Monday, December 30, 2013

a number of things that have my number: tops of 2013

Earlier this year, AK and I saw Frances Ha. I thought it was a charming, funny, wise movie, but AK really loved it—to the point that she was almost embarrassed. It had her number! It knew her soul!

I feel a little bit that way about Enlightened, which we’re now semi-binge watching the first season of. At first I thought that Amy’s (Laura Dern) story would be about discovering that New Age mumbo jumbo couldn’t bring her inner peace. We, the audience, would get to laugh at self-help books and yuppie meditation retreats as Amy slowly learned that enlightenment was a useless dangling carrot, and that her real work lay elsewhere.

Like Amy, I usually have ONE MORE THING to say.
Luckily creator Mike White and Laura Dern don’t take the easy route, turning the show into a big joke about Whole Foods. Amy’s brand of enlightenment is real and internally generated. But linking ideals and nirvana moments with the ugly challenges of life is the hard part, and the center of the show. I relate SO MUCH to the hopeless perfectionist/ignorant do-gooder voices in her head (though at least I don’t get all squeeeee when exclaiming fakely over friends’ pregnancies; I like to think I honorably wear my ambivalence about other people’s good fortune my sleeve, though I’m sure many would prefer I didn’t).

Even though the dominant American narrative is one of self-improvement, somehow we made it decades and decades without a major movie or TV show devoted to intentional personal growth. We prefer to see change thrust upon people, who have poetic epiphanies accordingly. To find the poetry in the equivalent of Jewel’s poetry collection is a radical act that seems uniquely Mike White.

Enlightenment would definitely make my Best Of 2013, if there were a category for Stuff I Binge-Watched And/Or Read Online In My Own Little Cultural Bubble. So would Orange is the New Black. There should be such a category, since 1) that’s how we consume both text and visual narratives and non-narratives these days, and 2) it’s my blog and I make the rules.

But to make such a category would mean I’d feel the need to expand to, like, exceptional Twitter feeds, and suddenly I need a nap. So I’m sticking to movies (released in 2013) and books (read in 2013). Here it is, internet, the Top Seven and Top Ten you didn’t know you were waiting for.

Only Ann Patchett could make me want to read a book about fertility.
Ten favorite books:
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin
The Next Scott Nadelson by Scott Nadelson
Madhouse Fog by Sean Carswell

Honorable Mi/yriams: Myriam Gurba’s weird, delicious little chapbooks and Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg.

This scene doesn't quite pass the Bechdel Test, but it's still fantastic.
Seven favorite movies:
Captain Phillips
American Hustle
Warm Bodies
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

ghosts of chrismas past

The other day at the gym, A Very Kardashian Kristmas was playing. Or, if that wasn’t the title and spelling, it should have been. All the Kardashians and Jenners and their significant others wore fluffy bathrobes and shiny, ironed-and-curled hair, including Bruce. (I think the rumors that he wants to become a woman are probably untrue and definitely gender-variant-phobic in a variety of ways. But he really is looking more ladylike lately.) 

The camera zoomed in on giant nutcrackers and flickering candles whenever one of them got particularly boring, which was a lot. They exchanged gifts. Kim would open something like Apple TV, and one of the others would exclaim, “But Kim, you could buy every show on Apple TV!”

But at least there's divorce and rehab in this scene. So they're just like us after all.
And just in case that doesn’t convey the true meaning of Christmas, they also watched old home videos—the girls in matching velvet dresses, Kim with no collagen in her lips, Kris looking exactly the same as she does now. There was even dark, grainy footage of Robert Kardashian, the dad they lost.

My dad videoed every Klein family Christmas morning from roughly 1982 through 2003. It’s strange to watch the DVDs he painstakingly converted from VHS and be steeped in the utter past-ness of it. To try to reconcile my memories of uncontainable excitement and the delicious plastic smell of a new My Little Pony castle/nursery/ice cream shop with what’s on the screen: dated clothes and hairstyles, blurry footage and our little pathologies, like when my mom says, before anyone opens a gift they didn’t specifically ask for, “Now, I just happened to find this, and if you don’t like it, you can throw it away.”

Susan, my dad and Cathy in 2006. It was Christmas Future in 2005; it's Christmas Past now.
There’s footage of me opening birthday gifts in our motor home one year, when I must have been in seventh or eighth grade, all Sun-In bleached bangs and sarcasm. But I was usually a nice kid on holidays, and I exclaim with genuine joy when I open a book of cartoons titled All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat. We all laugh at advice like “Nap everyday.” It’s like an archeological dig for the origins of internet humor.

The cat's not wrong.
At CalArts we were always reading and writing things that “problematized” memory. I thought it was postmodernism, but now I think it’s just getting old.

Even when I was little, the holidays made me wistful. Maybe it was the music, maybe it was something I smelled on the adults around me. Maybe it was knowing that I was lucky and another year had gone by and my parents would die someday. Maybe I knew, somehow, that I lived inside a video I would one day watch.

I’ve been in a strangely good mood these past few days. Almost giddy. It’s more like my seven-year-old version of the holidays than anything I’ve experienced in the past few years. I imagine snow and new things born in the dead of winter. It’s been a year since I had surgery, and this year I can move my arms freely, and that’s part of it. And I have a bunch of days off, and I can use them however I want. (Who finally put her giant jars of coins in the Coinstar machine at Vons yesterday? This girl!)

It’s also gratitude. I’ve broken down at several random moments, thinking how lucky and undeserving I am (and it’s true—because if I don’t deserve the bad shit that’s happened recently, I probably don’t deserve the good stuff either, or at least not more than anyone else, because we all deserve food and shelter and love and creativity). I only know how to swing between outrage and mild guilt. And right now I’m rocking the mild guilt. Right now I’m doing something that looks a lot like loving life, although I’m almost afraid to type it. I don’t have everything I want, and I am underlining that for the universe/Santa to know: Just because I’m having a good time, doesn’t mean I don’t need a baby. And I know this won’t last forever, because getting old is knowing that nothing does. It’s what makes existence feel muted and grainy as an old home video.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

o holy night of sunflower seeds on a paper plate

Last weekend we went to a holiday party for the clinic where AK is interning, which means almost everything about the party was top secret for reasons relating to the intricate traditions of psychoanalysis. Can I say that I got a nice scarf in the white-elephant gift exchange? I don’t even know.

Can I say that the host’s house was super posh, in a way that was one part early California mission, one part Buddhist monastery? The host herself was wearing a non-sheer version of the dress below, and we had a good time.

Hands on.
Last night we went to a party for Razorcake, the punk rock magazine editor Todd Taylor invited me to contribute to after I met him at my reading with Sean Carswell in June. It had never occurred to me that I could write for such a publication, because one time in seventh grade I wrapped embroidery thread in Rastafarian colors around tiny braids in my hair, was asked what reggae bands I liked and had no answer. I’ve been very careful about being a poseur ever since.

Rastafarian or dirty hippie or seventh grader who raided her mom's sewing supplies? The late eighties in the 'burbs were a confusing time.
My upcoming Razorcake articles are about poetry and prosthetic limbs (stay tuned!), so I’m interpreting “punk” in the broadest sense of the word.

Anyway, I think it’s okay to blog about punk rockers. Even if they have their own intricate traditions.

They were dressed in their finest button-studded jackets and many-zippered pants. They gathered on the back porch of Todd’s house, which he bought with twenty years of savings from people who’d let a massive ant colony live and bury its minions under the carpet.

I didn’t know many people, but thankfully a writer named Brodie—whom I also met at Skylight but had since developed one of those internet-disconnect relationships with, where I was like, “Oh, you’re @Fair_Dig!” and it took me a minute—proved to be the friendliest person ever, and immediately introduced us to his friends, who included an awesome and funny ESL teacher/real estate blogger named Bianca and a girl named Simon who kind of acted like she was in a mosh pit the whole night.

There was only one baby at the party, and she wasn’t wearing anything with a skull on it, I’m pleased to report, just a little bonnet and polka-dot socks. Her dad carried her around so she could stare at things.

“She’s at this stage where she really fixates on things, and I’m glad,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yes! You’re not blind!’”

Not that there's anything wrong with blind kids! Or guide dogs with...bunny ears? See forthcoming article about prosthetics, etc.
At one point, standing on the patio and watching our breath form icy puffs, AK pointed out a pile of sunflower seeds on a paper plate.

“I love that,” she said. “Someone’s like, ‘Let’s put some sunflower seeds out, but not even in a bowl.’”

We agreed it was a welcome contrast to last weekend’s party, at which all the food was a little…Pinteresty. Gluten-free chocolate cookies and what appeared to be mini macarons, dusted with flecks of peppermint or pistachio powder. I should add that the big vat of guacamole at the Razorcake party was heavenly, because great food doesn’t have to be ready for its Instagram close-up. 

Macarons are the Jenna Jameson of food porn.
I’ve theorized to AK before that aging punk rockers (no offense! I’m an aging non-punk!) are some of my favorite people. They prove that DIY can be a noble but unpretentious philosophy, not just an affectation because you’re young and poor, or an affectation because you’re a yuppie who likes to drink artisanal coffee from a mason jar. (The cups at one Razorcake meeting were Laura Scudder’s peanut butter jars with the labels only half scrubbed off.) They prove that you’re never too old to be truly committed to what you love.

“I guess there are lots of ways to be a grown-up,” I said, looking at the plate of sunflower seeds. There were also some of those addictive salt-and-pepper potato chips, which I ate straight from the bag.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

there isn’t any other tale to tell

This is a blog about art and how it threads through my life—how it echoes and provokes, baffles and annoys, lifts me up and saves me over and over.

I know you probably thought it was a blog about cancer and my bad attitude toward, well, many things.

I’m teaching an undergrad writing workshop right now, in which my students and I read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. It’s kind of the story of the ant and the grasshopper, as told by someone with sympathy for both of them. The ant—the older of two brothers—narrates. He teaches high school in a rough Harlem neighborhood, where he’s survived by keeping his head down and working hard. His brother Sonny is a jazz musician with a drug problem that lands him in jail for a time.

Jacob Lawrence's Cafe Comedian.
The older brother doesn’t get why Sonny needs to escape into the oblivion of heroin or the cryptic notes of non-Louis-Armstrong-style jazz until his own daughter dies of polio. Then his brother’s music becomes a kind of primal scream for him—the thing that expresses human suffering and also lifts him out of it. The inherently fleeting nature of the lift—that ability to see God only in one’s peripheral vision—is the beauty and the tragedy of music, of life.

I said: “But there’s no way not to suffer—is there, Sonny?”

“I believe not,” he said, and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked at me. “Has it?... But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem—well like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it…. Maybe it’s better to do something and give it a reason, any reason.”

The older brother tries to avoid suffering in the way that I do, by believing it’s his job to suffer and taking the blows. Sonny is trying to say, I think, that just trying to make sense of the universe is a form of magical thinking, a desperate attempt at salvation. I’m not sure if I’ve totally got it, but, well, sometimes I tell myself that it’s my job to fold my hands and wait humbly as everyone I know has babies. Like I’ll show the universe how good I am. Except that won’t get me a baby any faster than throwing a screaming fit would (lord knows I’ve tried this too). The nature of suffering—even my small, first-world, gratitude-infused suffering—is that it is impartial to how you handle it.

Jacob Lawrence's Ironers.
So what does that leave us? What can we all have? Music. Art. Baldwin says it better than I ever could, and so “Sonny’s Blues” feels to me like the most beautiful and spiritual story I’ve ever read.

One of my students said it was a cautionary tale about heroin. I think it actually makes a really good case for heroin, or at least explains better than anything why someone would do it.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

[These boys] were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

Did anyone ever describe the internet age better?

The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.

Did anyone ever describe age better?

And then, this prayer in the form of an artist’s statement:

Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

acting up

AK and I saw Dallas Buyers Club Sunday night, meaning I marked World AIDS Day by passively absorbing information about AIDS in an entertaining format. Because I’m an activist like that. I think it’s the first AIDS movie I’ve seen since Bio 40: AIDS and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases, a life sciences GE I took as a pass/fail my senior year at UCLA. Every Friday was an optional class devoted to watching movies about AIDS: Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On, Philadelphia.

Longtime Companion: The movie that made me realize I really like Blondie's "The Tide Is High."
We were required to volunteer with AIDS organizations, so I worked with PAWS (which helped HIV+ people keep their pets) and Project Angel Food. Movies and community work—that’s my kind of science class. (A big part of the class was devoted to epidemiology too, which I actually found fascinating—a combo of history and science—and I would totally be an epidemiologist today if I weren’t a hypochondriac and if I understood things like nucleopeptides.) Those experiences really stayed with me, if only because they nudged me that much further toward coming out of the fucking closet.

Now I wonder sometimes how much it would suck to be really sick, facing an early and unfair death, and have to rely on some chirpy college student who finds your tragedy romantic and exotic to deliver your lunch? It would suck a lot, I think.

Don't you want these two in charge of your medical care?
Anyway, Dallas Buyers Club. By one measurement, it’s sort of a Schindler’s List of AIDS movies. A rodeo cowboy/electrician (Matthew McConaughey) who’s as opportunistic as any infection gets AIDS in 1985 and doesn’t have the luxury of waiting around for AZT trials, so he forms a business importing better, less toxic drugs from other countries and selling them to a “club” of fellow patients. He bucks the FDA, which has been paid off by Big Pharma. In the process, he discovers that he cares about people, including queers. He has his “I could have saved more” moment when he sells his car to provide medicine for an impoverished patient he once dismissed.

The movie is well written, well acted, economically edited, with cleverly symbolic opening and closing rodeo scenes. It tells an important and empowering story. But it’s still a movie about a straight white man saving gay men (and the occasional woman). His queer business partner (Jared Leto in very cute drag) gets to die tragically.

I think I finally get the Jordan Catalano thing.
On the other hand, McConaughey’s character is a minority saving himself: a working-class man with AIDS who takes matters into his own hands because no one else has anything to offer him. Not for the first or second or third time, I felt grateful for my own advantages, not the least of which is getting diagnosed with a disease that’s been around long enough to have relatively uncontroversial treatments (I’m not counting alkaline-foods whackjobs).

There’s a scene in which McConaughey, rail-thin and tethered to an IV, staggers into some sort of hearing where doctors and FDA officials are speaking about the benefits of AZT. He shouts what we now know to be true: It killed the virus for a while, but it was toxic and didn’t save lives.

(My Bio 40 teacher chalked AZT up to panic—nearly everyone was desperate to come up with a drug to fight AIDS. But it typically takes about fifteen years to develop something that works against any disease—that’s just the nature of scientific research. No surprise that protease inhibitors came on the market along about 1995.)

If I’d been in that meeting, I would no doubt have dismissed the delirious cowboy as an alkaline-foods whackjob. I’m a rule follower, if a skeptical one. I don’t think science is untainted by capitalism, but I think it’s the best we’ve got. But in that case, I would have been wrong. I would have been better off (though perhaps only slightly) waiting outside McConaughey’s dingy motel room for drugs smuggled from Mexico.

We need scientists. We need cowboys. We need what a woman I recently interviewed called “citizen patients.” I’m trying to be one—though I’m also trying to not be a patient at all—but it’s really confusing.

Friday, November 29, 2013

giving thanks for stupid bullshit, and what i read in october and november

I keep thinking I should post something about gratitude—‘tis the season—but where would I even start? Almost my entire existence is a big scrap bag of other people’s kindness and the good luck of living in the time and place I do. Which is why I’m not a Republican, because it seems so thoroughly self-aggrandizing to proclaim that the self has much to do with the self. Bootstraps are a mythological creature.

It’s only because of kindness and luck that I’m alive to be grouchy that our adoption agency isn’t getting us a baby fast enough. It’s because of luck and kindness (and, okay, a certain amount of hard work—that is not a mythological creature) that there is our experience with the agency (financed by my dad), that there is an “our” (because AK has stuck it out through the hard times), that we are allowed to be parents (time and place and civil rights movements), that there is an “I” (Dr. Irina Jasper and her vigilance of my boobs, City of Hope taking it from there).

All of you with naturally made bio babies? That’s all luck and kindness too, so much of it that it’s easy to forget it wasn’t destiny or birthright. It was time and place and prenatal care. It was heterosexuality and high sperm count. It was your mom who flew out to help you, it was your friends who chipped in for the fancy stroller. I suspect there are times you feel all of this and are so grateful it brings you to your knees. I suspect there are other times when it feels like destiny and birthright, and you’re annoyed that even the fancy stroller snags on doorways and is covered in kid puke.

Looks like a spaceship, costs $850.
It’s only because I live in a time and place of abundant food that I’m here to be neurotically contemplating—possibly like you—that I should lose five pounds. Not because I’m overweight, but because the American Cancer Society’s web page said, with specific regard to breast cancer prevention, I should be “as thin as possible without being underweight.” Other cancers got a nice, middle-of-the-road “maintain a healthy body weight.” (Hold me accountable, blog readers: This holiday season, the sugarplums need to dance in my head only.)

We were so innocent back before we ate that apple!
So I’m grateful for opportunities to be angry and petty. After September 11, 2001, The Onion ran a story with the headline “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” The accompanying picture included Britney Spears with a snake on her shoulders. Sometimes I really don’t care about stupid bullshit the way I used to, pre-three-years-of-drama, and I’m grateful for that. Other times I love getting worked up about tacky people on Facebook, or the possibly-too-helmet-like look of my hair, or the fact that Starbucks still doesn’t offer almond milk.

Because it’s the little things that make life beautiful.

Here’s what I read in October and November:

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin: There's a particular kind of queer kid--and okay, maybe I was one--who knows he and/or she has something troubling to compensate for long before he/she/etc. even understands what that thing is. Max, one of a handful of narrators in this thoughtful, believable, freshly voiced YA novel, has spent the first sixteen years of his life trying to be the perfect straight-A, soccer-playing golden boy to make up for the fact that he is intersex, a condition that caused his parents much stress in the beginning. But this notion of personal deficit is a damning kind of math, as we all learn eventually (it took me till my thirties, but Max is both luckier and unluckier).

Abigail Tarttelin--glamorous and fortunate, but at least she's given a lot of thought to the arbitrary origins of glamour and good fortune.
Tarttelin juggles lots of very-special-episode issues: sexuality, gender, rape, teen pregnancy and divorce, and there are many places the novel could have gone terribly wrong. To be honest, I went in with a small chip on my shoulder simply because Tarttelin is young and glamorous-seeming, and I wondered if the book was getting overly hyped because of it. But she embodies all her characters with love and unflinching honesty, from Max's quirky little brother to the GP who is more caring than the many medical specialists Max sees. The plot unrolls tightly but not overly neatly. The issue of abortion is treated with more openness and complexity that it is in the U.S., where both sides of the debate have a death-grip on their respective narratives. For all its serious topics, the book is something of a page-turner, and never feels heavy. It is young in the best way--lithe and spirited and real.

Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin by Kathy Griffin: A while ago I read an article by a published-but-unfamous fiction writer who described herself as a "ham and eggs" writer (a baseball term, apparently; who knew these things?)--a hard worker, a solid contributor, not a genius people lose their shit over. I see myself as the same. So it was fun to read a memoir by someone who, for much of her career, was a ham and eggs comedian. Even when her other friends were getting super famous. Kathy Griffin *is* incredibly funny and talented, mostly because she's brutally honest about her own limitations, from her inability to do characters to her habit of being "always on" (for better and worse) to her kind of tragic marriage. I came away with even more respect for her. Even if this book isn't as tightly crafted as Mindy Kaling's or Tina Fey's, it's a little more human.

Shirley Wins by Todd Taylor: Given that the title tells us the ending (Shirley wins a local pumpkin-launching contest after months of trial-and-error catapult-making), it seems fair to say this isn't a plot-oriented book. Rather, it's about the process--of birthing, making, laboring, engineering your thing (whether it's art or science) into existence. Shirley is a quiet sixty-year-old with a government job and a granddaughter she's raised from birth. It's nice to see such an uncommon protagonist, and Taylor clearly has a lot of love for her, even though he drops bowling balls and cans of paint on her. He describes her work in sharp, artful detail that reminds me of Ron Carlson and makes me think Taylor has built a thing or two in his time. The book will appeal to the mechanically minded and to those mystified by those little plastic anchors that come with Ikea shelves (guess which category I fall into). The novel illuminates the simple and complex pleasures of hands-on tasks and problem-solving like few others I've read. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to other parts of Shriley's life, and could have used a few more, in addition to more conflict--I wondered if Taylor's love for Shirley also made him a bit too protective of her. But this is one of those novels whose kindness and elegant language I find staying with me well after finishing it.
 
Shirley's punk rock granddaughter.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson: As with her memoir The Red Parts, Nelson combines brutal personal honesty about life's darkest threads with scholarly historical research in this collection of what might be called short essays or prose poems, although "bluets" seems like the truly perfect word, and I will always think of each as a bluet. As I read, I found myself highlighting many passages and, when I'd put the book down, seeing and craving blue like never before. Blue is a metaphor for sexual desire (think of comedians who "work blue"), depression ("the blues") and one specific relationship she's mourning, as well as the color itself. Nothing is just one thing. Although I came to the end abruptly, feeling slightly unfulfilled--as if there was an arc here that petered out--maybe that's part of the point. Either way, Nelson is among those writers whose work has an indescribably meaty quality for me that's as riveting and crave-able as the color blue.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: The mystery--who caused the dancehall fire that killed twenty-some people in a small Ozarks town during Prohibition?--kept me turning pages, although the many characters, zigzagging chronology and dense language don't make for a particularly quick read, despite the book's novella length. But I mean that in a good way--this story is as rich as the meat bones heroine Alma smuggles home after her employer has discarded them. Woodrell wants us to take a second look at everything, to see that the good guys aren't as good as they seem, and the bad guys aren't as bad.

The fire that one time.
The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress by Scott Nadelson: Like me, Scott Nadelson fears he's cursed his cat with a disease that runs in his family. Like me, Scott Nadelson sometimes believes himself to be a doomed loser and sometimes believes he's a genius. He has this thought, which I have also had: "I woke to face another day and thought, with relief, It could be worse. And then I thought, with a chill rising from the very depths of my being, It could be worse."

So maybe I am the next Scott Nadelson?

I loved this memoir, a collection of connected essays about reading and loneliness and the ideas people have about themselves. (Unlike Scott Nadelson, I don't spend four hours a day reading Kafka. But I like the idea of myself as someone who might.) He's simultaneously very self-conscious and very sincere; he's ruthless in documenting his own pretensions and flights of fancy, whether trying to impress a girl in his documentary filmmaking class or imagining the impact he's made on a Ukrainian student. The connections--with women and students--do come, but never in the ways or at the times literature has taught him to expect. This is a story about getting tripped up by your own stories about yourself, and being saved by stories about others. It is exactly what I needed.

Friday, November 22, 2013

mmm...cake

AK and I miss the days when Plum Sykes had a regular column in Vogue. She was always writing about hanging out with Gwyneth Paltrow, or what she was going to wear to some sort of semi-royal gala, or her bold decision to bob her hair, or her new discovery of the color olive. She presented everything as a charming dilemma, and I always imagined a princess standing in front of an immense closet, hands clasped perplexedly as servants scurry about.

What? Oh, just having a few friends including my bestie Gwynnie over.
Once she wrote about her chronic back pain and I was like, Oh my god, Plum Sykes has a real problem! I think she solved it with a spa treatment and an intense workout routine that enabled her to wear a fabulous backless gown to the semi-royal gala of the month.

Vogue has since replaced Plum Sykes with Elisabeth Von Thurn und Taxis, who I think is an actual princess from some Swiss-ish country. I don’t adore her as much as Plum, but her piece in the December issue, about wearing precious gems in her hair, is pretty fantastic.

A lion: the perfect accessory.
She writes about wearing hair-jewelry to various premieres and galas, naturally, and provides historical and familial context. As a child, she loved watching her mom lay out her heirloom jewels. (The Stunningly Dressed Mother And Her Mystical Beauty Rituals is a required character in any Vogue nostalgia piece. Although my mom had plenty of style, my childhood memories are of her sifting through sale racks and alternating between brands of drugstore lipstick.) Elisabeth recalls her Hungarian grandmother fleeing communism in 1951 with nothing but a few jewels tucked into her bra.

That was when I checked the byline and realized this refugee story could also be one of the wealthy fleeing a people’s revolution. I mean, I’m not saying that communism did many favors for the people of Eastern Europe, but I doubt Elisabeth Von TNT’s grandma did either, you know?

Hair jewelry, also known as A CROWN.
I’ve long accepted and embraced that Vogue is an aspirational fantasy publication, one that declares any dress under $500 a “steal” and profiles socialites as if they were truly handbag designers and not rich girls who’ve monetized the art of shopping. The editors pretend they’re writing for people who buy $100 “hostess gifts”*, and we pretend we are those people. It’s a good time.

Still, the December issue is extra, extra Let Them Eat Cake.

Besides the hair-jewelry article, there is a piece on “The Fasting Diet”—which involves not eating food—and an entire spread featuring models dressed as Dickensian street urchins. Each page includes a quote from Dickens. I don’t know which book(s) they’re from because I only read the Cliffs Notes for A Tale of Two Cities, but I do know that Dickens was trying to highlight very real social problems of his time. Does the passage of time make it inoffensive? In a hundred years, will Vogue feature a spread inspired by neglected kids in foster care or inner-city drug wars?

Wait, don’t answer that.

Don't get me wrong--I like a boyish girl in a newsie cap.

Chim-chim-cher-fuck-you.


*I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a non-edible hostess gift, period. Maybe this is why I don’t get invited to more parties.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

blog as you are: kim miller

Kim Miller has frequently been the only entity standing between me and a full hypochondriac breakdown. She lives a few blocks away from us in Highland Park, but right now she's at a melanoma conference in Philadelphia, which is how the medical jet-set rolls. Here's how she spent a recent day there:*

Kim, her daughter Bea and a chicken wearing a monocle, I think.
7:00 AM: My iPhone alarm goes off, set to Digital—the sound that most captures how I feel in the morning, disoriented and robotic.  I’m at the Philadelphia Marriott, room 1244, in town for the 2013 Society for Melanoma Research Congress. I have two scientific posters on melanoma prevention in the conference, one of only 4-prevention focused posters (and the other two are from my research team).

7:50 AM: Sonia, the 4th year med student who I’m sharing my hotel room with, and I head downstairs for the pre-conference breakfast. We’re moving fast because breakfast ends at 8 AM. We manage to snag some food and coffee and sit down at a table. A sleek woman sits down next to us and introduces herself. She’s a fellow in medical oncology from New York. She asks me what I do and I realize I’m not sure exactly what to say. “I, uh, am getting my Ph.D. in Preventive Medicine, or Public Health, or Health Behavior Research.” None of them seem quite right, but all are true. We’re late for the opening panel so we don’t really talk much more than that anyway.

8:30 AM: We enter halfway through the first presentation which is about putting sunscreen and protective clothing on mice and exposing them to ultraviolet radiation. It seems protective clothing works better to prevent the mice from developing melanoma, as sunscreen offers only partial protection. His talk will be the last I understand, because after that it’s all about MAPK (ERK) inhibitors and oncogenes and whatnot. One researcher acknowledges his mice, which is nice.

But the verdict is still out on rats in hula skirts.
10:00: It’s coffee break time, but only for melanoma! I’m guessing the sign is intended to  deter risk managers, who are having their own conference down the hall from us, from stealing our coffee. But I don’t think they need to, because I am pretty sure they can afford their own coffee.

Coffee better not cause cancer. IT'S ALL I HAVE LEFT.
12:00: Lunchtime. Sonia and I grab food from the Chinese buffet and stand at a table to eat. A kind-faced German researcher joins us. He introduces himself and asks us about our work; he studies adverse reactions to immunotherapies. An older bearded American man comes over to our table and immediately engages the German, ignoring Sonia and me. He brags about the transcription pathway he named in the 1980s to impress the German, and basically turns his back on me but gesticulates near my face while I'm trying to eat. I’m like, WTF, and move closer to Sonia. The German tries to include us in the conversation but the bearded American is too dominant and the German gives up.

2:00: I’m back in the hotel room to rest and do some work. I write emails, send some texts, and work on my structural equation modeling term paper. I’m super-tired and contemplate taking a nap, but that’d be crazy, right?

3:00: I’m semi-napping and get a flurry of emails from my Principal Investigator about a new potential study he’s all enthused for us to do. I realize that conferences give him Ideas, which then gives me more Work. Not sure that's so great.

5:00: Poster time! They are having an evening poster showing reception. The presenting author is required to stand next to the poster and desperately try to engage anyone within radius in conversation.

I bet that New Kids on the Block poster you had when you were twelve couldn't prevent cancer, could it?
5:45: No one but members of my research team have spoken to me about my posters so far. Finally, a man comes over and is interested in the work we’re doing with melanoma prevention and kids. He has a 7 year old. We talk about kids…and a little about our study. I feel desperately grateful for his attention.

6:00: An actual Swedish person is interested in my poster! She reads it in depth, asks several questions, and asks for my contact information. Maybe I can go to Sweden!

6:30: I have a long talk with the health economist who has the poster next to mine. She’s sweet and we compliment each other’s work. She gives me her card and tells me that any time I need a health economist to give her a call. That actually is a lot more useful than it sounds.

This little piggy did not eat roast beef. Because eating red meat contributes to cancer.
7:00: My PI comes over and tells me to go talk to poster #115, who turns out to be my Australian doppelganger, a woman from Perth who is doing population based research on melanoma. She wears the same kind of eyeglasses I do and we have one of those animated talks full of shared references, hand waving, and brainstorming. My colleague Loraine calls her Australian Kim. Maybe I can go to Perth!

8:00: Sonia, Loraine, and our PI find a restaurant with sufficient beer choices to please our PI and proceed to drink, gossip and jibber-jabber in the way you do when you’re in a strange city with colleagues after a long day. 

11:00: Three hours more of working on my term paper and I really should go to bed. Tomorrow morning begins genomics, and more incomprehensibility for basic-science-challenged me. Sonia flies back to LA tomorrow to work a 7-7 ER rotation and I’m heading in the evening to my cousin’s in Philly to spend two days with family.  I’ll miss the liminal conference space. Apparently next year the congress is being held in Switzerland, but my PI has given me a pretty clear indication that’s not going to happen for me.

Yeah, but does Switzerland have a signature sandwich? (Swiss cheese steak?)

*Guess what? The Blog As You Are Project is an ongoing thing for as long as you good people care to send me write-ups of your day. Just email them, with a picture, to cheryl.e.klein[at]gmail.com.

Monday, November 18, 2013

heirs to los angeles

I was supposed to visit Tracy in Joshua Tree this past weekend, but her mom had some health stuff (shout-out to Bev Kaply!), so we postponed. I was sad not to see Tracy, but found time is always a bit of a silver lining.

Yesterday AK and I found ourselves with the kind of weekend day we used to have back before she worked an average of six and a half days a week. We slept till nine. I made blueberry walnut pancakes. We hiked Debs Park, where we watched the world’s second most energetic dog catch air and practically take flight as he chased a ball thrown by his similarly athletic person. His person had another dog, a curly mix who was content to walk the trail at a reasonable pace.

AK did that dog’s voice: “Oh, you know…I just like to read.”

I added on: “Brunch would be nice too.”

We bought DayQuil for AK, who caught my cold this past week, and antidepressants for me and anti-aging moisturizer for both of us, because it’s time to find out if that shit works, at Target. Then we went to the Natural History Museum, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t been to since it reopened. I really wanted to see the Becoming L.A. exhibit (although a part of me also mourns the old California hall, with its earth tones and wagons and dioramas of mission life; because I love how museums are museums of themselves, first and foremost).

As someone who grew up loving sepia and bonnets, I’m always extra thrilled to see old-timey photos of my own people—in this case, Angelenos. My family has lived in Southern California for four generations (with the exception of my paternal grandmother, who moved here from England as a kid). I looked for them in the photos of canneries (mom’s side) and the aviation industry (dad’s side). AK’s family has been here almost as long. She looked for her last name on the list of L.A.’s founding families, just in case.

“It would be nice to discover you were heir to some sort of unclaimed land grant,” I agreed.

Gov. Pio Pico and family. No relation to AK, alas.
I found that list, reprinted in the original Spanish and listing the gender, race and age of each family member, fascinating too. A lot of the founders were listed as “mulato” or “mulata,” but I hadn’t read anything about significant number of African Americans living in L.A. in the nineteenth century, so I had some of the same questions I had back in Puerto Rico. Obsessively, I calculated how old each woman was when she had her children. The human brain can’t help but apply narrative to even the driest census, so there I was, thinking about the woman who had three girls—probably a liability in those days—and kept trying for a boy. She had him at age thirty-seven. It must have been a big risk back then, but maybe having a son was a thing you risked your life for. Or maybe they were just really Catholic and she got pregnant because she got pregnant.

There were plenty of women who started having babies at seventeen or eighteen, but also more than a few who hadn’t had their first until their late twenties.

“I guess there’s always more variation than you hear about,” AK said.

I geeked out hard on a room-sized model of Downtown L.A. as it looked in 1940, honing in on Bunker Hill, still home to a cluster of Victorian homes that, even then, were dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. I thought of The Exiles. There were screens placed on the sides of the model, where you could peruse a digital version of the map with your fingers and zoom in on certain neighborhoods and landmarks.

Model city.
I sighed happily and told AK, “This is all I ever want, really. To fly over the city and magically be able to dip into some point in the past and just watch it on video.”

The museum closed and we visited our friends Jennifer and Joel, who are in the process of moving to Ojai and thinking about all the things in L.A. they’ll miss.

“Like potato tacos at Chano’s,” Jennifer said as we walked past it. “I know we can come back anytime and go there. But we won’t.”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2 years a mourner

“I know it’s a hard day,” Cathy said when I met her at my dad’s house for dinner Monday night. I immediately teared up. You don’t really expect your family to remember what would be your miscarried twins’ second birthday. It hadn’t been a particularly hard day, but I’d thought about them, definitely. As always, the voice of move on, move on was strong in my head.

She noticed I was wearing my pea pod necklace she gave me for my thirty-fourth birthday, the one birthday I was pregnant (although I guess no one but an elephant is pregnant for two birthdays). Twin green pearls representing the little peas in my pod.

I guess if an elephant did miscarry, she would never forget it.
“Thanks,” I said, all choked up. I was walking around our dad’s kitchen. I opened the fridge. “Hey! Pudding!”

Cathy laughed. I was still sad, but not as hard to distract as I once was.

Later AK and I held onto each other and devoted a moment to them, in bed, both of us exhausted, an old John Sayles lesbian movie called Lianna playing on my laptop in the background, me coughing and waiting for the NyQuil to kick in. I was glad for her and for my health (cold aside), and I hoped awesome things would happen this year.

On Friday we saw 12 Years a Slave at the Landmark in Westwood; I knew I’d immediately be shamed re: my own stupid problems.

It was a really good movie in all kinds of big and little ways, but my favorite moment, the one I want to write about, is when Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a musician kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in Louisiana, attends a makeshift funeral for a man who drops dead picking cotton. At this point he’s no stranger to the brutality and—almost worse—the bizarre, ever-shifting politics of plantation life. He knows what he must do to survive. During his most fortunate moments, he’s been able to play the violin for pleasure, for pay or for a diabolical slave master who loves to make his exhausted field hands dance in the middle of the night.

Changing his tune.
But the slaves are unfamiliar with his brand of music. At the funeral, they sing a spiritual a cappella, and Solomon stands silent and alone. Then something shifts on his sad, angry face, and he begins singing along with them. Roll, Jordan, roll. He is still sad and angry, but he’s no longer alone. The shift is an act of surrender, but not, this time, to a slave owner. He looks skyward. This is what people mean when they say “Let go and let God.”

To some, that phrase might mean “God’s in control. I don’t know what his plan is, but I’ll accept it.” I have a personal beef with that interpretation, because I don’t think God is that mean or that powerful. To me the phrase, and the moment in the movie, mean “I’m not in control, but all is not lost. I still have God and love.”

This is the moment Solomon becomes free. This is the moment he accepts that he is a slave—not in the sense of being owned (because no one ever can be, truly), but in the sense that he is no different from his fellow workers. Until now, he has understandably held himself apart from this group of uneducated people who’ve never contemplated freedom as more than a pipe dream. Who look the other way when one of their friends is beaten, because they have to.

But as he begins to sing with them, Solomon seems to understand that he is not better than them, and they are not worse than him. They know something that he will benefit from learning. They support each other in ways he can access only if he gets down in the river with them, in their low throaty vocals, their happy-sad swaying. Roll, Jordan, roll.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

pr travel journal, 11/1: fellow travelers

Friday, 11/1

1. san francisco, patron saint of animals, merchants and stowaways

San Juan felt like arriving back home after our vacation-within-a-vacation. Outside our hostel, Posada San Francisco, we saw the guy from our kayak tour we’d been calling “San Francisco” (for the city in California, not the street in San Juan that our hostel was on).

Posada San Francisco on Calle San Francisco.
“Are you stalking me or am I stalking you?” He had a lilting Indian accent.

We invited him to join us for dinner after we all got a chance to check in and change.

This time our room was on the sixth floor, similarly spare but to the point of having no shelves or clothing rods in the closet. As with our previous room, there was a wooden cross above the bed.

No bible in the drawer, though, because there are no drawers.
One of the nice things about traveling is that you don’t necessarily learn the most textbook things about each other first. We learned that Hakim had gone tavern-diving in the Yucatan and evaded several speeding tickets and signed up to take French in school because the teacher was pretty before we learned anything about his family or what he did for a living.

But that stuff came out too; he’d grown up in Bangalore, studied electrical engineering at Stanford and worked for startups. He liked traveling, he said, becaue he didn’t have to talk about startups with everyone he met. I knew what he meant. Sometimes the sentence “We make small grants for literary events” felt like rocks falling out of my mouth.

Hakim lived in Pacific Heights. I remembered an article I’d read in Vanity Fair about old money and tech money colliding on one specific, coveted block of mansions in Pacific Heights. In his early thirties, I guessed, Hakim was probably a smidge too young for that block, but he was contemplating taking a month or more off to travel, so his startups must have been doing okay.

He was friendly and funny and wanted to know what AK’s psychology training enabled her to guess about him. It was fun hanging out with someone new. At home I was always competing for one-on-one time with AK, the energetic extrovert, but after a week alone-together time, I welcomed the mild wild card of another person.

We wandered uphill to San Sebastian Street, a strip of Old San Juan aimed at wealthier tourists. T-shirt shops gave way to Gucci. The blue cobblestone was shiny from the afternoon rain.

The view from San Sebastian (in daylight).
We went to a bar with a beer menu as thick as a binder of karaoke songs. While we flipped through it, Hakim asked if there was anything about him that read as gay, because twice recently—including yesterday in Esperanza—guys had hit on him.

I told him it was because he dressed nicely, which he did. Trim plaid shirt, straw fedora. He’d just wondered if there were one specific thing, he said; if he was communicating something he didn’t know about himself. His guess was his intricately trimmed facial hair. We agreed that it was a likely contributing factor.

We talked about salsa dancing and who would lead, AK or me. AK explained the difference between gender expression and sexuality. She’s always maintained that our problem is we’d both want to follow. I’ve always maintained that I’m terrible at all partner dancing, and especially salsa. Give me an empty dance floor and some hip-hop or lyrical jazz. When it comes to dancing, I’m a much better fake black girl than fake Latina girl.

AK at the Nuyorican Cafe salsa, etc. club.
We were joined by Billy and Samantha, a couple we (Hakim, really) had met outside our hostel. They had an REI wholesomeness about them; it made sense that they’d flown in from Anchorage to do a surfing/rock climbing tour of the Caribbean. For months! They’d bought a one-way ticket.

2. first class envy

Who were these people who wanted to and could quit their jobs and travel for months at a time? Earlier that day, when we’d stopped for coconut rice and tostones at a strip of beachside kiosks in Luquillo, I’d remembered out loud how much I’d envied those world travelers when I was in my twenties. They’d seemed cooler, more noble, full of wisdom I wasn’t permitted to question.

There is wisdom in the coconut-rice pyramids of Luquillo.
And then I’d realized there wasn’t a discernible difference, in settled people in their mid-thirties, between those who’d globe-trotted and those who hadn’t. We had all learned and grown one way or another, in Bangkok or Valencia. I started to own my own provincialism, and my envy shriveled.

I realized that this was/is how I see people with children now: as if they have secret knowledge I must submit to. Cancer gave me a bit of a trump card, if a depressing one. I’d learned all those lessons about ceding control and seizing the day too, and maybe moms would be forced into an (un-envying) awe of me, dammit.

A difference between the mysterious wisdom of travel and the mysterious wisdom of parenthood is, of course, that I never tried to travel. I could have joined the Peace Corps or taught English in Tokyo or bartended on a beach in Puerto Rico, and I chose not to. Now I’m doing the parenting equivalent of trying to board a flight that constantly gets delayed. Two and a half years ago I got on the plane and taxied around the runway for a while, and then was shuffled back to the gate while I watched line after line of my peers take flight, all seemingly in first class. (I know the reality is probably that they’re in economy, trying to cram their bags in the overhead bin and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups.)

I sit in this metaphorical airport knowing that their destinations are no more and no less fraught with heartache and wisdom, Starbucks and locals of all stripes, than LAX. But I still don’t want to live at LAX; I’m still not ready to give up and go home.

Monday, November 11, 2013

pr travel journal, 10/31: for a small fee in america

10/31, Thursday

1. life of oh my

The last part of our day in Esperanza was a kayak tour of Mosquito Bay (not to be confused with Mosquito Pier), a shallow lagoon inhabited by microorganisms—three hundred thousand per gallon—that glowed when anything touched them. After a bumpy van ride to the water, our guides,  Carlitos and Joshua, led seven kayaks of tourists—mostly Californians—into the dark bay.

We all had blue lights clipped to the front of our boats, and Carlitos had a green light in his springy pontyail (guys with would-be Afros can rock the ponytail look so much better than guys with thin, silky hair). When we dipped our paddles in the bathtub-warm water, they made bluish white trails, like glow-in-the-dark bubbles. The kayaks across from ours had thin glowing lines at the spot where yellow plastic touched water, like Hondas bound for a late-night racetrack. Zigzagging fish became bolts of lightning. When we cupped our hands, we cradled stars.

I decided Ang Lee must have visited this place before directing Life of Pi.

Like this, but with less tigers.
I lay back in our kayak and stretched out my-crunched up back. The stars looked like the bay. We paddled close to trees whose roots arched into the water and made shelters for fish. We paddled back out, where Joshua had turned his kayak into a stand-up paddle board. He played eighties songs from his phone, changing the lyrics to “I hope that Carlitos will get my message in a boootle….”

“That song’s old, yeah?” he said.

“It’s a classic,” AK said.

“From the eighties,” Joshua agreed. “I was born in the eighties.”

Earlier he and Carlitos had told us they were hundreds of years old, but tha the water in this fountain of youth kept them young.

2. message unbottled

The California kayakers included Kelly and Danny, white kids from Oakland. Kelly had a long braid and was a lawyer. Danny was kind of genderqueer, biologically male with short blond hair, Capri pants, strappy flip flops and big gold hoop earrings. He worked as a community organizer. They’d been in San Juan for an annual Lawyer’s Guild conference, the theme of which was Puerto Rican independence, especially as it pertained to some recent university protests. Danny was friendly and passionate and a little hard to follow, throwing out anti-colonial buzzwords as if we were all planning a protest together.

“Do they pay y’all good?” he called to Carlitos from his kayak.

“Yes, they do,” Carlitos assured him. It was probably a good gig by Vieques standards, and a fun one, but would he really have said so if it wasn’t? Did it occur to anti-colonial Danny that a colonial, tourist economy came with a need to present oneself as happy, laidback, taking genuine joy in pouring you a glass of rum punch or whatever?

I mean, maybe it did occur to Danny, but I found myself thinking about how young people sometimes have more community spirit and older people have more empathy. Sometimes.

We crowded in the back seat of the van and Danny talked more about the Puerto Rican independence movement, which he admitted was small.

The movement is at least big enough to fill a page of Google image search results.
“It seems like it would be challenging to gain support for,” I said, feeling conspicuously right wing, “when there are so many advantages to being an American citizen—”

“But they aren’t citizens,” Danny interrupted. “They can’t vote, but they can still get drafted. Puerto Rico is literally a colony, but we can’t call it that because colonies are illegal under international law.”

Agreed, it’s thoroughly fucked up that PR and Guam and American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands have no representation in congress. The remnants of colonialism are everywhere, and they’re not just remnants—the Spanish fort at the top of the hill, the poverty below it.

Fort in background. But if you tried to ride these horses into battle, they'd be like, "Um, take your colonial ass elsewhere."
But Danny reminded me of the people who, in 2000, claimed George W. Bush was exactly the same as Al Gore. There’s a luxury in dismissing or equating everything that’s not radical. Sometimes radicalism comes from people who are so oppressed they have nothing to lose, and sometimes from people who are so privileged they have nothing at stake.

I suspect Daniela’s family would love to be “non-citizens” of the Puerto Rican variety. Then they could go to school, get jobs without a fake social security number, visit Mexico again. I suspect the majority of Puerto Ricans would take opportunity over independence. Maybe that’s a problem. Maybe that’s how you get China. I genuinely don’t know. Freedom without stability and stability without freedom both kind of suck.

Danny talked about America’s secret political prisoners. I suggested Craig Santos Perez’s poetry to him and thought about how Craig would make a much more convincing case for Puerto Rican independence if he were here, and how I’m such a snob—wrap any idea up in a bow of complexity and intelligence and I’m in. Approach it ham-fistedly and I’ll take you down in a blog entry weeks after the fact. (Take that!)

Danny said something about forced sterilizations in Puerto Rico at some unnamed point in history.

“That happens so many places,” I said, thinking about the poor whites Matt Wray wrote about. And, always, my own little ovaries, how I’d signed them away, how I had no one to be angry at but myself and the genetic lottery.

I know it’s fucked up to say this—I know better than to think I even mean it, really—but every now and then I long for something so simple as oppressor.