bug me too. Which is not to say I wouldn’t totally watch it if I had Cinemax. But for now I’ll stick with my favorite medical-history comedy podcast, Sawbones. If you listen to just one medical-history comedy podcast this year….

2. nip/tuck/zap

Yesterday I had my final (knockonwood) reconstructive surgery. Now, somewhere beneath the gauze pasties taped to my chest, I have nipples—or “nipples”—made from the skin of my inner thighs. Sexy, huh? At first my plastic surgeon, Dr. L, had said he didn’t do nipples on radiated skin, since he’d had a couple of cases go terribly wrong. (For the record, he was able to fix them up nicely.)

I was annoyed that I only found this out after nixing my real ones, but by that point, I knew how to mourn body parts quickly and I took it in stride.

At my spring visit, Dr. L started talking about nipples just as casually as before; it seemed that he’d gotten past his own PTSD about the procedure and decided to make nipple decisions on a case-by-case basis. He thought I was relatively low-risk for healing problems, so I decided to go for it.

He greeted me and AK yesterday with big hugs, and he won my dad’s heart when he commented on his Route 66 sweatshirt: “Aren’t we on Route 66 right now? Part of it ran right down Duarte Road, didn’t it?”

My dad, who can be surprisingly tactful for someone who is probably On The Spectrum, refrained from launching into a story about his most recent cross-country Route 66 trek. Or maybe he was just busy with his more obsessive obsession, i.e., my health.

Later, as Dr. L sketched on my body with purple sharpie, he pointed to one of the black dots my radiologist had tattooed on me (again, with an attitude of: Oh, nothing, just putting a permanent mark on your body; patient objectification has survived into the 21st century).

“We can remove this, you know,” Dr. L said. “We have a [insert name of fancy laser tattoo removal machine here].”

“Oh yeah? That’s good to know. I actually work at place that has a tattoo removal machine, because we work with former gang members. Sometimes I think about going downstairs and getting myself zapped.” I didn’t add that the dots have kind of grown on me, as battle scars. Maybe that’s why some of the homies are reluctant to remove theirs as well.

We all have our battle scars.
“Like a Homeboy kind of deal?” Dr. L said.

I always get a little surge of pride when people know Homeboy, same as I did among the smaller group that knew P&W. I’ve never been very materialistic, but I’m a total nonprofit brand-prestige whore. It’s what I have instead of a 401k.

When I told Dr. L I worked there, he asked if I knew his friend Joe, a fellow plastic surgeon who was one of the volunteer tattoo removal docs. Just as Homeboy dispels myths about gang members, I hope it dispels a few myths about plastic surgeons too. They’re not just Nip/Tuck types getting rich off Beverly Hills housewives’ insecurities. Dr. L’s specialty is reconstructive breast surgery, and his friend Joe donates his time to making homies hire-able.

I walked out of there a few hours later with bloody boob bandages and purple bruises like butterflies on my hips, from where he’d suctioned fat to round out my wonky, radiated right boob. I was excited to spend the rest of my day off sleeping, binge-watching Mad Men with AK and eating sushi. There’s nothing like free lipo and really nice fake boobs to make you want to take better care of your body. It’s dumb that I feel a need to make myself “worthy” of Dr. L’s good work, but there you go. For now, taking care of my body means doing nothing much at all, and I seem to be pretty good at that.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

after a while you switch to low fat

1. friend(s) vibe

There’s an episode of Friends where Chandler breaks up with someone—maybe Janice, maybe not for the first time?—and drowns his sorrows with Monica and Rachel. They teach him feminine heartbreak rituals, handing him a tub of chocolate ice cream and a spoon.

“This doesn’t taste very good,” he says.

Monica shrugs, resigned: “After a while you switch to low fat.”

The low fat nineties.
I remember the first date—or date-type thing—I went on after B and I broke up, with an androgynous Ivy League hipster screenwriter I’d met on MySpace. She was witty and sarcastic but nice, and had a great asymmetrical haircut. Her mom had died young. Her dad’s family was among the rich white people who fled Cuba after the revolution, which gave her an intriguing air of both privilege and oppression. When, after two ambiguous date-type things, I confessed that I liked her, she called me up and told me she’d gotten more of a “friend vibe” from me.

It would have been a nobler gesture if she hadn’t already told me a story about a friend of hers rebuffing a girl using the exact same phrase.

Still raw and sad about B, I took the day off work to lick my wounds.

I was thinking about this today, because I encountered some heartbreak this week—big heartbreak—and I was feeling really mad at myself for only working forty hours, only working out once and not working on my novel at all.

Arguably, I should cut myself some slack. But when heartbreak becomes a lifestyle, you have to switch to low fat.

2. harmony

Here’s what happened—I’m going to keep it general, partly because I’m not 100 percent sure it’s over, and that’s part of my confusion. We had a really promising contact from a birthmom. Not our first, as regular Bread and Bread readers know, but our most promising and consistent. We felt like we really clicked with Harmony, as I’ll call her. We talked or texted or video chatted with her almost every day starting Fourth of July weekend. There were some ups and downs in her family life and with her physical and emotional health, and each time, my stomach clenched with anxiety, which gave way to sadness as I delved into self-protective, preemptive mourning.

Which might be what I’m doing now. Or not. I’m kind of surprised by my utter confusion. Usually I’m so quick to fill in the gaps in what I know with my own hopes and fears; I want to call this progress, but then again, maybe I’m just out of my element.

Each time the situation seemed shaky, I tried to do what I learned during the time AK and I were having problems: I went through the motions of patience, even when I didn’t feel patient inside. I reiterated to Harmony that we were there for her, because it was true. (Is true?) I tried to remember that she had an interior life that was completely different from my own. Like AK, she always resurfaced.

She was honest and a good communicator, and if she had those qualities, I felt like we could handle whatever came our way.

She said she wanted to match with us (the adoption equivalent of getting engaged). So we were the adoption equivalent of engaged to be engaged.

She liked it. She talked about putting a ring on it.
But then last week, just when things seemed more encouraging than ever, she became less communicative. And there were some questions about her honesty, and whether it was the legitimate, mild dishonesty of a woman whose plate was piled high with ambivalence and drama and choices and hormones, or the more serious dishonesty of someone taking advantage of an opportunity for attention.

3. debbie downer and angry annie

Wednesday night, AK and I walked to the York and drank old fashioneds and discussed the maddening nature of the adoption process.

“I’m mourning how, for a little while, I didn’t worry about growing apart from all our friends with kids,” I said. “I mean, I love them anyway, but it was nice to not have that feeling of working myself up to enjoying their family-ness. It was nice to, like, see it as a point of connection instead of distance.”

“I know, me too,” said AK, who sees all things through the friendship lens.

There were ways we didn’t see eye-to-eye too, and we know this is our task as a couple: to respect those differences and love each other anyway. No small task for a sensitive, two-lady couple—enmeshment is practically written in our stars.

Last night we went to a Spoon concert at Hollywood Forever, which was the perfect medicine. I loved lying on the grass next to a mausoleum looking up at the black palm trees against the gray sky, as Spoon played its upbeat but urgent and achy songs. I was melancholy, half removed from the world, thinking of the dead.

There is no spoon. Wait, yes there is!
AK, on the other hand, was irritable—annoyed at honking drivers and the woman who scanned our tickets and herself for not immediately handing her the proper things to scan.

“I’m kind of angry tonight, aren’t I?” she observed. “And you’re probably kind of sad.”

There was a time when I would have seen her irritations as shallow and mean, and she would have seen my sadness as Debbie Downer-ish and standing in the way of enjoying life. Now we know better, even if it doesn’t always help in the moment. Now, unfortunately or fortunately, we have practice.

4. the emotional gay olympics

Okay, flashback to Thursday, the day I set aside for myself to wallow. That day I didn’t put in much work after my doctor’s appointment (more about nipple reconstruction soon—because this blog covers all of life’s joys), and I ate a bowl and a half of cereal for dinner and a chocolate bar and a half later, but not more than that because HARM REDUCTION/after a while you switch to low fat.

I wanted to go home and listen to the one podcast I am always in the mood for, Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Illness Happy Hour, while making fashion collages on Polyvore. That’s my go-to thing when I’m tired or mildly depressed. When I’m super depressed, I can only watch absurd reality shows and dark documentaries on Netflix. Recently my friend Annette said that her go-to thing was astrology, and she’d placed a book by Theodor Adorno—a brainy theorist, not an astrologer, although maybe there’s not as much difference as brainy theorists would like to think—on her desk as a reminder to challenge herself.

Pour yourself some Prozac and pull up a stool.
If you’re still reading, I want to know: What is your go-to thing? I want to know that you have a thing that consumes more time than it should. I hope you feel mild shame, like I do, but we should both remember that as humans we just reach our capacity, earlier some days than others.

Anyway, that was my impulse Thursday night, but I knew it would be better for me to let off some steam with a real person, and the ever-generous Wendy invited me to her apartment for poolside drinks.

We studied our toenail polish in the aqua glow—because there is nothing lovelier than a still swimming pool at night—and discussed philosophy and psychology and babymama drama.

The obligatory summer photo.
“Open adoption is like constantly breaking up with someone you might not have dated in real life,” I said. “And when I land in this place, where I’m over-sharing all the time and crying at work and having all this drama in my life, I feel like people—I’m not sure who, so I really mean my superego—are saying, ‘Well, she must seek it out.’”

“I took this class on psychology and literature, and I mentioned the idea of the id, ego and superego,” Wendy recalled, “and the professor completely shushed me, like those ideas were so out of vogue.”

She thought of her dad, who volunteered with the dogs on death row at his local shelter and whispered in their ears that they were loved, but who wasn’t so great at expressing love with the humans in his life. It was just about the most heartbreaking story I’d ever heard—for all parties involved.

“So over-sharing is probably good,” Wendy concluded.

“I wish they—” (again the anonymous, judgmental “they”) “—could know that I’m not a mess because I’m a mess but because this is varsity-level emotional shit. To put yourself out there over and over, to enter a stranger’s life when both you and she are in this really vulnerable place, and to try to plan a child’s life and make this kind of arranged marriage. And then when it goes bad, to do it all over again, and put your best foot forward again. That’s like the emotional Olympics!”

Wendy, who is a hearty agree-er, heartily agreed.

I thought about Homeboy’s Restorative Justice program, in which people who’ve committed violent crimes meet with the family members of violent crime victims. The perpetrators take responsibility for their actions while also linking those actions to the terrible things that were done to them. The family members forgive them as surrogates for the people who actually hurt or killed their loved ones.

“Okay,” I conceded, “maybe open adoption isn’t quite the emotional Olympics. But it’s at least the emotional Gay Olympics.”

5. spiritual direction from an angel who once considered slugging a pregnant woman

I declared yesterday Fresh Start Friday—because I always want to leave my sadness behind before I’m ready, and also, on a healthier level, because I realized I needed to put some plans in place to take care of myself over the next week or so. First, I decided to also make it Facebook-Free Friday (and if you saw this link on Facebook, it’s because it’s networked with Twitter, which for whatever reason doesn’t fill me with the same self-hatred) and stay away for a week.

I also decided to do a week-long Daniel Fast (but without the spiritual parts, because whatev), which AK and I tried for a few days earlier in the week. I like food rules and control, and this isn’t a very restrictive fast as fasts go—I mean, it’s not really a fast at all—and it actually makes me feel really healthy. The gist of it is: fruits, veggies, beans, eggs.

And, more important than either of those predictable measures, I walked into the office of Mary Ellen, Homeboy’s program director, and started crying.

I love Mary Ellen. Not coincidentally, she leads the Restorative Justice program. She’s in her late fifties and reminds me a little bit of my mom, in that she’s incredibly nurturing and wise while also being genuinely uncertain and self-deprecating. Twenty-one years ago, she adopted her daughter through open adoption, after almost adopting a little boy whose birthmom decided to keep him at the last minute.

“The whole time we were matched, I told her, ‘You can change your mind; you have to do what’s right for you,’” Mary Ellen told me once. “Then when she changed her mind, I kind of kicked myself. Why did I say that?” She laughed.

Yesterday, she talked about feeling mad at God when she was trying to get pregnant and wanting to slug a pregnant woman in an elevator.

M.E. on discovering gratitude: "Once I was hanging clothes and I thought, 'Dead people don't get to do this.'"
She also talked about brokenhearted-ness—which is such a physical thing that the term really makes sense—as a pathway to spiritual depth, to understanding paradox. The blankness I feel right now could be the space for something new to enter. The one consolation. Sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes it’s everything; after all, isn’t the main reason I want to have children so that I can have some deeper understanding of human experience?* In that moment, in Mary Ellen’s office overlooking the Chinatown trestle, I physically felt my chest open. Things were not okay, but things were okay. This was love and letting go and God.

She talked about meditation in a way that made me not feel grouchy about trendy, platitude-y Eastern practices. She didn’t tell me we would get a baby, let alone Harmony’s, but she said, “This doesn’t feel over.” She said she would pray for us, and for Harmony, because whatever was up, it sounded like she could use some prayers.

6. turning off netflix as a heroic act

Today it feels a little more over. Today it was hard to get out of bed. I watched part of this super dark, super fascinating documentary called Cropsey, about a Staten Island urban legend that may have actually been true. It featured an abandoned children’s hospital, kidnapped disabled children, folklore and a borough that used to be viewed as a place to discard waste, from dead bodies to unwanted living ones. It was pretty much the creepiest story you could imagine, and completely riveting.

The filmmakers and the creepiest building ever.
I wondered if I was chronically depressed. At 10:30 I made myself turn it off, leave my messy house and walk to Highland Café, where I ended up sitting next to a sweet British family that resembled what ours what ours would have looked like if we’d matched with Harmony.

A different person might have seen it as a sign. Of what? I don’t believe in signs from God, but I believe that the human impulse toward meaning is God. Seeing this family almost hurt more than seeing yet another pregnant woman in her thirties, who are a dime a dozen. This story—or the story I imagined, because who really knows—could actually be our story, except it wasn’t. At the same time, I couldn’t do anything but adore them, as their laugh-lined mother hugged her little girls and responded to one of their English-accented questions, about how to spell “contemporary.”


*But also because I have a predictable, base desire for immortality and I want to buy tiny shoes.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

silly humans

1. a species of orthorexics

Yesterday morning a I read a New Yorker article about the Paleo lifestyle—while eating a big bowl of cereal, naturally—and for a second I contemplated trying it. But being a pseudo-vegan Paleo person would mean I could pretty much only eat avocados and things derived from coconuts. Not the worst sentence in the world, but still limiting.

Then the article—in its charming New Yorker wisdom—pointed out that Paleo, while healthy, is not really designed for a world with six billion people in it, because oats can feed more humans than mastodons can, and what is really appealing about this diet is the rules. Food rules exist in every culture and are at least as old as agriculture itself, meaning we’re hardwired to be hunter-gatherers, but also to be neurotics.

I was like, Touché, New Yorker.

Rise of the Planet of the Office Drones.
I could feel myself looking around for some food rules to jump start my sagging-if-still-mostly-healthy non-Paleo lifestyle. Coffee is my very favorite food with the possible exception of bread pudding, and it’s not really acceptable to order bread pudding with breakfast and take a quick bread pudding break in the middle of a work day. But, as with bread pudding, I think I need to cut back on coffee. It creates a mini bipolar cycle that revs me up for a while, then causes a dip that makes me feel like 1) I’m going to get more cancer and never have a baby, 2) I most certainly cannot write this grant report right now and/or 3) I’m too tired not to eat this bread pudding.

So, starting today, world, I’m going to save coffee for the following occasions:

1) writing
2) late night road trips
3) emergencies when I really need to have a better personality than I naturally do

I’m weaning off with black tea this morning, and this afternoon I hope to do some writing, so there’s an almond milk latte in my near future. How’s that for restraint?

2. gang activity

Speaking of the weird things civilization does, last night AK and I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which a virus-decimated tribe of humans camps out in San Francisco and a drug-strengthened tribe of super-apes builds beautiful tree houses in the East Bay.

I hope someone writes a dissertation on California class divisions/gentrification/racial fears as portrayed in DOTPOTA.

I could not get enough of this baby chimp.
But setting that aside, it’s ultimately a movie against tribalism, as both the human leader and Caesar, the ape leader, contemplate the definition of family. A lesser movie would have stuck with a human protagonist and let him have an awakening upon befriending a human-ish ape. This movie makes its point by having dual protagonists, beginning with the ape’s POV and not showing us a human until several scenes in. It’s probably telling that I can’t even remember the main human’s name right now.

Caesar and that guy.
Watching the movie, AK thought about Israel and Palestine. I thought about gangs. The movie has a very Father Greg-ish message, although it ends on a sad, this-war-is-too-big-for-us-to-stop note. It’s either acknowledging the reality of war (there is a point of no return) or the reality of being a prequel (we all know there will be a war), or the reality of Hollywood (war is more fun to film than peace).

As for the latter, though, part of what makes DOTPOTA great is that there is so much tension and so few battle scenes. The special effects are used more for nuanced facial expressions and eerily beautiful shots of apes swinging across the Golden Gate Bridge than for fight scenes. As I told AK, it’s the sort of screenplay I could never write, because it’s all story, minimal dialogue. Whereas my motto is, Why say in three words what you could say in seven hundred?

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