Wednesday, February 19, 2014

nap in peace, tracy kaply

1. homie down

There was a girl in my high school Spanish class, Jayne Milton, who was always running out of class in tears, often about some boy. I found it kind of braggy, like she was trying to show everyone how exciting her life was. I was always the Quiet Girl with nothing going on. Until I became the Jayne Milton of P&W’s California office and discovered that being the Drama Girl is no picnic either. Apologies to Jayne Milton and to Jamie.

I wanted to work at Homeboy partly because it’s a place where even the hardest and quietest people cry, and it’s okay. But I was also hoping that I could take a long hiatus from Jayne Milton theatrics.

Then I got Sizzle’s email, subject line “news.” Tracy passed away. Her brother called me today to tell me her parents found her in her bed this morning.


Photo by Robert, known on Tracy's blog as The Hotness.
And even though she blogged on this blog about having terminal diseases, I thought they were terminal in a five-to-ten-years-maybe-fifteen kind of way. I think we all did. My first thought was, Shit, I better check in with Tracy and see how she’s doing, as if I’d gotten a much smaller piece of bad news.

When someone healthy gets sidelined with a serious illness, they seem suddenly fragile. But when someone has a chronic illness that lands them in surgery every other week or so, and when that person also has tattoos and swears freely, they start to seem weirdly unbreakable. That was Tracy. It’s like, “Well, if that didn’t kill her, nothing will.” But then something did.

I stared hard out of my office window at the strip mall of pho restaurants and Chinese beauty supply stores, yellow stucco and faded red signs. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wavered between collapse and perseverance. I was good at both. I was certain people would understand if I told them my friend had died. We had four therapists on staff, after all. This was a language everyone here spoke more fluently than I did: another homie down.

I walked out to the mezzanine that overlooked the lobby, where determined men in baggy jeans waited each day for a minute with Father Greg, their last, best hope. My eyes were filling up when I spotted Gavino, a mustachioed trainee in his forties, who’d told Ruben, in Saturday’s writing workshop, that he was not alone. He asked if I was okay.

“I just found out a friend died.”

“Aw, you just got the news?”

“Yeah. Our mutual friend emailed me.”

He hugged me, and I thought how crazy it was that this dude who’d known prison and addiction and no doubt the traumas that led to prison and addiction was comforting me, but I left guilt like that behind (mostly) circa 2003. I hope it does trainees good to know that they give as much as they receive at Homeboy.

I walked out to the half-empty lots that stretched north and east of Homeboy. The bus parking lot, the nooks clogged with shopping carts and other urban debris. I left AK a message. I thought about Tracy.

Cobblestone and cryin'. Downtown L.A. is made for days like this.
2. “i fucking hate halloween. it’s hard enough being me, without having to be other people, too.” --kaply

She was not someone who could be accused of having first-world problems. She was a recovering addict who lived off her disability check because her kidneys crapped out on her. She wrote about taking anti-psychotic meds so she’d stop hallucinating bugs. Her day-to-day was a series of doctor’s appointments and dialysis and simple things made difficult.

Is this the part where I say she handled it all with a smile on her face? Where suffering is rewritten as a comforting cliché?

No, this is not that part, but it’s not the opposite of that either. I’m struggling to explain: No, you don’t understand, she was Tracy.

That’s how I felt when my mom died, and when my friend Tania died. There’s a time before people become mythologized in your mind, and you want to cling to it. You feel you owe it to them, not to let them become just one of those lovely dead people.

Tracy and Sizzle in 2009. Tracy was pissed that they didn't have Coke Zero at the bar.
This is probably as good a time as any to mention that I only met Tracy in person once, when I was in Seattle for a reading, and she and Sizzle and I went out after, and I discovered Tracy was exactly like her blog—funny and brash and kind of manic. So why am I such a crybaby now?

Because when I was going through treatment she emailed me things like this:

I have been thinking of you often, and want you to know that even though any chronic illness robs you of many things, including the ability to regain “before,” there will come a time when you look around and realize that your life is no longer made up entirely of being ill and a patient, and you will be amazed at how much it used to occupy life. I promise.

And also this, when I was venting:

I suggest you punch that questionable friend in the tits. And I get quite sick of the Positivity Police. Sometimes shit just sucks, why can't people just acknowledge that? It would certainly make me feel less stressed if they could. It's annoying to have to be the cheerleader when I'M the one who's sick. And the fact that everyone has something that sucks doesn't make your particular suck any less sucky.

She understood the suck, and the anger, and liked to talk about stabbing people with spoons, but she was also kind of Zen in a way I can accept only from people who’ve been through what she had been through. I would like to say she taught me how to live with the unexpected, how to love life even when the odds aren’t in your favor, even when the world makes your world confined and difficult, but I don’t think I’ve totally learned it yet.

I made plans to visit her in her new, perfect little pad in Joshua Tree in the fall, and she stocked up on pescatarian-friendly food and almond milk. And then her mom got sick and the trip got pushed back and pushed back.

Tracy was, in many ways, only a voice for me, on her blog and in her emails. But she was a kickass writer, so I believe that missing her voice is missing her. I believe that, thanks to the magic and weirdness of the internet, her voice lives on, and she lives on. Few people liked and hated things harder than Tracy, and I imagine there will be a lot of talk of sharpened spoons, evil cats, robots, cartoons and dim sum at her memorial service this weekend. Tracy, I’m pouring a bottle of Coke Zero on the ground for you, homie-style.

Monday, February 17, 2014

magnetic poetry, zine fest-style

I spent a piece of Sunday afternoon at L.A. Zine Fest, primarily at the urging of Brodie and his friends, a cadre of friendly ladies with punk hair and vintage clothing. It occupied a big garage/warehouse-type space at the Helms Bakery Building, and it was a little overwhelming. I’m not well versed in the zine world, and I wanted to read everything with a funny title or a cute cartoon on the cover or an interesting binding or a friendly person selling it. Which is to say, pretty much everything.

That would have made it easy to get a kind of quick, general shot of inspiration and leave having purchased nothing. But I reminded myself that staying part of the literary community means diving deep and being at least a little bit extroverted. So I made my rounds and ended up with a handful of awesome-seeming zines.

Aurora Lady's zine from Fair Dig Press. I heard her read Wednesday night, and she was funny and vulnerable and great.
Because I like to draw, I am so tempted to make a little zine. But I’m sure zinesters would be the first to point out that it’s not easy. And I have So. Many. Fucking. Projects. Right now I’m putting in about five minutes per project per week. So many file folders in my brain.

Instead, I wrote this very short found poem comprised of titles and signage found at Zine Fest.

typography & shit
tastes like
shitty poetry I wrote, 16-18
thoughts I almost post as Facebook updates but then don’t
create. scheme. remember.
cheese eggs & potatoes

shit you learn in the bathroom
bathroom (fresh, local, organic)

my family’s vaginas
fighting patriarchy 1 diaper at a time
sassquatch shorts
shut up you’re not my real dad
martin the satanic raccoon
abuela y los dead Mexicans

soy un perdedor
cry now, cry later
transform the police that live inside you
melancholy rainbow

I hate being an adult
puppies welcome 

Monday, February 10, 2014

desire as victimless crime

1. swimming with sharks

When I was a camp counselor, we had to pass a swim test in order to get a wristband that would allow us in the deep end of the pool. I dog-paddled the length of the pool sloppily and then treaded water for five full minutes. I got my wristband. I was proud of myself for being less tired than the counselor who chain smoked.

So Diana Nyad—the woman who swam from Cuba to Florida on her fifth try, at age sixty-four—and I don’t have a ton in common. But I cried when I read this part of Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of her:

“My journey now is to find some sort of grace in the face of this defeat,” Nyad told an audience a month after her third failed attempt. “Sometimes if cancer has won, if there’s death and we have no choice, then grace and acceptance are necessary. But that ocean is still there. I don’t want to be the crazy woman who does this for years and years and tries and fails and tries and fails, but I can swim from Cuba to Florida and I will swim from Cuba to Florida.”

Nyad has always believed that a champion is a person who doesn’t give up. (In high school, she hung a poster on her wall that read, “A diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it.”) But another kind of person who doesn’t give up is a lunatic.

That ocean is still there.
Champion or lunatic? That’s always the question. It might sound silly to compare AK’s and my baby-having journey to Diana Nyad’s swim through shark-infested waters. We’re waiting for our kiddo from the comfort of our own home, there are no naysayers other than the ones in my head and the whole IUI/IVF/adoption process has probably cost less than one of Nyad’s jellyfish-proof silicone masks. There is not a good reason to quit at this point.

And yet, as I told my therapist today, it feels like such an uphill battle that I must be some kind of pitiable, desperate figure who should give up and stop embarrassing herself, right? Or at least stop blogging about it, for god’s sake.

“What makes it desperate?” he asked. “Where is the despair?”

That’s when I contemplated, for the first time, that despair is the root word of desperate. I couldn’t answer his question directly, but I told him about the time I was sitting in a room full of former gang members talking about how they wanted to be good role models for their children, and I thought, They all have children. Whatever I did to not deserve kids must be worse than whatever they did that landed them in prison.

Welcome to Cheryl’s Patented Extra Strength Guilt-Logic.

My therapist said, “So you don’t feel like you deserve to be a mother.” Merely working hard toward a goal and having setbacks along the way wasn’t despair, he said; that was passion. The despair came from feeling like it was wrong to even want the thing you wanted.

(And even as I type this, I’m like, Yes, but it is wrong….)

Passion is what I have for writing, that strange little corner of my life in which I model healthy attitudes and behavior for the rest of me. I have my good days and bad days, but I usually—usually—don’t doubt that writing is a worthwhile use of my time. Not because the world needs my writing so badly, but because writing makes me feel good and doesn’t hurt anyone and I’m not really good at anything else.

“I guess wanting to be a mother is a pretty victimless crime,” I said. “Especially if we adopt—then we’d be giving a home to a kid who needed one. Even if I fuck that kid up a little bit, I won’t fuck them up much.

And if I say that enough, maybe I’ll start to believe it.

2. sharing the shitty rainbow

Last night, Wendy and AK and I went to Good Luck Bar to hear Bronwyn read a fantastic and global and heartbreaking short story as part of the Rhapsodomancy series. Also on the bill was Sara Finnerty, whom I’d liked ever since hearing her read excerpts from her foul-mouthed middle school journal at Mortified. But I knew from Facebook (naturally) that she was pregnant, and my hackles were up.

I'm superstitious, but in an ironic, retro way.
I imagined myself looking like my cat OC does when he sees a dog half a block away. Or like Ollie does when he thinks someone is going to steal his bed. Fur up, ears back.

Never try to take a toy from crazy eyes here.
She read about trying to heed the advice everyone gives pregnant women—to listen to her body, to surrender to the things she couldn’t control.

You have to do those things when you have cancer too, I thought bitterly. AGAIN. In my little notebook, I wrote, But there’s a pot of gold at the end of your shitty rainbow.

I kept listening, though. Maybe I have finally had enough therapy that I could do that much (also I was surrounded on all sides and busy eating some pumpkin bread that I shouldn’t have, not if I wasn’t pregnant and if I was really serious about avoiding cancer recurrences).

She read about surrendering to her body’s lack of discipline, and to her needs—from yoga to Al-Anon meetings—and to her own desires. Her desire to write when no one encouraged her and when publishers didn’t publish her. Her desire to have a kid even when her mother thought it was some sort of feminist defeat.

It’s hard for me to remember that pregnant women are people too. My bar for pregnant-lady lit is HIGH, but Sara Finnerty met it. She sat me down and pulled me in and made me see her humanity when I all I wanted to see was her good fortune. She seemed to understand—that you don’t choose what you want any more than you choose whether you get it. She wrote about that strange paradox of surrendering and not, of accepting your lack of control and fighting on.

So I surrender to my desire for the things I don’t think I deserve, and I’ll fight the battles in my head and in the stacks of adoption paperwork that will, with any luck, eventually come our way. But I won’t surrender to pumpkin bread, even though I totally deserve that.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

who is your rival who doesn’t know they’re your rival?

I’m sitting at Swork right now, trying to start Draft 3 of my YA novel. The good news is that my agent liked Draft 2 and gave me some good notes, and Swork has almond milk. The bad news is I feel like I’ve forgotten how to write.

Maybe the new job is filling my brain with Grant Voice, or maybe I’ve just been in nonfiction mode for too long. To get some of the right kind of voice in my head, I Googled Andrea Seigel, whose blog and novel The Kid Table are wry and well observed. I think I’m aiming for a voice adjacent to hers. I hoped she had a short story or something online to get me started.

Once I saw her and her cute BF in South Pasadena while I was on my way to a particularly grueling couples therapy session.
That was a bad idea. Because what I found instead was this interview, in which she discusses her anxiety about growing old alone and childless while engaged and pregnant.

She says:

Our discussion about the baby, was “Maybe we should stop using protection. Yeah, let's just see what happens.” That was our baby discussion. We kind of just decided to throw it up in the air. It also came about because I have that Jewish cancer gene where they want to remove your reproductive system by thirty-five or thirty-six. And so, my doctor started to nudge at me. So, we just kind of said, “Okay. We'll try.”

Andrea Seigel and I have a lot in common. The writer thing. The anxiety. The Jewish cancer gene. And we met once.

But she published her first book at the age of 25 with a huge publishing house and now she’s writing a movie starring Paul Rudd. And she had a baby by “trying,” which in straight-people language means “not trying.”

Meanwhile, I’m hoping Draft 9 is the version of my cats-‘n’-Malaysia novel that really convinces publishers that they need a book about cats and Malaysia. And doctors did remove my reproductive system (well, just my ovaries; that distinction always feels important) when I was 36.

This is not to say that I’m a loser, just that the internet made me feel like one, and Andrea Seigel is my rival, except that she doesn’t know it because she’s probably busy being rivals with someone more famous than her.

My high school version of Andrea Seigel was Hillary Toomey, who was much more popular than I was and took all the AP classes instead of just a handful and got onto JV cheer without having to do time on drill team like the rest of us. Hillary Toomey had no idea she was my rival, and I can guarantee you I wasn’t hers. We were on cheer squads together for two years, and I think she said a total of eight words to me.

Recently I had a conversation with some people about celebrity rivals, and I decided mine was James Franco. We both lived on the seventh floor of Dykstra Hall my sophomore year (his freshman year) at UCLA. We both got MFA’s. Only one of us is publishing with Graywolf.

James Franco and his biggest fan.
Do you guys do this too? Have secret rivals—in real life or the celebrity sphere—who don’t know you’re in a neck-and-neck competition? Or am I really as creepy as I sound to myself right now?

I only made it 240 words into my YA novel, and I just wrote more than twice that about the rivalries in my head. Oh, envy, you are a saboteur.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

it hasn't come to jalapeño poppers yet, or: what i read in december and january

The other day a Facebook friend of mine posted that she was excited for the lunar new year because she needed a do-over on her resolutions. I’m always angling for the same. I’ve been doing okay with my resolutions (although how can it be time to wash my car again ALREADY?), but January left me ragged and exhausted. With my brain attending to two different jobs—and certainly not my writing—I had newfound sympathy for AK, who’s been dividing her time between her paying gig and her therapist hours for almost two years now. I experienced that constant shifting of worlds when I was a working grad student, and it’s a bit of what I was getting at with The Commuters, but back then I had more energy and lived off jalapeño poppers from Jack in the Box. 

I think jalapeño poppers might be some kind of official rock bottom in the self-care department.

Official handing-off of P&W office keys to new assistant Brandi.
Jamie put together a lovely sendoff for me on Wednesday, with as many West Coast P&W people as she could amass (so, Andrew, Brandi and Linda). We drank dark beer that tasted like roasted marshmallows and I only almost cried. The last couple of hours by myself in the office were stranger and more somber, as I read through old emails and took postcards off the wall. It felt spooky, like attending my own funeral or something.

I told Jamie that I suspected people in the building, who’d seen me bald a few months back, might casually speculate on my absence and think, Oh, I guess that woman finally died.

Nope. Just across town writing grants that come flying at me like torpedoes in a video game. Watching kids get tattoos removed from their faces and knuckles. Stepping aside so a Dodger can clean my desk on Dodger volunteer day. It’s an odd and awesome place to work so far.

I’m taking the train to work now (cue angels singing), so I won’t be gulping down books on CD like I once did, and I only get to read for four stops. Eventually I hope the shorter commute will translate to more writing time, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m trying to be patient rather than panicky. It’s the year of the horse. They seem like patient animals.

Here’s what I read in December and January:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: This quickly became the book I wanted to ignore all other things to read. It's mystery ripped from the headlines of the eighties: ritual satanic abuse--a witch hunt which I remember, having grown up a mile from the McMartin preschool--and the farm crisis, which I knew nothing about as a suburban Californian. Flynn rips at the headlines to reveal the individuals behind them, especially Libby Day, who has lived most of her life believing her brother murdered her mother and sisters. Libby is a believably traumatized adult; rather than being dragon tattoo-tough, she's reticent and lazy, a shoplifter who can never rouse herself to sign up for internet service. Flynn's strength is creating gray-area characters, and then using those gray areas to build a tight page-turner of a plot--that "character-driven thriller" that many writers aim for and few achieve. Libby can only solve the story of her family by choosing not to become them in small and important ways.

Flynn is also great with description (a woman has "administrative hair" and plastic bags drift "like the ghosts of small things"), even if she could occasionally pull back. I could have done without the part where the protagonist is cornered by the murderer and barely escapes with her life--and a few more concessions to genre at the very end--but it was a small price to pay for a great read.

It does, though.
Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg: This quick read, about a suburban transplant who convinces her fellow high school oddballs to form a guerrilla art collective, has some familiar YA tropes (cool kids and outcasts, unrequited love) and some unexpected twists (protagonist Jane INTENTIONALLY seeks out weirdos, while the weirdoes themselves each have a separate clique they want to be part of). The post-911 setting, and especially Jane's mother's fear, are nicely handled. The "art saves" message isn't subtle--"art saves" is actually stamped on some of the pages--but it's touching and true.

The Beach by Alex Garland: An adventurous book about adventurous people. I'm not one of them--my idea of getting away from it all is going to a cabin in New Hampshire with communal dinners and nightly Skype sessions with my loved ones. Building my own society (without antibiotics, plumbing or even campfires) on a remote beach in Thailand sounds like a nightmare that only a spoiled, hopelessly idealistic asshole would actually fantasize about. But I nevertheless enjoyed this ride.

Garland somehow climbs deep into existential caverns regarding the nature of conflict and humanity without developing any of the individual characters in much detail. I think he's concerned with how people can fight to protect a way of life at the expense of life itself, perhaps as the US did in Vietnam. The Vietnam war allegory confused me, the love triangle is as weak as its female point, the other females in the book are pretty meh or diabolical, the only Thai characters are grunting Viet Cong stand-ins and I'm not sure if the narrator is supposed to seem like a sociopath or not. All of which makes it sound like I didn't like the book. But I did. It's ambitious and unpretentious, unusual and smartly plotted. Come on in, the water's fine.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A strange, compelling little novella--and I say "little" in part because the story clings so tightly to its narrator and her circumscribed surroundings. Jackson's writing is a case study in how not to tell too much, and how to make the everyday creepy. Narrator Merricat and her sister Constance have barricaded themselves in their home (first figuratively, later literally) ever since most of their family mysteriously died of arsenic poisoning. A court has acquitted Constance; the town has not. I want to say Merricat is OCD, maybe a little autistic, and that she and Constance are most certainly codependent (luckily Jackson knows better than to pathologize). Constance's love of cooking at first seems wholesome and nurturing, and then like a desperate, blindered coping mechanism. Jackson's brilliance is in gently tipping such scales, from innocent to devilish, and sometimes--as with the harassing townspeople--back again.