Monday, November 23, 2015

10 things never to say: a rant and manifesto

1. humans vs. assholes

The other day, a writer I’m Facebook friends with posted: “I’m tired of personal essays. I really don’t need to know anything else about any stranger’s breakup, dysfunctional friendships, epiphanies, condescending cultural affiliations, or childhoods. Can the age of the universalizing snowflake transition into something else now?”

I basically agree; the thread that followed attached some qualifiers, and I admitted I like reading and writing personal essays when they’re good (well, I like reading them when they’re good; I probably like writing them even when they’re bad). But two things became evident: First, the universalizing snowflakes in question are usually middle class white women, rapidly turning their angst into a bid for internet fame. Guilty as charged, Your Honor.

Let me tell you all about my night and how dark and stormy it was.
Second, there’s a particular subgenre of the universalizing snowflake personal essay that especially bugs me, and that is the What Not To Say essay.

I just Googled “10 Things Never To Say” and here are some actual articles that came up:

10 Things to Never Say to a Woman Who Has Had a C-section
10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who’s Asexual
10 Things to Never Say to a Person with Sensory Processing Disorder
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Tall Person
10 Things to Never, Ever Say to Someone Struggling Financially
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Guest in a Worship Service

They have the prettiest What Not To Say lists.
Look, I’m not advocating that you tell your financially struggling friend to get a job, or your asexual friend that he just hasn’t met the right person yet. (I didn’t click on these links, but I and most non-assholes can make educated guesses about what not to say.) But the prevalence of such articles seems like a giant passive aggressive move on the part of people with hurt feelings. Maybe when someone asked the tall person what the weather was like up there, she replied that actually, she’d heard that one before. Or she laughed politely and then wrote a list for the internet.

My real beef, though, is with the implicit idea that if you study hard enough, you’ll avoid getting it wrong, and that getting it wrong is a thing only insensitive jerks do. Because that’s not the world I want to live in.

I have been on the receiving end of some ignorant questions and comments—about gay people, about cancer, about the adoption process—and at times I’ve been offended. Can I tell you how many times people have said, re: Dash’s birthmom, “So, are you still in touch with the mother?” (If you mean AK, the answer is yes. If you mean Erica, who is certainly a mother of his, but by no means the mother, the answer is yes.) Much more often, people have said sincere, respectful things. Because I know a lot of humans but very few assholes.

And guess what—it’s all good. It’s okay to fuck up and say something offensive. It’s okay to get offended. And then you talk about it and you both move on. Ideally.

I’m feeling a little cautious about this post, because I realize it could be a slippery slope to complaining about how “the PC police are taking away my right to make racist jokes and it’s so unfaaaaaair.” Regarding people who freak out over political correctness, I’ll repeat what a friend of mine said in college: “If you knew someone named Joe, and one day he wanted you to call him Bob, wouldn’t you just do it? Because he gets to decide what his own name is?”

I’m not saying it’s cool to be a jerk on purpose, to prioritize your own agenda at the expense of someone else’s emotional wellbeing, but, well, I am saying it’s better to call Bob “Joe” accidentally than it is not to call him. It’s okay to ask Bob why he wants to go by Bob, as long as you’re really willing to listen to the answer.

2. the repair manifesto

In the world of trauma therapies (a world I only half know, a world I get wrong all the time), people say it’s not about how trauma fucks you up, but about if and how you repair it. This idea gives me a lot of hope.

I spent the first twenty-ish years of my life afraid to rebel, because I thought that if I got in trouble, my dad would never forgive me. In a way, it’s a shame I never put it to the test, because now I have no doubt that he would have. Slowly, but he would have. I’m not such a goody-two-shoes these days, but I still haven’t gotten over my desire to be perfect. All I can say is that now I know it’s a losing battle.

Raisins contain antioxidants and anti-zombie properties.
So, repair. Maybe you managed to take some long walks and cook a couple of healthy meals over the course of your much-needed weekend. But then when the kid woke up at 3 am, you just started pounding cinnamon raisin bread and Trader Joe’s chocolate honey mints as if your mouth were some sort of bunker and carbs were going to be in short supply after the zombie apocalypse.

Repair it. Ignore your jiggly belly for now and eat some fruit and whole wheat toast for breakfast.

Maybe your partner was stressing out about some work stuff and you did the wrong things with your eyebrows and it led to a big fight.

The price of salt and kids' train sets.
Repair it. Remind yourself that she’s always been rattled by big changes and there’s a lot of change right now, and it’s okay and reasonable for her to be stressed out. It’s also okay and reasonable for you to get tired and resentful sometimes.

Ask Alberto—the aswesomest friend and godfather ever—to babysit and go eat pupusas at your neighbors’ house and go see Carol, a beautiful movie that pushes against the queer tragedy narratives of the past and the everything-is-awesome queer narratives of the present. Remember how much you love love love going to the movies together.

Monday, November 09, 2015

village people

The other day at work, in an admittedly cynical moment, someone said: “Let’s start a drinking game at staff meetings—every time someone says ‘It takes a village,’ we do a shot.”

Let's talk about this mother of at least two and her 19" waist.
Today I brought Dash to work with me and asked one of my coworkers to watch him while I met with a foundation officer. He was cuddled by coworker after friendly, generous coworker, and when someone asked how he’d spent the past hour, I found myself saying, “It takes a village.”

I also used to joke that It takes a village to raise a Cheryl. This was during the time when I had two oncologists, a radiologist, a reconstructive surgeon, a physical therapist, a regular therapist, a couples therapist, a hypnotherapist, a nice lady at church named Margot and a couple of cancer pen pals, all working overtime to keep me alive and sane.

High five.
Three years ago today, an ultrasound tech told me the doctor wanted to do a biopsy on what looked like early stage breast cancer, and I nearly blacked out from fear. My memories from that day are impressionistic flashes, but I remember sitting in AK’s car, begging her to promise me we could still try to have a kid, one way or another, even if I had cancer.

Four years ago this week was the Squeakies’ due date, 11/11/11, although they would have inevitably been born earlier. I think of them every time the clock says 11:11, and also when it doesn’t.

Put a bird on it.
This is the month of the “Gratitude Challenge”—which can come across trite or even braggy, but is undeniably less obnoxious than the “Selfie Challenge” I saw making the rounds last month (isn’t taking selfies almost by definition the least challenging thing a person can do?). But trying to wrap my mind around my gratitude feels like looking at the surface of the sun, a thing not to be done head on.

Almost immediately I get tangled up in existential questions and survivor guilt. Or my good luck seems as random as my bad luck—and it is; oh, it is all so fucking random—and then what? The best thing I can do—the real Gratitude Challenge—is stay humble and realize that life isn’t so much a story you write as a giant Exquisite Corpse poem.

The other best thing I can do is make something useful out of my continued existence. On one hand, I think I’m a pretty decent person. I’m nice(ish) to my family and friends and I get grants from the rich to give to the poor and I recycle when it’s convenient. On the other hand, I feel like the world is overpopulated, and I’m not sure that any of my good deeds have made up for my carbon footprint. But I’ve done enough therapy that I can accept my tendency toward self-preservation for what it is: animalistic and just fine.

This was going to be a post about World Adoption Day, but I’m not sure what I have to say. I’m so grateful to be alive and in partial charge of a small friendly human that I could cry. And also: Various types of injustice are at the root of most adoption situations. And also: This week feels heavy with the weight of what might have been. If the village hadn’t stepped in. If I’d lived in a different village.

And I still don’t know what the future holds. My mantra—one of the few phrases that has ever felt semi-divinely planted in my head at the time it was first needed—is hold it lightly. I’m not even totally sure what I mean by that, but I picture cupped hands.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

the halloweens of my people

1. turnips and sugar skulls

The other day I caught a lighthearted BBC News Hour story on Halloween. Two reporters with crisp English accents discussed the fact that Halloween had been exported from Ireland and Scotland to North America, altered, then re-exported back to the British Isles.

“Pumpkins are a new world vegetable,” one of the reporters said. “If we wanted to truly celebrate a local holiday, we’d be carving turnips.”

“Turnips!” the other exclaimed. “Well, that sounds quite mushy.”

Turnip spice latte, anyone?
Around the same time, I read a Huffington Post piece titled “Dia de los Muertos is Not Halloween,” which included some good (and sadly not obvious?) points like: Dia de los Muertos is about “paying respects to late loved ones, honoring their lives, and acknowledging the fragility of life,” not just painting your face like a calavera and partying.

Fair enough. But one (white) activist in my Facebook feed posted a long admonishment to her fellow non-Latinos, telling them that if Dia de los Muertos wasn’t “their” culture, best to just stay away. If invited to a DdlM celebration, you could attend, she said, but to actively participate would be to engage in cultural appropriation and racism.

In heaven there's always a bike lane.
I agree that white people could stand to contemplate the radical notion that they don’t have to put their grubby little hands all over every interesting thing that comes along. But thinking back to some of the non-Latino-specific altars I saw at Hollywood Forever last year—the ghost bikes honoring fallen cyclists, a tribute to Robin Williams—I was irked, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

I asked AK what she thought, since after all, I’m not Latino and I shouldn’t be the one who decides what my activist Facebook friend doesn’t get to decide.

AK paraphrased something she’d heard Lalo Alcaraz say on KPCC that morning, which was that Dia de los Muertos, while having roots in indigenous practices merged with Catholicism, has always been a Mexican-American holiday. Its modern incarnation, he said, was the result of a back-and-forth dialogue between Mexicans in the U.S. and Mexicans in Mexico.

As for the “non-Latinos should opt out” stance, AK said: “There’s kind of a hipster quality to it. It’s like not participating in cultures that aren’t your own is the new participating. Like saying you liked that band before everyone else did, and now you’re over them.”

To me, it seems like a bolder choice to have to get your hands dirty when it comes to cultural phenomena—to have to risk exposing your own ignorance or maybe even hurting someone in order to live in the world as it is: blended, postmodern, a salad bowl with some rotten tomatoes. There hasn’t been such a thing as cultural purity for as long as there have been boats (maybe longer), and in my book that’s not inherently a bad thing.

2. alter/altar

When I see Homeboy’s own Dia de los Muertos altar, I see the darkness and the beauty inherent in cultures pushing against each other, falling into each other’s arms, leaving scratches.

Los muertos.
About 80 percent of the homies I work with are Latino, and the majority of those are American-born (or at least American-raised) Mexicans. They grew up speaking English or Spanglish. Colonialism and other forms of oppression have contributed directly or indirectly to whatever landed them in gangs or prison—immigrant parents who worked too hard to properly supervise their children, or a “justice” system that levies heavier sentences on people of color. As a group, many of them haven’t grown up thinking they’re part of a rich tradition—quite the opposite—and so their loyalties lie with their neighborhoods, not with ancient Aztecs.

I would venture, then, that Dia de los Muertos, for many (though certainly not all) of the Mexican Americans in my little workplace, is a rediscovered, reclaimed holiday. But do these folks with their arms and necks and eyebrows tattooed with the cursive names of the fallen know about “paying respects to late loved ones, honoring their lives, and acknowledging the fragility of life”?

Hell yes.


Do I? I can rattle off a dozen ways that my privilege has shielded me and my loved ones from death, but also…it hasn’t. Lady Death in her flowered hat comes for all of us. Death took my mom and my babies, even if they weren’t gunned down or even born yet. It came for me, even if it didn’t get super close (knockonwood). So I’m gonna say it: hell yes.

I don’t think anyone is saying that non-Latinos shouldn’t mourn their dead; I’m just adding that when you find a ritual that speaks to you, even if it’s not one you’re born into, maybe it’s okay to respectfully speak back.

Our famous last words may be "Nice hat."
So my mom’s picture and a post-it shout-out to the Squeakies (because I have nothing concrete to remember them by) reside alongside the pictures of young black and Latino men who died too young and for stupid reasons. They’re surrounded by marigolds.

3. pussy riot

Friday night, AK and Dash and I, and our friends Andrew and Danny, went to KillJoy’s Kastle, the lesbian feminist haunted house art installation that had been getting rave reviews. Here I had no doubts: This was my culture, and I could relax into it. Queers, feminists, artists. And no, I didn’t mind that there were men and straight people there. I even brought one very small man.

No male babies were harmed in the making of the Emasculator.
Our group—we named ourselves the Drooling Screampuffs—listened to a spoken word artist/singer-songwriter while we waited our turn to go into the castle (a.k.a. the Plummer Park Community Center). She had us do a silly-serious-ish call-and-response number about the power of the pussy.

“Why do we say someone has ‘balls’ if they’re strong and call someone a ‘pussy’ if they’re a coward?” she demanded.

I was dancing with Dash on a bale of hay, enjoying the warm night and thinking about how this was the exact life I always wanted to live. I was acutely aware that I had previous generations of feminists and queer activists to thank for the fact that I could be here, alive, open, with my female spouse and our adopted kid. I loved being part of something so clever and fun and CalArtsy.

Then the spoken word artist/singer-songwriter started in on how we should celebrate the egg, giver of all life!

She was joking, mostly, but it brought out the grr in me nevertheless. Or maybe the grrl. I don’t think I was really radicalized (whatever that means—but I think it means that something in you decides to hit back) until I started seeing how much society, and the parts of society I have internalized, valued me based on how functional my tits and ovaries were or weren’t. Fucking egg-based essentialism, I thought. I’m no giver of life, but so the fuck what?

Resting in varying degrees of peace.
With that, the whole point of KillJoy’s Kastle (I think) was playing out in my head. All the wise winks to lesbian feminist history that followed—from naked ladies checking out their genitalia with mirrors to a graveyard for the good (the Woman’s Building) and the bad (the gender binary)—evoked a mix of gratitude and mild squirminess.

Honestly, it was the perfect art exhibition: thought-provoking, well crafted, collaborative, interactive, hilarious, self-aware and friendly to all. And even though I had no role in it personally, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit proud that my people had created it.