Thursday, October 23, 2014

the sum of our parts

1. never never land

Yesterday was not an awesome day. Work fell from the sky in fat droplets and splatted at my feet, and I felt caught without an umbrella. I started coming down with a cold. And…another friend got pregnant—one who’s been trying hard, who gets it, whom I want this for—and I felt alone on my little island of nevernevernever.

Why do I feel like this island in Dubai might be the world's loneliest?
We’ve been at this trying-to-obtain-a-kid thing so long that not only have all the fertile people gotten pregnant, but so have the infertile ones. Single people have gotten married and popped out kids. Hopeful adoptive parents (as they are called in adoption lingo) are now just adoptive parents, meaning parents. It’s no longer just the glib and lucky who have kids. It’s everyone. There’s no one left to be mad at, because I have abandoned my obnoxious friends (or they’ve abandoned me, in some cases) and schooled the remaining ones on the careful art of sharing their good news.

I know it’s not everyone. I know I should join a support group or something. But I feel like everyone in it would just have a kid and leave.

Yesterday, Fr. Greg talked about how a lot of people seek out Homeboy because they want to “give back.” “I think it’s better to receive than to give,” he said. He went on to talk about how generosity is a good impulse, but kinship is a more effective one. When our only goal is to sit with someone in their brokenness—to receive them as they are—we experience our own brokenness and connect. That connection is the gift both parties receive.

Morning Meeting at Homeboy: a place to receive, and also learn what the soup of the day is.
I think that’s what God is—when two broken things add up to something whole. And when you feel like one broken thing, it gets lonely.

I’ve always felt most whole around people who are a little bit broken. I’ve always liked poor neighborhoods better than posh ones, sad and anxious people better than confident over-achievers. And even as I type this, I feel a little self-conscious about it, like, Well, of course some hipster writer would say that. What, do you think you’re Kerouac or something? I worry about grief porn, poverty porn, about a possible need to feel superior. At other times, I feel like I work at Homeboy so its collective spirit can save me, and that makes me feel like some kind of drain on the system, some kind of reverse welfare queen who steals from the poor to give to myself.

Kerouac in kinship with a gato!
But they way Fr. Greg framed it made me feel less like my—what would you call it, social orientation?—is pathological or posturing. It’s kinship. Because I’m not so well-off, and maybe the most useful thing I can do in the world is to stop trying to be so fucking useful.

2. killing it, crawling lit

Last night was the second annual Lit Crawl L.A. in North Hollywood. This year it was bigger and better. Two Homeboy alum knocked it out of the park sharing their life stories at a store selling overpriced sorta-skater clothes, and I got to meet one of the writers who coached them, Jeanne Darst, whose memoir I loved. She was totally friendly and real, and she had great yoga arms, and I want to be her.

Then I ran down the street in my fantastic but unwieldy heels for my reading with Wendy Oleson, Bronwyn Mauldin, Pat Alderete and Olga Garcia at the Laemmle. I pride myself on being scrappy and punk rock when it comes to the literary life, but it would have been nice if they’d given us a whole hallway to read in rather than a roped-off sliver of hallway. On the upside, the good-sized crowd just went with it, sitting cross-legged on the casino carpeting, and the place smelled like fresh popcorn.

At least there was art in the hallway.

In addition to Jeanne Darst's arms, I want Olga's dimples.
I don’t remember exactly how it started, but we decided we would all read pieces about guns. None of us are fans of guns, so we thought it might be a challenge to be eclectic and not didactic. It wasn’t. Just to brag for a minute: I think we killed it. Metaphorically, of course. We called the reading “Exploded Guns” after a book Bronwyn found that displayed the organized parts of dissected guns.

We were greater than the sum of our parts. Wendy read an eerie, Aimee Bender-esque story about a girl made of glass and her brother the gun. Bronwyn read a stunning and funny poem comprised entirely of the names of gun models. Pat read “authentic fiction” about the aftermath of a gang shooting in 1970s East L.A. I read a Homeboy-inspired piece about how a scared little kid turns into a scared teenage shooter. And Olga closed out the night with a big, beautiful, Howl-esque elegy for Brisenia Flores, a seven-year-old bordertown girl shot by Minutemen.

No te olvidaremos.
3. we haven’t always been this way

After the reading, I chatted with my dad and my coworker Lauren, and my dad encouraged me to read my story at Homeboy. I squirmed at the idea of telling people’s stories back to them, even though god bless my dad, because he was the one person who turned out just to see me, drove all the way from Manhattan Beach, sat on a patch of carpet in a way that must have killed his back and didn’t take it personally when I turned down his offer of frozen yogurt afterward.

“You’ve always been this way,” he said. I cringed, imagining how he might explain “this way”—“fighting for the underdog?” “caring about minorities”? Part of me worried my dad was going to call me an N-word-lover in some thinly veiled, not unkind but still ignorant way, in public. And I wanted to explain that 1) “They” are fine without me and 2) “They” are not a “they.” I’m the N in this story, trying to love myself, unabashedly serving myself.

Still squirming, I said, “I guess I’ve always had some kind of empathy.” (Although there are times when my empathy has been incredibly clouded by my own shit.) Fiction writing is the practice of putting empathy on paper.

Lauren, luckily, did not seem put off by my dad’s praise and not-quite-PC phraseology. My dad is one of the most stubborn people I know, but also one of the most open-minded, meaning he will make his case relentlessly and is slow to change, but he will never stop listening. He’s also kind of on-the-spectrum in terms of reading other people’s emotions, and yet more sensitive to human and animal suffering than a lot of people. I think that part stems from his attunement, as a kid, to his mom, who was a loving and somewhat emotionally volatile widow struggling to raise two boys on her own.

The world of my dad's youth, or the idealized version of it.
I suspect he tried to fix things for her, just as he tried to for my loving but hyper-sensitive mom and his loving but hyper-sensitive girlfriend of ten years. He thinks this is how women are. He’s somewhat baffled that he raised a woman who says what she means and reminds him—intentionally and not—of his powerlessness to fix the world.

All I need is a national talk show, and the Duesenberg is mine.
In some ways, I think that’s why he’s a Republican: He just can’t stand to imagine that people are suffering as much as they are, even/especially the ones who do terrible things. He wants simple solutions. It’s a kind of denial that seems to be eroding and evolving as he grows older and more open-minded, and it hurts me to see how it hurts him. I want him to be liberal and Zen, but I also want to protect him. I want to give him the world he wants, just as he wants to give me the things I want. I want to buy him his dream car: a Duesenberg, a long-nosed, expensive German roadster manufactured during the Great Depression.

Friday, October 17, 2014

in support of emotional support animals

Have u seen the inflammatory New Yorker piece by Patricia Marx in which she mocks emotional support animals? my friend texted earlier this week. It is poorly argued!

My friend, whom I’ll call Aileen in case her landlord is reading this, has an emotional support dog. (Not a turtle, snake, turkey, alpaca or any of the other species Patricia Marx tries to pass off as pseudo-service animals in her piece.) Aileen has a real letter, from her  actual psychiatrist, that allows Houdini to live with her in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Aileen has an actual anxiety disorder, and it’s no lie that dogs have brought her a lot of comfort throughout her life.

Alpaca side-eye.
That said, it’s not like Aileen would have a panic attack in CVS if she didn’t bring Houdini with her, so his ESA status is in the gray zone. Aileen is a people pleaser and would really rather not bring Houdini to places he might not be welcome. Last week we left a restaurant before ordering when Houdini’s curly gray legs kept edging past the technical border of the patio and an inch into the open-walled sort-of-indoors part of the restaurant. (I’m sure it’s a border deeply respected by insects and all other potential health code violators.)

Ironically, the anxiety disorder that’s causing Aileen the most distress right now is Houdini’s. Unlike the animals Marx writes about, Houdini is small, quiet and well behaved. (And very, very cute, although so is Marx’s alpaca.) Unless he’s left alone, in which case he freaks out and barks a lot. So Aileen has essentially become his Emotional Support Human—as it more or less should be in reciprocal relationships. Like Aileen, Houdini had a difficult childhood and sometimes shit comes up (not literally—Houdini is more anal retentive than anal explosive). Either she will need to get bolder about owning his ESA status, or Houdini will need to learn to stay alone for short periods of time, because just never getting groceries is not really a sustainable solution. But they’re working on it.

This airplane passenger found Houdini quite comforting.
As I type, Ferdinand is resting his cheek on my wrist for emotional and physical support. He is purring in a way that reassures me.

I admit that I had a glimmer of a fantasy of you taking on the article in one of your blog posts! Aileen texted. Mostly, I want to see what you think.

I can’t resist a commission(!), so here is what I think.

1. The article is essentially stunt writing, in the vein of those “beauty dare” pieces in which a woman wears a blonde wig or a fake mustache around New York and documents people’s reaction. Such writing makes vague, and vaguely troubling, allusions to the scientific method, and there’s a longer piece in me somewhere about the fake science-ification of our culture. Don’t get me started on those “I Fucking Love Science!” pictures that get reposted all over Facebook. Half the time it’s just a picture of a weird fish. That’s not science—science is a process. A weird fish, however awesome it is, is nature. The New Yorker is usually above this kind of writing.

This reminds me, I need to make a dentist appointment.


2. Marx makes a couple of valid points: It’s too easy to get pets ESA credentials—it takes about the same amount of effort as becoming a licensed pastor who can marry people by the power vested in them by the First Church of the Internet, or whatever it’s called. Also, untrained ESA pets threaten the status and sometimes the presence of real service animals. Fair enough: Cheating sucks, and no one wants to witness a seeing-eye dog mauled by Ivana Trump’s purse dog.

3. Marx is inventing a problem where one barely exists. Using hyperbole to make a point is a respectable literary tradition, but the truth is that most people feel okay about the presence of animals. Service personnel sometimes get nervous about getting in trouble, but Marx’s fellow passengers and shoppers are mostly amused by and curious about her turkey, pig, etc. As I would be!

Once in Mexico I saw a tiger in the back of a truck at a gas station, and it was amazing! Although I worried a little bit for the tiger.

Sad tiger is sad. Or maybe washing his face.
Cats (the small ones) and dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. They are domesticated animals. If they can watch TV with us at home, they can probably sit at our feet on a restaurant patio. No one but Patricia Marx is trying to bring a turkey anywhere.

Much of the humor in Marx’s piece stems from people trying to be accommodating. But making fun of people’s kindness toward humans and animals seems kind of cheap. That’s what they get for being nice to her?

4. Marx devotes one paragraph to Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, who makes the point that going everywhere with humans may not be good for animals (see tiger, above). “Animals can get as depressed as people do,” he says. I too am for letting animals be animals. Let’s not dress them up and make them do tricks, unless they’ve been bred to do tricks like herd sheep, in which case let’s get them some sheep to herd so they don’t become neurotic and depressed about their uselessness, the way humans do.

But one thing domestic animals like to do is hang out with humans. So why not?

Reading the piece, I felt a little bit like the person in the room not laughing at the rape joke, before the tide shifted and it became not-okay to make rape jokes. As far as socially acceptable scrutiny and mockery go, the animal rights movement is in the territory of the size-acceptance movement. “As far as animals go, I like them,” Marx writes. “Medium rare.” Bah-dum-bum!

G-Dog?
G-Dog and the Homeboys includes the oral history of a homie who describes a childhood pockmarked with just about every kind of abuse and neglect you can imagine. At one point, he’s sent to live with relatives he barely knows in rural Texas. There, he meets a dog who quickly becomes his best friend. They go everywhere together. This is a kid who’s seen nothing but the worst of humanity, and done some pretty awful shit himself, but with a dog, he discovers all the things he thought were off limits to him: love, peace, kindness, fun.

I work with a woman whose cats performed a similar therapeutic function in her life. Although some people from violent upbringings are cruel to animals, just as often—more often, probably—they gravitate toward them. Every time a puppy or kitten is found in a Chinatown alleyway, it’s snatched up and smothered with love by a team of homies. You don’t have to be skilled in the art of metaphor to see that they know what it’s like to be small and helpless and abandoned. Ollie, our youngest cat, came into my life when I was feeling hopeless, as if no good new thing would ever happen to me. With his relentless sweetness and adaptability, he’s a constant reminder that positive change is possible, and that it can take time. (Sorry, this is starting to sound like a grant application. Hazard of the trade.)

Ollie's like, "Don't make me into your symbol of hope. Feed me."
Kendra and I often joke about starting a Homeboy animal therapy program; it’s a joke because Father Greg—lover of all humanity—is kind of meh on animals.

In my opinion, Fr. Greg has the rare ability to see people the way most people see animals: He sees us as beautiful, innocent and capable of learning new tricks. AK and I once theorized that God thinks people are totally cute. The non-saints among us need a little help making the leap. So let us have our dogs and cats. Let us honor them and hang out with them in the ways that they and we deserve. Throw us a bone, okay?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

the plazas of chinatown

1. where you were, where you are

When I got my first car in college, my favorite thing was to drive around Hollywood and take pictures of the weird little nooks and crannies, the places layered with history and dirt, both of which were lacking in my hometown. I fell in love with my own loneliness, and with every L.A. writer who wrote about history, dirt and loneliness.

A decade and a half later, I haven’t gotten tired of exploring L.A. Yesterday my co-worker Louis took me to his favorite Boyle Heights fish taco joint. On the way over we ended up having the where-were-you-on-September-11 conversation.

Twin Tacos.
In grad school, I said, feeling itchy in my privilege, but doing my best to own it. I was a T.A. and had to talk to all these 18- and 19-year-olds. We didn’t really know what to say. We kind of skipped over the human part and went straight to all this academic stuff, like, How is the media covering this?

I was in jail, Louis said, a little sheepishly, but owning it. We heard from the guards that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers, and we were confused, because Men’s Central Jail is the Twin Towers too. I had family in New York, and I got permission to call them. And, honestly, just the place I was in then—not really being very conscious—I mostly used it as an excuse to make as many phone calls as I could.

I thought about how we all had our little defense mechanisms to get away from the reality of loss. Super brainy, lingo-laden meta-conversation or sneaking in a couple extra phone calls. It’s not so different.

Louis is probably one of the most conscious people I know now, a jolly hugger type with big ears and smiling eyes. He just lost a bunch of weight on a juice diet and gave up smoking at the same time because, he said, he likes extremes. The non-practicing addict in me totally gets it.

He’s eating food now, and the shrimp tacos were savory and crunchy. When I ate the fish out of my fish taco, he thought I was doing some kind of low-carb thing. Then I rolled up the tortilla part and ate it too. We drove back past the projects, terra cotta-red in the sun, past the old Sears building.

The other Sears Tower.
2. the real chinatown

Lately I’ve been exploring Chinatown on some of my lunch breaks. It took me a while to realize that Chinatown is a honeycomb of plazas that look like strip malls with a few pagoda flourishes at first glance, but which actually house whole worlds. You know how houses on sitcoms are always bigger on the inside than on the outside? The plazas of Chinatown are kind of like that.

Some kind of taxonomy.
I thought it might be interesting to explore each one, learn their history, come up with some kind of taxonomy. But I’m lazy, and I kind of want them to remain mysterious. I want this to be a stumbling, Situationist type of exploration.

There’s the one you enter from Spring street, just a set of steps and some racks of flammable clothing in a long yellow block of the same.* Then the opening opens up into a kind of swap meet full of $3 tank tops, Hello Kitty cell phone cases, shoes made of a fabric that is four degrees removed from leather, two banh mi sandwich shops (only one of which offers sardine banh mi) and some harem pants I’m trying to figure out if I can pull off. It’s shady in there, and unclear whether you’re inside or outside, like in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Because of all the clothes and fabric, it’s strangely quiet.

Life is just a chair of bowlies.
All the plazas have names pulled from the Wheel O’ Generic Chinese Names. Bamboo Plaza. Dragon Plaza. Far East Plaza. Central Plaza is the central one, with the most pagoda-y entrances and the wishing well and statue of a president of Taiwan, because it’s not like there are a lot of Chairman Mao fans here. There’s a statue of Bruce Lee around the corner.

A plaza of Monterey Park.

A bear of Monterey Park. You could probably buy him cheaper in Chinatow
Some of my Chinese-American friends, as well as people who like to show off how knowledgeable they are, like to point out that “Monterey Park is the real Chinatown.” And yes, I’d rather get a bowl of noodles in Monterey Park. There are more young people there. But for a place that is “not real,” whatever that even means, Chinatown has a lot of Chinese people. Many of them are old, and poor, which are categories that frequently get filed under Not Real.

The colors.
West Plaza probably has the most art galleries. I can see why artists would love Chinatown; it’s such an interesting shape. There are so many bright colors. I also know how these things go. I think Chinatown and Boyle Heights will be the site of L.A.’s next major gentrification growth spurt, and I wonder what this means for the homies and the old Chinese people. And me, of course, because I always wonder what things mean for me. I want my eyeballs to record Chinatown while in all its quiet, sun-washed afternoons, with all its businesses I don’t understand, like the convenience store with the big stuffed moose head.

The other day I was walking to lunch and heard someone call my name. My old Book Soup buddy Dan was across the street. “Chinatown is so crazy, with all its plazas,” I told him.”

“I know!” he said. “There’s a place I thought was a garage, but it turned out to be a supermarket.”

Mmm...fungus.
Then he and his friend were off to buy some mystery fungus.

Far East Plaza, where most of these pictures are from, because I only had my shit sufficiently together to bring a camera with me on one lunch hour, is the home of Chego, Roy Choi’s restaurant that sells a lot of sauce-y (and saucy) items. The menu is in Spanish and Korean only. I’m sure that was strategic, to make hipsters who, like me, are fluent in Spanglish, feel super down for understanding what they’re ordering.

Plaza diners.
There’s also a storefront that houses all the Chinese New Year banners going back to 2005, and a giant store called China Products, which describes it perfectly. There you can buy a dragon head, mystery fungus, faux silk purses, lavender flavored milk powder, pretty dishes and nine thousand kinds of tea.

A dragon head will run you about $70. Worth it!
Far East Plaza is tiled bright orange and red, which reminds me of the Del Amo Mall of my childhood. It was so big it had different neighborhoods—the fancy neighborhood with Banana Republic, and the Burlington Coat Factory ghetto.

A quick plaza fix is a nice break from Homeboy, where it’s air conditioned and fun and noisy and busy. You lose time and space. Then it spits you out blinking in the sun, on another street from the one you started on.

The author of this blog is the one with the (slightly) smaller belly.

*I mean all the storefronts on the block are painted yellow, you racist.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

reaping for karma types

It’s the first day of fall, following the hottest August on record. I’m feeling good—flipping my schedule helped. Last night I took a dance class called AfroFunk at a little studio on the corner of 5th Street and Los Angeles downtown. Outside the studio there is still a lot of funk, as in guys who say, Hey, sweetheart, I just want a beer, when you get out of your car, and inside there’s a pale wood floor and boxed water for sale.

My name is Cheryl, and I am (kind of) funky.
Two of my coworkers have danced there and recommended it. The class, taught by a woman named Tanita with a half-shaved, half-dreadlocked head, combines different African dance styles—West African, Zulu, some others I’ve already forgotten—and a little bit of hip-hop and jazz, sprinkled with some nature-based philosophy. That combination could have gone horribly wrong, the worst sort of hybrid cliché, but in Tanita’s hands it went fantastically right.

I thought, My body was born to do this! (I’ve always maintained that, in the dance realm, I am a better fake black girl than fake Latina. I can’t salsa to save my life, but I’m good with my shoulders.) The moves weren’t too complicated, the cardio was intense and when I looked in the mirror, I was surprised that I didn’t look out of shape. I’ve been exercising consistently for a long time, but not as rigorously as I’d like, and not as much/hard as AK, who’s a cross-training fiend.

But here I was on my own, with nice shoulders and a body feeling the drums right down to my bones.

Tanita talked about the change of seasons, about sowing and reaping. She showed us a move that was like picking cassavas. I felt a little self-conscious about how not one thing I do in my life remotely resembles picking cassavas.

Grant-writing is easier work, but also less funky.
“We, uh, karma types do a lot of sowing,” she said.

I felt like “karma types” might be code for Westside white women, even though this was Downtown, and she was black and the girls next to me were Asian and Latina.

“We are very comfortable giving. We sow and sow, give and give. Now it’s time to reap. We’re not always comfortable reaping. When someone gives us a compliment, do we even say thank you? Or do we immediately start tearing ourselves down?”

I say thank you. I’ve done a lot of reaping these past couple of years. I’m probably living on credit now. I probably have Dust Bowl levels of debt, if we’re continuing the farm metaphor.

What if this is my farm?
At the same time, as a non-karma-type, I felt suspicious of what she was saying. In the baby realm, I’ve sowed and sowed. I’ve corresponded with so many birthmothers, the latest of whom drifted away for good, it seems, last week. I want to think that it’s toward some kind of harvest, that there’s a kid in our near future. At the same time, I don’t—because then, if we don’t get a kid, doesn’t that mean my sowing wasn’t good enough? The wrong seeds, the wrong soil, the wrong ghost ovaries.

Reaping is probably a more spiritual thing. Sow love, reap love. The tangible stuff may or may not happen. It’s a beautiful thought, and disappointing.

It was good to live in my body like that for an hour, even if—as I flung my arms and feet about—my first thought was, I’ll be so sad when this leaves too, as if that’s what falling in love is, the first step in loss. And isn’t it? But I’m going back to that class. I’m going to keep shaking my ass.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

lather, rinse, repeat: writing process blog tour 2014

I met Cynthia Romanowski a few years ago when I interviewed her for Poets & Writers’ coveted fellowship program. As with any paying gig in the literary world, we got a ton of applications from absurdly over-qualified, bright-eyed young people (for a funny, book-length rant on this topic, see Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members). P&W tries harder than most orgs to be kind and fair to its employees, and yet the gist of our call was: Get an advanced degree from an impressive institution, possibly accrue a lifetime of debt, have publications up the wazoo and come do data entry for roughly what is deemed a living wage in L.A. County (but not really, because it’s only part-time and there will be no health benefits).

A lot of people called this the Friends cover. So no one told you life was gonna be this waaaay....
Most of the applicants were way more impressive than I was at twenty-five, when I’d started working at P&W (full-time, with health insurance…albeit for $25,000 a year, which would probably be $29,000 a year in today’s dollars). But I’d slipped in when the economy was better; the director happened to share my sarcastic sense of humor and be tired of interviewing people. It was a right-place, right-time deal, and it changed my life in wonderful ways. I should remember this when I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or with the wrong genetic predisposition.

But I digress.

Cynthia didn’t get the P&W gig, because only one over-qualified person could. But I’ve run into her a few times since, and she seems to be doing just fine without P&W. She seems to be working her ass off, writing interesting things and making her way in the literary world. I’m inspired to watch her trajectory. And I was flattered when she asked me to be part of the Writing Process Blog Tour, which gave me an opportunity to check out her own really well written blog.

What are you working on?

Too many things:

1) a young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old who finds herself running an adoption scam
2) a memoir about the clusterfuck that has been the last four-ish years of my life (infertility/miscarriage/relationship shit/cancer); I want to add an asterisk in which I explain that I’m full of shame about writing a tragedy memoir, and that this one will also maybe be kind of funny, and that I’m not sure what format it will take (which is true, but also a cop-out).
3) a very short story about a gun
4) an article about indie comedy in Northeast L.A. for Razorcake

Not to mention the two finished-ish but unpublished novels that I should be sending places.

But for the purposes of this blog, I will write about #1, because it’s what I should be working on, because I promised the agent who tried very hard to sell one of the finished-ish novels that I’d give her a draft months ago.

How does your work differ from other works in the same area/genre?

I’ve always had respect for middle grade and young adult novels (waaay before Harry Potter and Twilight, just to be a hipster about it) because my mom was a children’s librarian and read them voraciously. When I was a kid, I made up stories, but—without necessarily imagining myself ever being an author—I also made up the teaser lines (What is the ghost cat trying to tell Katie?) that would go on the cover and the blurbs for the back. That was the pattern that the big publishers, Dell Yearling and Apple Books, would follow.

WHAT IS IN THE SHOEBOX?
All of which is to say, this is a genre I’ve had my eye on always, but didn’t necessarily plan to work in. In terms of voice and territory—realism, no vampires; ironically this may be the first book I’ve written that didn’t include a ghost in the early drafts—I plant myself alongside Andrea Seigel and Cynthia Kadohata. They both write about regular kids who are smart, irreverent and brutally honest in the way they observe the world around them (without being overly precocious or precious, which is a pet peeve of mine). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that both have written for adults too.

I guess a difference would be the worlds we write about. Andrea Seigel’s characters are upper-middle-class Orange County kids, sometimes secular Jews. Kadohata’s are mostly Japanese-American and working class. These differences matter and don’t matter.

My character, Tilly, was raised by a young single mother in a small desert town. When her mom decides to go to UCLA, Tilly lands in Westwood, a neighborhood of wealthy kids and Iranian immigrants. Although this is just the backdrop for what is ultimately a mother-daughter story, backdrop matters. Tilly has to make her way in this new world without her overworked mom’s help.

In the psychotherapy world, there’s this concept of the “good enough” mother, the mother who will be there for her child but also give her child space to develop healthy coping mechanisms. Regular Bread and Bread readers might imagine what a useful concept this is for me. Tilly’s story is the story of learning to live with her own good-enough mother. This feels very quietly radical in a genre that is still rife with perfect dead mothers (see this article, which I found fascinating and embarrassingly triggering because in my fucked-up little mind I am the dead mother, the bad stepmother, the father with womb envy AND the orphan).

The saddest movie in the world. At least she got to live a little while before they offed her.

Why do you write about what you do?

My current projects are shamelessly autobiographical. My partner and I started trying to adopt a baby through open adoption a few years ago; I think there’s a reality show about open adoption, and it’s no wonder.* The process is rife with drama. You’re basically sending a woman in crisis on a blind date with a person/couple/family whose hearts have already been broken in one way or another. Writing about this process (hopefully with a bit more insight than the average reality show—although some reality shows are better than anything I could come up with) was a no-brainer.

I assumed I would write from the point of view of a pregnant teenager or an adopted child. (One of my early ideas involved a kid with five moms—birthmom, two adoptive moms who had split up, two stepmoms. Maybe I’ll still write that at some point.) The open adoption world is also full of scams, from really obvious money-grubbing ones to mysterious “emotional” scams. Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that the more interesting and unusual story would examine why someone would do something like that.

Having an adoption scammer as my protagonist has been interesting. It’s the first time I’ve written about a character who’s done something so undeniably and (somewhat) intentionally bad. What’s the saying about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own unique way? I think the same is true for emotional adoption scammers. There is probably a through-line of wanting attention, but there are a million reasons someone might be desperate for attention.

Also, it’s the first book I’ve written where the plot has been at the forefront. Usually I start with a mood or a theme or an idea, and the plot follows. That said, there are still all kinds of ideas I’m working through with this project:
  • The Good Enough Mother, like I said
  • Why/how pregnancy is such fucking currency in our culture
  • High school being about more than high school, especially when your home life is in upheaval
  • Mentors, role models and idealized figures (which can be different sides of the same coin)
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Popular kids who aren’t assholes, weirdoes who aren’t saints (but also some popular kids who are assholes) 

How does your writing process work?

Well, sometimes it doesn’t. See this post about how I just flipped my schedule on its head to deal with the fact that I suck at writing in the evenings. I don’t have kids—have I mentioned we’re trying to adopt?—but I am married to a person who likes us to have a social life (I do too) and I have a pretty demanding job, so time management is a constant, unglamorous juggle.

And by “time management” I mean “trying to create a day that doesn’t leave me so exhausted that I waste all my time on fashion websites and trolling Facebook making myself feel worse, when I really want to devote only like an hour to those activities.”

On a good day—and today is a good day because of the aforementioned schedule-flipping—my writing process looks something like this:
  • Go to a coffee shop (home is both too quiet and too full of things that need cleaning; plus by this point I have a Pavlovian response to the smell of coffee, where it makes me want to write)
  • Read something inspiring while drinking coffee and possibly snacking on carbohydrates
  • When the words and caffeine kick in, start writing
  • Keep writing till I have to go to work/etc./etc.
Lather, rinse, repeat until I have a book.

The larger process-arc of every project is a little different, but I’ve discovered that I tend to write straight through until I have a draft, outlining as a necessary evil as I go. My first drafts have unusually clean sentences (thank you, college journalism!) and predictably messy plots.

I’m going to tag two writers I adore, as writers and people, who may or may not have time to play this game: Noel Alumit and Myriam Gurba.


*Do you have a spare baby? I mean, like, seriously? Or maybe your teenage daughter or next door neighbor is knocked up and thinking she’d like to keep in touch with the kid but not actually do diaper duty? Check out our adoption page and then email me.

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.