Tuesday, June 14, 2016

doubling down on love

1. find out what it means to me

A common trope in the queer rights movement is “Children of LGBT people deserve to see their parents treated with dignity.” I’m not a huge fan of invoking “the children” (it’s cheap and it implies that non-parents…don’t need dignity?), but of course I agree.

After the Orlando shooting this past weekend, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a queer person’s kid. I tried to imagine what it would feel like, on a visceral level, to see my parents attacked physically, verbally or systemically. When I pictured my actual parents—when I pictured Chris and Valerie Klein—I felt immediately embattled. I wanted to throw myself in front of their tender bodies and souls.

Then I tried to imagine how Dash must feel about AK and me. At 16 months, it seems to be: Mommy! Mama! (Actually: Mama! Mama! We haven’t managed to make different names stick yet.) His invocation is a mix of delight and possession, often mixed with the need to tell us something very important, like did we know there’s a box of Cheerios in the grocery bag right next to his car seat?! But if someone tried to take Mama and Mama from him, he would be baffled and devastated.

Lady Gaga puts the L.A. in ORLANDO at last night's vigil.
I shared these thoughts with AK as we were getting ready for work. She said, “Yeah, but I think more about little black kids, and what it’s like to see your parents disrespected under the law for hundreds of years. With gay people, I feel more like we were doing great, and then there have been setbacks.”

Even though I refuse to play the Oppression Olympics (which is worse, to be part of a community that was treated like shit for centuries, or a community that didn’t even get to be a community for centuries? And what if you’re part of both?), I agreed with what AK was saying, and I was humbled.

Respect is a big deal in low-socioeconomic groups because when you’re denied access to traditional avenues of “success” (good jobs, property ownership, marriage, etc.), the little stuff becomes really important. Who you can lick in a fight. What you’re called on the street. A look. Words muttered under breath.


Jill Leovy writes about these factors brilliantly in Ghettoside, a book that makes the case that the black-on-black homicide rate is what it is because law enforcement has completely failed to hold killers of black people accountable, leaving “justice” to gangs and other vigilantes. Another way of framing this is to say that black people have been and still are so disrespected that their dead bodies mean nothing.

2. the secret garden of the self

I have no experience living under a multigenerational legacy of disrespect. But I do know what it’s like to feel like nothing. When I was a kid, I was determined not to be gay, because I couldn’t name a single queer woman that I knew of, let alone someone I might want to be like. Later these feelings of nothingness manifested more explosively when I experienced infertility and miscarriage—it’s hard to put into words, but a part of me believed that if I could be a mom (that somewhat heterocentric role our culture loves to exalt), I could “overcome” the nobody-ness of being queer. It would be, I imagined, my way of having my cake and eating it too.

But then the universe held up a NO CAKE FOR YOU sign, and I was left with my queer, bummed-out self.

During those difficult, searching years, I had to find something to hang onto when so many avenues of success and identity were closed to me. There’s a Tracy Chapman song called “All That You Have is Your Soul”; my mom said it resonated with her when she was going through cancer treatment. You can lose your job, your loved ones, your body parts, your dignity—but no one can take your soul (though some will try). It’s the one thing you have to care for above all else, and if you do, many of the other things will follow (though not all, and not always). And it is fucking HARD when there are so many shiny trophies to grasp for.

The problem is I really like shiny apples and cake.
When you find your soul or your higher power or whatever you want to call it, it will look like a quiet, shady courtyard—a kind of secret garden—in the center of your stressed-out body. Angry gunmen or schoolyard bullies or mean bosses or abusive spouses might assault your body and your busy mind, but they can’t gain access to the secret garden once you’ve found it.

I think it goes without saying that Omar Mateen had not found it. It was there inside him, but it was still a secret even to himself. Of course I don’t know the details, and I’m speculating WILDLY here, but I see someone who saw his sexuality condemned by his religion (his version of it) and saw his religion dismissed by a country that dehumanizes Muslims. Throw in mental illness, a big old gun and the spectacle of beautiful dancing boys who’d found themselves in music and love—at least for that night—and the intensity of the nothingness he felt must have been crushing.

As humans, we owe it to everyone—the Omar Mateens, the gang members fighting over street corners, the queer kids groping blindly for some kind of promising future—to open up as many avenues to success and respect as possible. As individuals, we owe it to ourselves to find that quiet, unassailable place when nothing good is possible.

Love is free. Coffee is $4.
My Facebook feed has been full of grief and calls for assault-weapon bans (I emailed my congressman), and there’s that one friend who seems to think conservative Christian gun-owners are the oppressed ones. But my favorite post was from my friend Dan, who does not shy away the very real possibility that our only choice may not stop the death toll. Shortly after posting a picture of his five-year-old son dressed as “the most beautiful lady in the whole world” (in a tiara and homemade necklaces), Dan wrote this:

All these poor kids were seeking was love, and they were murdered for it. So what do we do? Fight? Give in to the various flavors of hate and blame that are being sold to us (and there’s a flavor for everyone; hate works that way, customizing itself so it can sneak into your heart)? Or do we double down on love, and cope with the heartbreak - such heartbreak - whenever, and it seems to happen more and more, that increasing the stakes that way turns out to have yielded a losing hand. Again.

Monday, June 13, 2016

good fortune in strange times

1. something to (es)crow about

When we were going through the adoption process, other hopeful adoptive parents compared the “match”—the time when the expectant mom and the adoptive parents have agreed on a plan, but before the baby is born—to escrow. I had no experience with home ownership, but I understood what it meant: a period of limbo when hopes were high and a lot could go wrong.

Now the adoption process is helping me understand the process of buying a house.

I know how that sounds, comparing a human being to a piece of property. And that’s exactly why adoption is so frustrating, because it attempts to translate a relationship into a transaction.

Anyway, we are now in escrow. Regular escrow. By “we,” I mean my dad. AK and I are just the grateful, probable future tenants. If adoption was a creaky wooden roller coaster, this process has been a buttered luge—that quick and smooth. A very expensive luge, where someone else is doing the buttering.

A fairly accurate depiction of what it feels like to be a hopeful adoptive parent.
The house: a 1912 Craftsman bungalow stuccoed over and painted a dark, calming olive. There’s a little backyard, a shaded patio and concrete countertops that will be able to stand up to the destructive forces of me and a toddler. Dash will have his own small room. There’s a beautiful claw-foot tub in the bathroom and orange trees lining the driveway. Dash decided his favorite part of the house was the toilet brush left by the previous owners.

You can tell it’s been flipped just by the fence—natural-wood fences have become code for hipster/flipper/New Highland Park. The house’s Zillow profile reads like a recent history of the U.S. housing market. It sold in 2005, was foreclosed on in 2008, sold in 2009, foreclosed on in 2011, sold in 2011, and sold again in 2012. Those facts, plus a YouTube video we found of its makeover journey, made my heart go out to the little house, as if it were a stray pet who’d never found quite the right human.

It’s us! We’re the family that doesn’t want to sell you or let you crumble! We just want to live in you and love you and probably kill some of the lovely plants in your yard, if we’re being perfectly honest.

I wonder about this impulse in myself. Why do I instantly anthropomorphize the house? Why do I have to translate this transaction into something relational? Why do I have to pretend that what is in fact an overpriced, beautiful, desirable home is some kind of underdog in order for me to love it? Is my need to be needed that huge?

2. where’s our humble home?

Having lived in Highland Park for nine years, it’s not like I haven’t noticed gentrification. The Wild Hare became The York. Mr. T’s became Highland Bowl. That funky smelling pet store is gone, and Town now occupies Italiano’s, selling pizza at double the price. There are multiple yoga studios, multiple record stores and Bernie’s campaign headquarters. There’s a store called Platform that will stage your flipped house (and staged ours, at least one of the times it sold).

Before
After
And yet my eyes were opened all over again while house hunting. I am acutely aware that a forty-year historical trend is reversing: Cities are desirable again, houses near downtowns everywhere are getting snatched up (I am now a snatcher) and poor people are moving to Palmdale. It is strange and breathtaking to watch yourself ride the wave of history.

With my new real estate goggles, I saw flipper fences everywhere, along with signs tacked to telephone poles, saying We buy houses for cash $$$. Only two types of houses seemed to be for sale: The ones with new countertops and new wood floors and freshly baked cookies in the kitchen, and major fixer-uppers screaming Flip me!

One of the houses in the latter category was down the street from our current place. When I showed up for the open house, a young, blonde-haired woman looked up from her phone and told me she was not the agent, but she could answer any questions I might have. She didn’t say who she was.

The house was cute, 1930s mission-style with a lot of original floors and windows. It was pretty banged up, with rotting wood framing the windows, and a kitchen that would have been an excellent location to shoot a 1970s period piece.

"Can I get you anything? Coffee? Leisure suit made from my wallpaper?"
“The owners have plans they can share with you,” Not-the-Agent said. “Like, they were going to knock out this wall and expand the master bedroom. And they were going to open the kitchen up.”

She presented this as if it were a special bonus, like an ocean view or new appliances. The “plans,” which were actually just an idea (and a rather obvious one at that), didn’t seem to warrant the extra $100,000 they had tacked onto what would have been a normal price (for a ridiculously abnormal market).

AK likened the experience to that time she wanted to buy a stereo, and they seemed to come in only two flavors, cheap-ass and uber-high-end.

Where’s our humble little home? we wondered. I imagined clean empty rooms, aluminum windows, some unattractive bathroom tile, but nothing that would collapse or leak or smell. The only place we glimpsed that seemed to fit this description was next to high-voltage power lines that even my non-alarmist dad found troubling.

The realtors all had that seller’s-market strut, like hot girls at the club. They used vaguely coded language about “desirability” and “good schools,” trying to assure potential buyers that this neighborhood is safe for white people (in fact, all neighborhoods are safer for white people than they are for people of color, usually).

3. imposter syndrome

I want safety. I want Dash to go to a good school. I’m not above any of this, although I did wonder what his childhood will be like if we’re essentially living above our means by nature of our rental arrangement.

His childhood would be like mine. I grew up a middle-class kid in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. This manifested in small ways that seemed big at the time. My parents didn’t automatically buy all the shit I had to sell when we fundraised for extracurricular activities. When we went to the zoo or the beach, we always, always, always bought our own snacks. We went out to eat exactly once a week (less during tight times), to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant where burritos cost $3.

My dad started going to Leo's in 1948. Long live Leo's!
But I always had food and clothes and got to do the stuff that mattered most to me. It wasn’t like I was alienated for the fact that I couldn’t afford a letterman jacket when I was on varsity cheer. I was just bummed and a little cold.

In some ways I think this situation was ideal. I knew, in a small way, what it felt like to go without some stuff, and it made me good at saving money (sort of…sigh) and empathizing with people who had to go without more stuff. 

I don’t want Dash to go to school with only white kids, but right now Eagle Rock High School is only 10 percent white. Even if that number quadruples in the next 13 years, white kids will still be in the minority. Plus, the house that will hopefully be ours is zoned for Franklin High School, which is 1 percent white.    

This is all such new territory, literally and figuratively. Property. Schools.

“Excellent adulting!” my friend Nicole congratulated me. I felt like an imposter, of course. My dad is the real adult in this story, although I know that would seem true even if we were the buyers. That’s the nature of parents, at least competent ones.

4. oldies but goodies

The other day I attempted to get a little exercise by putting on music and dancing around with Dash next to the air conditioner, pausing to do stomach crunches now and then. He is really into music and dancing these days; he does this knee-bend-and-stomp thing that melts my heart and reminds me that humans are intrinsically musical creatures. I was wearing a T-shirt and underwear and my hair was in pigtails. We danced to Ray Charles, Parov Stellar, The Pretty Reckless, The Book of Mormon and (because my phone was on shuffle) that mandatory U2 album.

Dash's favorite songs. You should see this kid do the Mess Around.
I had memories of my mom dancing to oldies in our family room. At the time “oldies” were fifties music. I guess now oldies are, like, The Cure. Or Backstreet Boys? I remembered her seeming silly and oh-so-mom-like; I tried assuring myself that my moves were more club-worthy (but hopefully not too club-worthy because Dash). Who am I kidding? I am Dash’s childhood, at least part of it, and whatever I do will be silly and embarrassingly mom-ish, as well as adult by default. It will be the stuff he strives for and the stuff he runs from. It’s cool. I’ll take it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

damn you, jose osuna, you are always making me cry

Each day at Homeboy starts with a Thought of the Day--a personal story or short inspirational speech by a staff member or trainee. It's part of the reason I don't bother going to church anymore; I live at church (a church that welcomes atheists, a church where even the priests meditate with gongs and burn sage). (I also know how the church sausage is made, which both dims and enhances the magic, but that's another post.)

Naturally Fr. Greg's TotD's get the most accolades, followed closely by TotD's from especially vulnerable and courageous trainees, the taste of both tragedy and transformation fresh in their mouths. But my personal favorite TotD-giver is Jose Osuna, Homeboy's Director of External Affairs. He is a former client, who started as a solar panel program student and worked his way up through the ranks. But he's quick to point out that he was never one of those kids who grew up in Boyle Heights with Fr. Greg as a shadow-dad even during their darkest days. Jose has always been a bit of a renegade, and he is also incredibly smart and kind and unafraid to speak the bald truth to power, which is why I love him.

His TotD today was about flying. He opened with a quote from Coco Chanel. (He is also unafraid to speak Coco Chanel to a room full of homies.)


He said: "Today I'm going to talk about flying. I have this daughter named Isabel. She's 24 now, and I asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday. Last year she wanted to go on a helicopter ride, so we did, and it was amazing. I was in jail for so much of her life. I missed so many years."

This year, Jose said, "She said, 'Let's go skydiving.' I said, 'Great, you can go skydiving.' I switched the 'we' of that right around."

I thought this might be a story about how Jose worked up the guts to jump out of a plane, but it wasn't. Isabel went up in the air and Jose stayed on the ground with his phone, ready to text her mother and the rest of the family as soon as her green-and-black parachute opened.

"I saw her floating toward me. And I just started crying. I thought about all those years I wasn't there for her. People wondered why I was there that day, since I wasn't skydiving, but I'm her father. Who else is going to catch her?"

I think Jose knows, better than most people, that Isabel had to land on her own. He hugged her, he was proud of her, and she had a great birthday. But the real pang came, he said, when he saw the picture she posted later that day.

"You know, she never went down the path I did," he said. "She never got in trouble or did drugs. She accepted the parents she had, and she accepted that her brother was murdered at 17. She was just really, really mad at me for a long time. She was so angry. Then I saw this picture of her at the door of the plane, getting ready to jump, with her hair flying all wild. The caption she wrote was, 'I flew.'"


I started listening to Jose's TotD as a parent, trying to imagine Dash jumping out of a plane one day (eeeehhhk). But I quickly realized that in this story, I'm Isabel.

My dad never went to jail; his mistakes were of the too-straight-and-narrow variety. He and my mom saved every penny they earned. They were determined to create financial and emotional stability for our family. My mom grew up with an alcoholic dad who moved their family to a new house every year or so. My dad's dad died when he was a year old, and although his mom was kind and devoted, it wasn't easy to raise two boys on her own. 

"She might have had a couple of years of fun when our father was alive," my Uncle Robin once confided, "but for the most part I don't think anyone in our family really knew what fun was."

My family valued happiness, but it was understood to be dessert, the thing you ate after you choked down your vegetables. 

Yeah, I'm still not a salad fan.
For better and worse, all my dad's hard work--plus some luck and the privilege that comes with being white and male and coming of age at a time when putting oneself through college was a bit more doable--paid off. All those worried phone calls from campground payphones to his business partner regarding the real estate investments that tanked in the recession of the early nineties. All those clothes my mom bought at thrift stores--she would drop a $2 skirt like it was on fire if the tag said "dry clean only."

My parents started planning for retirement when I was in elementary school, daydreaming about the house they might build in the middle of a redwood forest. (This was largely my dad's dream. My mom wanted to be close to people and a good hospital.)

Jose and Fr. Greg.
My mom got sick the year after I finished college and died three years later. My dad realized, in the most heartbreaking way possible, that you can't take it with you. And while he didn't exactly go on a spending spree--he still stocks up on frozen yogurt whenever it's on sale--he did purchase the first new car of his life, a sweet little wine-colored BMW convertible that hugs the road so fiercely even I can appreciate its ultimate-driving-machine-ness. 

My dad's girlfriend Susan pointed out to him that, rather than leaving my sister and I a chunk of money when he dies, it would be more fun (fun!) to help us out now, when we're younger and needier and he's alive to enjoy us enjoying it. 

At times I've resisted his help. At times I've humbly embraced it. At times I've reluctantly embraced it. I thought my reluctance came from my class guilt and feelings about social justice (and it does), but a recent post in one of my online parenting groups, the Dead Parents Club, made me realize that I'm not just concerned about living on the backs of the oppressed. I'm also living on the backs of my parents, perhaps especially my mom. 

I one hundred percent know that she would have loved seeing me parent the baby whose adoption fees she and my dad paid. I know that she would have loved seeing AK and I nest in the house that my dad is now looking for, to purchase so AK and I can rent from him. 

And yet.

This house has about six more bedrooms than the ones we're looking at. But I still feel like I'm living some kind of crazy mansion dream.
House hunting these past couple of weeks with AK and my dad has been surprisingly smooth, the pieces--so far--falling easily into place, although we haven't found the place itself yet. But I'm grateful that they're both such good people and such good communicators. Let's just say we've all come a long way from our 2010 trip to England, when my dad tried to see All Of The Best Things In The UK in the space of a week and AK periodically stomped off in exhaustion and frustration. 

This feels like the right time and the right direction. Also squirmy and bittersweet. But hearing Jose talk about what it meant to watch his daughter fly cut some of the strings of my guilt. This is what my dad wants for me. And if living in an awesome house is what I have to do to make him happy, I will make that sacrifice. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

beach babes

1. the turns our lives have taken

My last post was so melancholy. I mean, that was the space I was in, but sometimes I think I only know how to write in Sad Voice anymore, even when I’m happy. I’m like the most emo 39-year-old you’ll ever meet.

But I’m healthy—those quarterly appointments are a new lease on life, no matter how much I try not to let my world revolve around them. And I just got back from vacation.* So it seems like a good time to try my hand at writing about a good time.

That's Amy on the left. This is 2008, which in my mind was two years ago.
It was a pretty simple trip—a few days with friends in a rented house on the Central Coast—but we’d been planning it a long time. Amy and AK go way back to a women’s group at the Gay & Lesbian Center, and Amy and I go back almost as far. I remember the night we stayed up late eating cheese and talking at her friends’ gorgeous Craftsman house where she stayed in raw early days after her breakup with Kim, her first wife. I’d just miscarried and was equally raw. We could not believe the turn our lives had taken. We were good girls, privileged but hardworking. We wouldn’t have said it out loud, but we sort of thought The Best awaited us. At least I did.

Amy met a new love and moved to Atlanta. Carrie had a then-three-year-old son, and when Amy left, she said, “It’s like we were both members of the Childless Woman Club, and now I’m not, but I hope you’ll keep my picture on the wall of the clubhouse.” She meant it kindly, but I hated her for a minute.

It was tough being a stepmom, although Amy was and is resilient. The pangs of not having a baby to raise from scratch resurfaced. We commiserated.

And then one day Amy sent me an email with the subject line: The dreaded email: I’m pregnant. I was grateful to her for tearing the band-aid off, even though I cried when we talked on the phone and yelled something classy like “You don’t know what it’s like to be afraid you’re going to die before becoming a mom!”

But life is weird and unpredictable, and AK and I became moms three months before Amy’s twins were born. Meeting her kids—and re-meeting each other a year into our parenting journey—felt like a thing coming full circle.

2. baby reality show

When we all arrived at the house, a little two-bedroom blocks from the beach in Morro Bay, one thing became clear: Dash is tall. We’d all seen lots of pictures of each other’s kids, but Facebook doesn’t really convey personality or proportion. Dash was slender and teetery, a new walker at 15 months, what with his high center of gravity. Callan and Bennett were busy little munchkins, bustling about at 12 months.

Sweet chaos.
I could watch them all, for hours, like a TV show. Parenting, when it’s just you and the kid, can be lonely and even maddening. You want someone to share the hard parts and laugh at the silliness. I know that single parents get paid a lot of lip service while receiving very few resources (as do parents in general), but damn, I have so much respect.

But with four parents and three kids, life is the best kind of chaos. The parents in question were AK, me, Amy and Amy’s mom Lisa, because Carrie had just started a new job and couldn’t get time off.

Callan and Dash, partners in crime.
We took turns cooking and kid-watching and relaxing, while Dash, Callan and Bennett were kittens who refused to be herded. They pulled all the phone books out of the living room cabinets and threw them on the floor. The banged pots and pans. They fell backwards into buckets and collided with each other and cried about it. They fought over books and toys and moms, although their moments of outrage rarely lasted longer than thirty seconds.

Dash grabbed Bennett’s clothes and she screamed bloody murder. Amy said, “Well, Bennett, now you’ve met a bigger kid who is actually mobile. What does it feel like?” Bennett, apparently, liked to take charge at daycare and at home. She smiled easily, showing her dimples, but she also yelled and cried when things weren’t going her way.

Callan was chill personified, with big brown eyes and a sort of professorial look that sometimes gave way to huge dimples of his own. He loved filling paper bags, eating seaweed and rolling smooth stones around in his mouth.
 
Callan (right) indulges his inner freegan.
Chill and chilly.
We spent a stretch of Friday at Montña de Oro, a stop on many Klein family vacations when I was a kid. AK and I usually went on a run along the bluffs there on our San Luis trips, and now I hoped it would become a tradition Dash would grow up with.

We picnicked on the beach below the bluffs with Holly, Joel and their son Wendell, who were in town visiting Joel’s parents. The babies shared sandy, slobbery bottles and I surrendered to the messy and sticky. They dipped their toes in the cold surf. Holly and Amy talked about cloth diapers.

Dash pouted when he saw AK cuddling Callan. It was the first time we’d seen him get jealous.

I kind of understood it. Seeing AK hold Callan sent a quick ripple of emotion through me too. They were so sweet together—I couldn’t help but wonder whether it might be nice to have a second baby. But another part of me wanted to step in and reclaim AK. For myself or for Dash? I wasn’t even sure. Freud probably would be.

3. the future as seductress

The Second Kid Question has pros and cons that march through my head more loudly than I’d like. I know for sure that I could be very happy (and probably a more prolific writer and less poor) with just Dash. “Just” Dash, ha. Dash is everything! I also know that I would love any younger sibling who might come along. Then I remind myself that we literally could not pay double our daycare bill right now, and the answer gets easier.

Party of three.
What I want to do is live in the present. That’s what Dash deserves, and what AK and I deserve too. The future is a dangerous siren. This is a bit of an experiment in being, to leave the door to a second child open without officially declaring it a Goal, which would be to officially have to be disappointed if it didn’t work out. Right? Are those the rules? I know the dance that desire does in my brain, and I’m wary of it. I only like to let it take hold when something really, really counts. But when you’re queer and infertile—when it’s impossible to have a kid without a hell of a lot of intention—how do you have a second child without letting desire drive the bus?

4. we met a goat at avila valley barn

The weekend took a small turn for the sucky when Amy got sick. She’s a doer by nature and kept apologizing for not helping, but AK, Lisa and I did alright with our one-to-one adult/child ratio. Moms always joke about wanting sister-wives—a thing that vaguely annoys me as a gay woman, as if living with another woman is all about harmony and everyone proactively doing the dishes. But I also totally get it. Cooking, cleaning and childcare are so much more fun when there are other adults around.

Damn you, twentieth century America, for isolating the nuclear family. Then again, I really wouldn’t want to live with my parents or AK’s, and I’m too antisocial for roommates and too disorganized for a commune, so it looks like I’m a product of contemporary American family life despite my critique of it.

We took the kids to the pier in Avila Beach, which was a bit of a bust. The sea lions were farther away than I’d remembered, and I got jelly-kneed every time one of the kids got within three feet of the wooden railing.

This goat is all, I'm a private dancer, a dancer for lettuce.
On the way home we stopped at Avila Valley Barn, where Dash fed lettuce to the world’s gentlest-lipped goats and llamas and one sweet-eyed cow. We bought him a T-shirt that said I Met a Goat at Avila Valley Barn. The only thing that melts my heart more than animals, or Dash, is seeing Dash with animals. I hope he loves them this much his whole life.


*I started this post on Tuesday. Now it’s Sunday. Aaaaaarrrrgh, time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

bring them along

1. the tired ones

I was on my way to the ATM when I saw Tara.* She was camped out on the sidewalk next to the bus lot, and if I didn’t know her, I would have walked right by her, the way I do most of Chinatown’s street-corner characters. Someone had brought her a cup of water and a takeout box of food from the café, and someone had given her a black and white umbrella, which she shifted from side to side as she talked. It shielded about half her body from the sun.

She talked rapidly but lucidly. She seemed annoyed at having to reside in her body. She was dressed as she always was, in black track shorts and a black tank top that showed the marks on her skin. From what? I’m not sure. From a hard life, I guess. Her hair was short and neat, graying at the temples. Skin shiny in the sun.

“I’ve tried to die so many times,” she said. “Why won’t God just let me go? I’m so tired. I was supposed to die three times.”


A few weeks ago, she’d been doing okay, coming to Homeboy’s classes, staying sober, taking her meds (I assumed). Then one day she’d shown up wearing a scary-as-hell matte-black mask that covered her whole face. She went about her business, just…masked. A couple of mornings later, I walked into work to see her being arrested in the lobby. Rumors circulated as to why.

“Homeboy only cares about money now,” she said. “That’s what money does to people. Me, I’m generous. The most generous people I know are addicts. They take care of me. They’re like, ‘Tara, do you want to stay here? Tara, do you want to shower?’”

Her thoughts jumped around and circled back to how tired she was, how she wanted to die. I knew she wasn’t living in a world of reason, but I said, “Well, I’m glad you’re here. I think you’re going to be okay.”

“Oh, I know I’ll be okay,” she said. “I know I’m blessed. I have God and that’s all I need.”

I could see the doom and the hope duking it out inside her, and it wasn’t unfamiliar to me.

“Why don’t you go sit in the shade?” I asked.

“I need the Homeboy wifi,” she said.

2. the lucky ones

People always talk about how working with traumatized populations can be difficult and draining. I’m sure this is true for the case managers and therapists, but I’ve never gotten particularly depressed hearing trainees’ stories—they’re like sad movies, and usually the person I see in front of me is the happy ending. I am moved and sometimes angry at the conditions that caused the sad-movie part, but the people who work their asses off to get their kids back or go to college or get a firefighting certification are real and really fucking inspiring.

I imagined this working-with-the-traumatized depression to feel the way the sad part of the movie feels; I imagined grief and empathy. I figured I must have some kind of jerky immunity that caused me to thrive off the blood of others. Or maybe grant-writing just gave me a little healthy distance, I don’t know.

But it had been kind of a bummer day even before I talked to Tara—just the trying-to-steer-a-huge-ship growing pains that make up daily life at an organization going from grassroots to established—and now, as I trudged uphill to the ATM, I felt worse.

What am I even doing here? I wondered. I’m not helping anyone. I’m not enjoying myself at the moment.

What no one tells you—or maybe they did and I missed it—is that this brand of depression doesn’t cause your heart to bleed for others. It just makes you feel really shitty about your own life.

The internet tells me someone named Kelii drew this.
Today I had a meeting with Homeboy’s new photographer, Eddie. He’s a low-key guy in a baseball cap—easy to laugh, pretty quiet at meetings. The third member of our meeting had to bow out, so it was just the two of us. He pitched a couple of interesting ideas for photo essays. I asked him what brought him to Homeboy.

“Well, I grew up in Boyle Heights, so I knew Hector and Fabian from way back. I always knew about Homeboy, and you know, a lot of guys I knew were in gangs and got shot. My brother was one of those guys.” He mentioned it almost in passing. “I’ve been sober for 16 years now, but I was all cracked out for a while there. I was lucky to make it out. And I feel like we have to live for the ones who didn’t. We owe them that, to bring them along.”

I told him my own story—that I don’t know how I got lucky (knockonwood), but I feel a responsibility to the cancer patients who didn’t. It’s not survivor guilt, exactly; it’s more like the deep humility that comes with knowing your existence is both random and precious.

3. the stapler coveters

A woman in my online adoption group who’s been fighting stage 4 breast cancer for as long as I’ve known her is not doing well. As in, her doctors advised her to bump up her family vacation. As in, she’s having trouble typing. I am no fan of her You’d Better Accept Jesus Or Else blog (not its actual name), but she’s a strong lady, a fierce mama and no one deserves cancer. And the kids she’s adopted from foster care certainly don’t deserve another trauma in their lives.

Milton. My friend went on an internet date with this actor once.
This week I’m thinking too much about my own health again. It’s a thing I want to grab and hoard; it turns me into that guy with the stapler from Office Space. I also know that the inability to hoard all the good things for myself is what forces me to open my arms and my heart to something bigger than me. Sometimes I worry that the corollary to this is that I will only be self-actualized when I’m ready to die. In which case I will happily waive self-actualization for another forty or fifty years.

But even as a fucked-up, greedy little human, I can still connect with other humans, and ride their highs and lows, and that’s the whole point, right?


*Not her real name.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

youth and its end, in prince songs

1991*: “Housequake”

Every afternoon for a week, my mom drives me and my friends from our junior high across town to the high school, where the incoming drill team captains teach a gym full of eighth graders a routine that begins with the words “Shut up already, damn!”

This is my introduction to Prince. I buy Sign O’ the Times on cassette at the mall so I can practice. The song is fast and frenetic. I am slow and awkward and—despite going over the choreography every night until bedtime—I don’t make the squad. I am devastated in a way that frightens my parents. I literally howl in despair, pounding my fists into the bed. It doesn’t help that my best friends, who were kind of meh about the whole prospect, make the cut.

I won’t experience this exact mix of grief, envy and awareness of failure (my own and that of the meritocracy I once believed in) until I’m in my thirties and all my friends start having babies, even the ones who were kind of meh about it.

If you know how to rock say "yeah" (yeah!).
1992: “Gett Off”

Determined to make drill team on my second try, I take dance classes at Act III, a small storefront dance studio in Redondo Beach. Although Bonnie and Amy (my friends who Made It, who get to wear their green and white uniforms to school every Friday) take classes too, Act III is a world outside of high school.

Our teachers are older teenagers who wear baggy plastic pants rolled down at the waist and black jazz boots with the tops folded over. Stella is a junior, a talented choreographer and the first person I hear say “Asian” instead of “Oriental.” Michelle is the owner’s daughter and had a not-small part in the movie version of A Chorus Line. Zeke has floppy dark hair and amazing chest muscles, and I hear one of the other dancers say he’s gay, like it’s not even a big deal. Anita is a gymnast; I have a crush on her and I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself otherwise, which makes the abs portion of the class go faster.

A Chorus Line: "Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty, and pretty is what it's about."
Most of the kids I know listen to KROQ, but here we learn dances to Prince songs. “Twenty-three positions in a one night stand.” We kick and slide and fall to the wood floor in our knee pads. The bells and the tambourine and the base. It will be the better part of a decade before I have a stand of any length, but now I know what sexy is.

At night the window steams up from all our sweat. People on the sidewalk stop to watch, and I feel like I’m part of a special club that doesn’t give a shit about stupid high school cliques, or drill team.

1993: “Batdance”

Well, I’m on drill team now. I hate our captain, a junior who barks orders at us and made us retake our team photo because her eye was doing a weird thing in the first version. The thing in pep squad competitions is to dance to professionally mixed medleys, so you can switch up the mood, have a certain kind of beat for a kick line, etc. Our “mix” consists of one slow Paula Abdul B-side, plus a short interlude of “Batdance” in the middle. For the kickline.

No joking.
One day we have a new coach. We don’t know where she came from or who invited her, but she’s an adult and we’re kids, so we listen to her. “I like how you bring in Prince there,” she says. It’s the only positive feedback she has for us.

A few days later, she’s gone, no explanation. This prepares me a bit for work life.

1994: “My Name is Prince”

Even though I’m on drill team, Bonnie and Amy are still ahead of me. They’re JV cheerleaders now. I’ve known Amy since sixth grade, and she’s always had great taste in music and been a kickass choreographer. Their competition mix kicks off with “My Name is Prince,” the eight cheerleaders in an X formation. They sit on the floor and rise and fall through the aaah-ahhh, aaah-ahhh, ah-AH’s part. When the beats kick in they jump up and change formation. The ah-ah’s are what anticipation feels like. I watch them with awe and envy. The song shifts to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” I can’t get enough. They are celebrities. They are funky.

Diamonds and pearls of wisdom.
1998: “7”

This is the year I edit the Arts & Entertainment section of the Daily Bruin and make my own mix tapes—mostly songs from musicals, but some Prince, too. I like “7,” with its a capella harmonies and mysterious lyrics. At this point in my life, almost every song is about being gay.

“They stand in the way of love/ And we will smoke them all/ With an intellect and a savoir faire.” Clearly it’s about loving defiantly and with style in the wake of a them that doesn’t understand.

I drive my 1987 Tercel and listen to my tapes and memorize lyrics as I fall in love with L.A. and my own sadness. I steer down Sunset to my bookstore job, where I develop my first acknowledged-to-myself crush on Nancy, a sometime baker from Arizona who’s working on becoming a screenwriter. When my shift ends at midnight, I take Santa Monica home, even though the nightlife traffic is terrible, so I can go slow and study the gay clubs.

I wouldn't mind being that blow pop. Just saying.
2011:

It’s only been a week since I miscarried, but I don’t slow down. I don’t want to make AK sadder, and concerts cheer her up. We go to the Forum with Nicole (K.), my best friend and a hardcore Prince fan, and two other friends, who will stop talking to me in another year, when my crises have piled too high for them.

I love a man in gold pumps.
Prince is not one to rest on his purple laurels. The show is guest star after guest star, lit up stage, groovy dancers, costume changes. When the songs slow down, I let myself cry. He has one of those voices that can make you want to fuck or it can break your heart. These days I look for any excuse to cry in dim lighting. Four encores, the last one after the lights have come on and janitors are poking around with brooms.

The next week at Trader Joe’s, I hear an older black woman talking to one of the employees—a young Latino man serving samples of hummus on flax seed chips—about the show, and I join in. Can you believe that show, we all say. Can you believe it.

2012:

I am visiting New York for work, happy to see my coworker Nicole (S.) and an impressive multicultural reading she put together. I have so much to tell her; in the months since I saw her last, I got pregnant, miscarried, lost my mind, kind of found my way back.

This is my apocalyptic year, and March, when New York is just beginning to thaw, is the calm before the storm, though I can smell something brewing if I’m honest with myself. The miscarriage is behind me, but AK’s and my near-split lies just months in my future. Cancer is only a little farther off.

But the night of the reading, I’m lighthearted. I accompany Nicole and her friends—a sort of who’s-who of young NYC poets of color—to a Brooklyn bar. The primary topic of conversation is: Who’s more of an icon, Whitney Houston or Prince? Whitney has been gone a month. But for me the answer is easy.

Rest in purple.

*Years refer to when I listened to the song, not necessarily when Prince wrote it.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

low residency

I’m writing this from the floor of the L.A. Convention Center, looking out on a grid of trade-show booths draped in teal nylon. The hall is full of people in interesting eyewear, wearing lanyards advertising the University of Tampa Low Residency Program. I wonder how many jokes have already been made about how minimal residency is the only kind you’d want to have in Tampa.

This is AWP, a conference where introverts come to get drunk and hook up. Or so the party interns at Red Hen Press always claimed. I’ve been to two other incarnations of the conference, and I never ended up anywhere more exciting than the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, the year it was in Denver.

I’m feeling overwhelmed, and excited, and a little bummed seeing all the presses I’ve never heard of, let alone sent a manuscript to, and sad about how much my so-called writing career has shrunk in the past couple of years.

There is a panel here called something like “Everyone Else Belongs Here But Me: AWP and Imposter Syndrome.” So I’m not even original in my moody alienation.

Virgie Tovar, Juliana Delgado Lopera, Cassie J. Sneider, and Michelle Tea.
Monday night my friend Jennifer invited me out to see Sister Spit (there are off-site parties and events all week, but maybe this one was totally unrelated to AWP, which would be the punker choice), the queer spoken-word road show that Michelle Tea started in the nineties and revived a couple of years ago. The women who read were so ridiculously creative, funny and fierce. Not a weak link in the bunch. My faves, I think, were Michelle (naturually), Cassie J. Sneider (who read an unflashy but tight and touching piece about her grandfather’s ashes) and Juliana Lepora, a girl with mermaid-colored lipstick and a sexy Colombian accent who read a joyfully absurd piece about Tea Party sweetheart Michele Bachmann coming to her gay wedding. I told Jennifer afterward that they made me want to sit down and write and/or go back in time and have a more adventurous youth. Some days, those things feel equally impossible.

Very clever, God! We should all take writing tips from You.
Writing has been a constant in my life, even as it’s ebbed and flowed, and writers always feel like my people, when hipsters and moms and homies and social justice crusaders and childhood friends and others don’t quite seem to fit. I don’t like to rhapsodize about writing too much, because it cheapens it; I don’t want to be one of those writers who has a special pen and writes sensual poems about her love of words. I just want to fucking write. Here, now, on my crusty 2010 MacBook. I want writing to be a way of life, not anything precious or confined to a particular time and place. In that way, it is my religion, and I don’t ever want to be a Christmas and Easter writer.

Real poets know that it's never about keeping calm.
True cliché: It’s easy to lose a bit of yourself as a mom. I was listening to an older episode of the awesome podcast Mom and Dad are Fighting, in which a stay-at-home mom lamented that, in a conversation about hobbies, her kids named several of their father’s hobbies and then declared that their mom’s hobby was “laundry.” If you’d told me that story fourteen months ago, I would have believed it in theory while thinking MUST BE NICE TO BE A STAY-AT-HOME-MOM WITH THREE AMAZING KIDS, HUMBLEBRAGGING ABOUT LAUNDRY.

And I’ve been very careful, after my four-year temper tantrum re: my lack of baby, not to be ungrateful. It hasn’t been hard, because I am truly grateful to wake up to Dash every single day, to be the recipient of his dimpled, slightly mischievous grin and catapulted blobs of pureed carrots. But just because you willingly, happily shift your priorities doesn’t mean you don’t mourn what you’ve set aside.

AK and I have resisted sleep training Dash, because we lean toward attachment parenting (while resisting any form of orthodoxy), and because, well, it sounds stressful. In defiance of my cerebral upbringing, I’m trying to let intuition and attunement guide my parenting, and all of a sudden it seemed like the right time to do my own sort of modified sleep training. Instead of letting Dash cry it out—which according to some schools of thought could send a message that he’s up shit creek all alone—I’ve decided to gently move away from rocking him to sleep and toward encouraging him to self-sooth.

The kind of sleep-training I've actually been doing. To myself.
What bedtime looks like so far: I read him books, give him a bottle and climb into his crib with him, where we goof around for a few minutes until he seems to get a little more tired. Then I hand him his pacifier, give him a hug and kiss and climb out of the crib. I lay down next to the crib and look at my phone while he figures out how to get to sleep. I give him a hand or a hug or a thrown-out-of-the-crib paci as needed, but I don’t pick him up.

Am I successfully sending the message I hope to? You need to learn some skills, but I’m here to help you and walk beside you through the hard parts. Or am I saying Mommy is a cold bitch who will ignore you while you struggle? I don’t know yet, but I’ve been comforted by the fact that he’s fallen asleep with minimal crying, and he hasn’t seemed to hate me when he wakes up (although, I remind myself, it’s not his responsibility to like me, and it’s not my job as a mom to be likable…but I admit it! I want him to like me! Because he’s so great and I like him so much!).

I’m telling myself that this new, less labor-intensive sleeping will be the start of more rest for me, which will lead to less binge-eating (yesterday I ate almost an entire loaf of Homeboy coffee-toffee bread…I have a problem) and more writing. It might be what I need to tell myself to get through what is actually a longer period of minimal creativity and bare-bones self-care. But hope springs.

I’ve seen so many writers I know walk by. I haven’t said hi to anyone yet, but I just finished my coffee, so that should help. I’m off to a reading by Future Tense Books authors, and then to sit at the National University booth for a while, representing the college I haven’t taught at in two years.