Sunday, November 27, 2016

a peculiar crisis

1. battle hymn of the rust belt over-achiever

“Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity,” writes J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir of growing up in a Rust Belt town inhabited by economic migrants from Appalachia, “in which some of the very traits that our culture inculates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”

I wanted the book to feel more like its cover.
I imagine New York agents and editors sending his manuscript around in emails sprinkled with “zeitgeist” and “the white working class” and “fresh, underrepresented voices.” I imagine them filling an unspoken quota that demands more work by conservative writers (Vance claims a conservative identity, although the book is only lightly political).

If that sounds like an ungenerous impression, it’s because the book doesn’t quite accomplish what it explicitly sets out to do: represent for an economic and cultural underclass, and offer some loose suggestions about what this group needs, and why the rest of the country doesn’t understand. As a memoir, it’s not poetic enough to fully reel me in; it’s written in the style of a very good college entrance essay, with Vance frequently interrupting his own narrative to ponder why his little Ohio town sent no students to the Ivy League, where he would eventually land in law school. (My own public high school in upper-middle-class Southern California sent one student to Yale and maybe one to Stanford. The vast majority went to community college; a fair amount went to state schools.) I’m not sure why Ivy League attendance is so highly privileged a barometer of success or failure other than the fact that he eventually went to Yale, after a stint in the military and a bachelor’s degree from a state school.

Yep, here's Chua (left) and Vance (second from right) at the book's launch party.
As a sociology text, it’s even less successful, tossing out a handful of stats and footnotes about the economic prospects of his region, as if they might accomplish what his storytelling alone cannot.

The book is most moving when Vance is simply writing about his family, which is threaded with violence, addiction and love, and when he admits that success born of hard work doesn’t pave over the scars of his upbringing.

He writes adoringly about Amy Chua, his professor and author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and I’m assuming she was his path to publication (insert sour grapes here). This memoir more or less advocates for tiger-mother/bootstrap methods; Vance sees “too many young men immune to hard work” in his midst, although he doesn’t view them entirely unkindly. The problem, he says, is that they are taught that their choices don’t matter.

This brings us to our current cultural moment, in which roughly half of the country was too busy struggling to care for women, queers, poor people and people of color to realize that the other half of the country was growing resentful of their power. Or “power.”

Vance’s peers, he says, are the ones who thought Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim. They were wrong, he says, but this belief shows how “alien” he is to them. The implication is that Obama might be a good guy and a Christian after all, but he and his cohort have somehow failed Vance and his, as opposed to the other way around. Apparently it’s Obama’s job to lean in.

2. i might make the woke olympic team, but i wouldn’t medal

I’ve been wrestling a lot with my identity as a white person since the election. When I read words like Vance’s, I feel frustrated with fake victimization. America has failed his people because it fails all poor people, and some of those people are white. But I don’t think it has failed anyone because they’re white.

Then I see a million memes and shallow first-person articles about how too many white women voted for Trump, and I feel kind of defensive and #NotAllWhitePeople. Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker, tweeted recently that she had read 300 think pieces about working-class Trump voters but zero about the large numbers of rich people who voted for him. It’s as if wealthy white men—the demographic Trump will best serve, and which probably voted for him at the highest rate—are either beyond help or beyond reproach, so let’s shit on the less privileged people who voted for him.

I figured out what was tearing me up—besides my general fear for our country’s future—in a Facebook conversation with my friend Courtenay. She posted some examples of white people centering themselves on Twitter, responding loudly to calls by POC to not do that by doing exactly that. Essentially a bunch of white people saying “Ugh, white people!” at the top of their lungs in hopes of performing perfect allyship and proving their own innocence.


Roxane Gay recently tweeted (in response to comments that she had made assumptions about a stranger’s gender and sexual orientation) “Some of y’all go hard in the Woke Olympics.” Yes, that. The Woke Olympics. I feel both the desire to win it and exhausted by its existence. I feel how it’s a cerebral exercise that takes over my consciousness and tramples my humanity. That’s not the same as saying “I’m so tired of political correctness,” because this is about competition between a bunch of people with roughly the same politics.

Anyway, when I shared some of this stuff with Courtenay, along with my own need and failure to just sit down, shut up and listen, she wrote:

Many white folks have anxieties about not being heard and not being included because they—especially women—experience this phenomenon all the time everywhere. But learning to how to sit with that discomfort in a situation that is not about them and to remain an active listener when their presence is not a necessary component is important, I think.”

So yeah, I think that’s my thing. As a woman, a queer person, a nerd, an introvert and—most of all—someone who spent several years recently trying to own my grief and pain and the ways that life maybe hasn’t been one hundred percent easy on me (though still at least 87 percent easy), I’ve struggled to speak up. But I’ve done it, and I’m proud of that. I finally learned to be the drama queen I never thought I deserved to be.

My challenge, then, is to hold onto that while being smart enough to know the difference between writing and speaking honestly about my own legit struggles without, like, running off to Standing Rock and declaring myself Leader of Indigenous Peoples.

3. law and (post-traumatic stress dis)order

On Thanksgiving night, AK, her sister and I saw Denial, in which Rachel Weisz plays a pleasantly unlikely heroine: a Jewish academic who doesn’t always know when to stop talking (in an unglamorous Queens accent). She writes about Holocaust deniers and gets sued by one of them for libel. She learns that in the British court system, the burden of proof is on the accused. Infuriatingly, she and her legal team are tasked with proving not only that the Holocaust happened, but that her accuser thinks it didn’t and willfully manipulated facts to serve his own anti-Semitic agenda.

Possibly pondering the ridiculous wigs that British barristers have to wear in court.
The movie does a beautiful job of dramatizing a story that is largely procedural and which takes many turns for the anti-dramatic: the crux of Weisz’s struggle is that her team doesn’t want her or survivors to testify. “Telling your story” is a big part of the healing process, not to mention American ideology, so being told to be quiet—to deny herself—is almost blasphemous. Trauma is being made to doubt everything about yourself, including whether it happened at all, whatever “it” is. Genocide. Rape. Even something as comparatively small as, say, a miscarriage.

But Weisz’s lawyers are right that the Holocaust-denying historian in question doesn’t deserve her words, and he definitely doesn’t deserve attention from survivors who’ve already lived through hell. He is a fire, and he must be smothered.

I’m looking to the movie as a reminder that there are ways to speak up and stay quiet at the same time. I’m also trying to remember that the fire currently finding oxygen in our country—the neo-Nazis and those who support them in whole or part—needs to be snuffed out, for sure, but that the people who are spreading it are still people.

When Fr. Greg first started working with gang members at Dolores Mission parish in the eighties, Homeboy Industries wasn’t some cool nonprofit being courted by a new documentary crew every day. Gangs were seen by both law enforcement and the communities they victimized as every bit as evil as the so-called alt-right. Fr. Greg said then and now that there is nothing good about gangs, and he doesn’t work with gangs; he works with gang members, who are human and inherently good.

Anyone who engages in hate is coming from a place of deep hurt. A neo-Nazi “men’s rights” dude typing and voting his anger from his mom’s basement isn’t any worse (or better) than a gang member shooting at his rivals. Neither activity should be given an ounce of credibility or glamour. But both practitioners are worthy of hearing, and if we listen long enough, I’m sure we’ll discover that they’re not pissed at the people they think they’re pissed at. Hopefully they’ll learn too.

Friday, November 11, 2016

my own private trumpocalypse

1. requiem for a dream

In college I read a short story in which a boy gets kicked out of school. He’s the child of migrant farm workers, and he has trouble keeping up. He knows his parents will be mad. On the walk home, he keeps thinking, Maybe it didn’t really happen.

Texas, 1942.
I’ve long forgotten the name of the book or author, unfortunately, but that scene stayed with me because it perfectly captured those moments in your life when you try to rewind time with your brain.

When I got out of work on Tuesday, I looked an animated New York Times graphic that depicted a needle wobbling between Hillary and Trump, showing the likelihood of who would get elected based on the count coming in. It showed an 82% chance of a Hillary win.

Like so many people, I’d showed up to my local polling place that morning feeling proud and optimistic. People chatted in English and Spanish, greeted their neighbors and sympathized with a toddler who wondered where the “boating” was.

The boating. Photo by Massimo Sestini.
By the time I’d picked up Dash from daycare and put him to bed, the NYT needle was at 80%...for Trump.

Like so many people, my first thought was Wait…what? Like so many people, I rapidly cycled through the stages of grief. Denial (polls hadn’t closed in the West), anger (duh), bargaining (more on this in a minute), depression (for dinner on Wednesday I ate half a bag of gummi worms and scraps from Dash’s highchair). I don’t know if I’ve gotten to acceptance in any but the most literal sense.

One of the weirdest and saddest parts of scrolling through Facebook in the dark, on the floor of Dash’s room, was seeing posts pop up from earlier in the day. People in pantsuits. Voting with their elderly mothers or young kids. Proudly sporting their “I voted” stickers. The algorithms pushed these posts upward and reminded us what the world we’d imagined hours earlier might have looked like. Maybe it didn’t really happen. I wanted to grab the NYT needle and pull on it with all my weight.

2. a lump in my throat, a lump in dash’s neck

Wednesday morning I woke up with the hungover feeling that follows any awful event. But I spent most of the day focused on Dash. He had a bad cold and, on Sunday, I’d noticed a little knot at the back of his neck.

When you’re Cheryl Klein, you do not take any lump lightly. I suspected a swollen lymph node, Googled the prevalence of lymphoma in children (very low) and took him to the doctor on Monday. She wasn’t too worried, but she uttered the word “ultrasound” before I told her my own cancer history and subsequent nervousness. And that was enough to keep my anxiety at a low boil right through the election.

The ultrasound was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. That morning, I realized I’d made the appointment on the four-year anniversary of the ultrasound that led to my own cancer diagnosis. In the same building.

My magical thinking started zinging and popping like oil on a hot pan. Why didn’t I make the appointment for a different day? But not everything was going as it had in 2012. After all, that election went great! So clearly, if good election = cancer, then bad election = no cancer. So Dash would be okay, right? But, oh no, was I really about to throw the whole country—the whole world—under the bus for the sake of my child? I would do it—it was my job to be biased—but what a terrible person that would make me! It was like that storyline on The West Wing when President Bartlett had to step down temporarily when his daughter was kidnapped so he wouldn’t make biased decisions and put the country in jeopardy to save her.

Magic, phrenology, the EPA under Trump.
Yep, just like that.

Dash fell asleep in the car on the way to the ultrasound appointment, and was still groggy as the tech gelled up his neck and rolled her wand over it. He was still and compliant, the model of a good patient or a sick child. I knew he was just sleepy, and he always takes a long time to wake up, but a small part of me wanted him to squirm and shout, just to show the tech (i.e. me) how healthy he was.

My heart raced and I wanted to cry. I kept telling myself This is an opportunity to be brave. Thinking of my story as dramatic and noble helped. I can be amazing for very short periods of time. I held his head and his hand and chatted with him while I watched the tech take measurements on the screen.

All ultrasounds pretty much look the same. If you’d told me Dash’s lymph nodes were jelly beans or my own ovaries, I would have believed it. Still, I tried to commit the images to memory. Later, as Dash ran around a hot, empty park, I searched the internet for pictures of malignant lymph nodes and healthy ones. Would I call Dash’s nodes round or oval? I couldn’t remember. It seemed to matter. Everything looked the same.

As I Googled, my body chanted danger danger danger, transporting me to the days of fertility treatment, miscarriage and cancer—all those times my future has hung on the results of medical tests. But as true as that feeling was, I knew with equal certainty that cancer wasn’t the end of the world. That’s the weird thing about trauma. It makes you stronger and more vulnerable at the same time.

I texted with Kim, my hypochondria sponsor and an epidemiologist, and she reminded me of the same: Most kids survive lymphoma and leukemia these days. (I have two friends who lost nephews—separate nephews—to leukemia. For them this parenthetical is not a parenthetical. For them “most” means nothing.) Most adults do too.

See that look on her mom's face? That was me.
And guess what, Dash is fine. I channeled my dad and harassed the doctor’s office into rushing the results, and they came back marked “mildly prominent, nonspecific, possibly reactive," which is medical speak for “yeah, he has snot draining into his head and it made his neck bulge.”

3. safety dance

The sun came out again in my little corner of the world. (I mean this figuratively, because in L.A. it was already so hot and dry that Dash’s hair stood on end after one trip down the slide Wednesday.) It wasn’t lost on me that I was where I was—breathing a deep sigh of relief that my son was healthy—because of luck and good health care. So many people forget that when they vote: Those nice things you have? Most of them aren’t because of you. Some of them are directly or indirectly on the backs of others. Some are just a roll of the dice.

To be the healthy parents of a healthy child you were fortunate enough to adopt. That is everything. To remember that my job isn’t to hoard what I can and hiss and scratch to keep others away—that’s only possible when I feel at least a little bit safe.

Working for safer factory conditions after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

I believe that people who voted for Trump don’t feel safe. Some of them are right about their vulnerability, but wrong about the reasons. To them I want to say: 

Dude, I get the fear. And I know how hard it is to walk toward the thing that terrifies you. Maybe for you a brown America feels like the Huntington Hill Imaging Center feels to me—like the edge of the abyss. But it’s made of metal and plastic, polyester and people. Only the abyss is the abyss. The rest you just have to walk into. 

Saturday, November 05, 2016

still unpacking

1. baby, it’s cold outside

The first neighbor we met after moving to our new house was an old Chinese woman; at least, she looked old, but maybe she just spent a lot of time outdoors. She had leathery brown skin, hair that looked as if it had been chopped by hand and only a couple of teeth left. She always wore the same brown tracksuit jacket with yellow stripes down the sleeves.

When she first showed interest in our broken-down moving boxes, I thought she was collecting recyclables. I kept them out of the blue bin and put them directly in front of the house for her. But then she put them in the blue bin herself. And moved them from one bin to another. And disappeared with the bins themselves for days at a time.

This is how moving feels.
She liked to knock on our door and let us know when we had mail. Once she showed me where her shirt was missing a button and tried to hand me a needle. Another time she showed up in our front yard as a pizza was being delivered and begged for a piece. She had a habit of hovering too close when we were getting Dash in or out of the car, and once she put her face right next to the window of our babysitter’s car, making her jump out of her skin.

Sometimes she seemed like a toddler, and I tried to treat her as such: Be friendly, firm and boundaried. Other times she seemed like a creature from a horror movie, the kind of scorned, forgotten woman folklorists might write about. I was naturally lazy and tried to practice an ethos of Meeting People Where They’re At. When she moved our trash cans to weird places, I just moved them back.

Not what she looks like. But how she kind of seems when she is suddenly outside your car window.
AK was more annoyed by such things, and I tried to back up her annoyance as a show of solidarity. She bought padlocks and lengths of plastic chain to anchor our trash cans to the fence.

On Tuesday morning I was putting on eyeliner in the bathroom when I heard AK talking to someone outside. The voice had a Chinese accent. I knew right away that she was the matriarch of the home two doors down from us, the sister or niece of the free-range tracksuit-jacketed neighbor. When AK came in, carrying Dash, she recounted their exchange.

Isn’t your baby cold? the woman had demanded.

It was in the upper sixties and Dash was in a diaper. He probably was a little cold, which put AK on the defensive. We’re only going to be out here a minute. Hey…is she yours? AK gestured across the street, to where the woman in the brown jacket was squatting. She goes through our trash and moves the cans all the time.

She don’t listen to me, said the matriarch. You don’t like it, you can call the police. Where are you from?

AK suspected that the woman wasn’t looking for a story of migration from Avenue 49. She got to the point: Mexico.

We’ve lived here 28 years, the woman said. Your baby, is he cold?

Carrying a kicking Dash, AK stormed through the French doors in our bedroom and told me the story. We agreed: Oh the irony of this woman telling us what to do with our toddler when she had completely washed her hands of hers!

In general I am slower to boil than AK, more prone to self-blame and tears. But today I was mad with her. Any empathy I’d had for this family—whose kooky aunt stalked the streets like La Llorona or some kind of hantu—evaporated when they turned their judgment on us. You know who might be cold? I thought. Your sister, when she was taking off her shirt on the street yesterday!

2. in which a bunch of women try to solve racism on the internet while simultaneously caring for small children IRL

The interaction replayed in my head at work and when I picked up pizza for the Halloween festival at Dash’s daycare. In the parking lot of Pizza Hut, I shared a quick rant on the subject with my favorite online parenting group, Parenting for Social Justice. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because I was fascinated by all the layers of culture and experience that culminated in this driveway exchange. This family had come all the way from…Taiwan? Hong Kong? The mainland? They’d made their own lattices out of twigs in their front yard, planted vegetables, flown little flags made of crumpled Chinese newspapers to keep birds away. They’d set up camp and stayed here for 28 years, watching the neighborhood blow in the economic breeze and become populated by more and more Latinos, only to be overtaken by unkempt white people obsessed with Craftsman architecture.

As I explained to my group, I had empathy for a family trying to manage an unmanageable person. I did! I’d seen a teenage girl—dressed all in black with a long ponytail and low-slung backpack—leave the house one day, and I immediately wanted to hug her. It couldn’t be easy to be 16 and the niece of the neighborhood Crazy Lady. But how dare the girl’s mother tell my family what to do, especially when her opinions had racial undertones!

Every 16-year-old ever.
Does anyone here have experience with dealing with xenophobia from people who are themselves immigrants? I asked after I’d shared my story.

The responses varied in tone, but they all agreed: I was the xenophobe here. Village input on what a baby should be wearing was an Asian thing (also a Chilean thing, according to one responder), and the woman meant well. In the past, I’d shared thoughtful posts about gentrification in my neighborhood, freely admitting I was part of the problem—and now this? I was being a shitty neighbor at best, they said and/or implied, and a racist gentrifier at worst.

The responses came as a gut-punch. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. It was the same burning shame I’d felt during writing-class critiques that had hit especially close to home. It was a small version of what I felt the whole eight weeks AK and I had been separated in 2012, when I’d gouged crescent moons into my forearms with my fingernails as I finally realized how much I’d hurt her during my long, confused post-miscarriage depression.

There’s a phrase that has made its way from psychoanalysis to the world of Instagram quotes in pretty fonts: Don’t just do something. Stand there. It’s a hard fucking thing to do when what you want to do is jump up and explain how you’re not racist, or how you can only know in retrospect that it might have been useful to go to a miscarriage support group. But I did my best to apologize (but not grovel or angle for forgiveness) and promise to the group that I would Sit With My Hypocrisy.

This quote is attributed to at least five different people online.
I’ve been sitting with it for a few days now. I messaged with one of the group’s admins about a vibe I find troubling: A bunch of white women in the group (not excluding myself) seem to try to out-perform each other in showing how anti-racist they are. This morning one shared a sort of poorly written blog post by a gay Black man titled “Why I Find White Women Terrifying.” It was an opinion piece about the legit problem of white-centered feminism, but I found the title sensationalistic and the thinking not terribly critical. And what about the possible intersectional issue of gay men sometimes being dismissive of women while assuming they can’t be misogynistic because they’re queer? The white poster announced that she was going to Sit With It.

Lately I have felt the women of color in the group giving some side-eye to white self-flagellation, and I do to. What they couldn’t say was a sarcastic Oh look at you, you amazing white person questioning yourself. Do you want a cookie? I’m not going to give you my “likes” so you can feel good about yourself and I can go back out in the world and deal with the same shit I deal with every day.

What they could do was go a level deeper and point out why the white women in question were actually still racist. Wasn’t the woman who said she wanted to limit her dependence on fossil fuels because of the shit going down at Standing Rock kind of centering herself when really Standing Rock was about indigenous rights? It’s a pretty educated group, and if the internet and academics and women are good at one thing, it’s picking each other apart. I’m not sure what to do with that, because the responses themselves aren’t wrong. The white environmentalist was missing a major point about Standing Rock. And anything I might post would sound defensive and white. And it would be.

So I’m doing what I probably should have done a while ago. I’m imposing a read-only break on myself for at least a week. I still cringe when I think about how often I raised my hand in my undergrad Chicano Lit class. I don’t want to be that undergrad, but I still am. Even by writing this blog post, I’m centering myself, but I figure my blog is supposed to be about me.

3. some of my best friends

And I’ve continued to Sit With the complicated racial dynamics between myself and the neighbors I barely know. Here’s something I’ve realized—bear with me if you can, because I’m about to perpetuate some cultural stereotypes. I can’t vouch for their certainty, but I can tell you how they intersect with my own family culture, and that’s my real point.

So, I have three fairly close Chinese-American friends (yes, I did just say “some of my best friends are…”) whose parents are immigrants. I’ll change their names here.

Andrea’s mom is relentlessly pessimistic and difficult to please. Andrea dreads going home for visits, and tries to stay with her in-laws when she can. Andrea has stuck it out in a job with a difficult boss for longer than most people would. At first she was eager to please this insatiable boss; then she gave in to a strategy of low-grade rebellion and defeat. So she basically works for her mom.

Alex’s mom was a textbook tiger mom with an added streak of physical abusiveness. Alex wrote a semi-autobiographical YA novel about her teen years. Her protagonist, trying to get her mom to ease up on academic pressure, tells her mother that affirmative action will make it hard for Asian-American kids to get into Berkeley. Her mom sees that as a reason her daughter should work triply hard. Alex is a mom herself now—a loving and hardworking one. But I see the ghosts of her own childhood when she tries to get her son to “overcome his fears” and “live up to his potential” where other parents might just shrug and let their kid do what he wants.

Jennifer and her brother once discussed whether or not their mother was psychologically abusive. They decided she wasn’t. But she used to make them kneel for hours on uncomfortable beaded mats as punishment. She encouraged Jennifer to make friends who could help her get ahead socially. I never met Jennifer’s mother in person, but I always assumed she’d be profoundly unimpressed by me.

In Andrea, Alex and Jennifer’s mothers, I see a familiar message: The world is a harsh place. It will judge you. It will spit on you. But this is no excuse to fail. This is why you must work harder than anyone else. You are better than the rest of them, but you can only unlock the fruits of your special-ness through pain. And if I tell you these mean truths, it’s because I love you. 

I’m sure my parents never meant to send me that message. But my mom had martyr tendencies and never let herself indulge in so much as a dry-clean-only blouse, and my dad still rants against entitlement(s), both as an attitude and government programs. Some part of me believes that being queer put me behind the starting line, and so any ways I fail in life are my own fault and inexcusable.

I mean, I’m fine. I’ve had plenty of therapy.

But these are the voices in my head. And these were the voices that bubbled up when I saw the responses to my Parenting for Social Justice post. It struck a nerve for precisely the same reason the Chinese-American neighbor herself had struck a nerve. The neighbor reminded me of a worldview in which there was no room for me—especially me—to fail or complain. A worldview in which I was both awful and special. The responses read the same way to me: Other people can come here and talk about how someone was a jerk to them, but if you do that, you’re racist. YOU’RE the jerk. Suck it up, Cheryl.

That wasn’t what they were saying, of course. As I reread my post, it did sound pretty knee-jerk and not very empathetic, especially without the infinitely large context in which all human interactions take place. Family culture on top of neighborhood history on top of immigration on top of dynasties and dinosaur bones.

Orange you glad I'm about to wrap up this post?
In social justice and academic circles, people are always talking about unpacking things. And now I’ve unpacked the unpacking process, and could go on for another thousand words easily. But I already feel like an unpacked bag, which is to say empty, flat and ready to stay home for a while.

A couple of days ago, the woman who moves our trash cans gave me an orange and a bottle of water. It felt like a peace offering I didn’t deserve, from a fight she didn’t know about. I took them, saying thank-you too many times, grateful for a moment of simplicity.