Tuesday, May 09, 2017

there are no shortcuts, but that will never stop me from looking

1. genius vs. more geniusy genius

A couple of years ago I went all the way to Italy to learn that you can’t write a memoir by pasting together a bunch of journal entries. Even if they were pretty well written journal entries, if you do say so yourself, and even if you were kind of trying to write them from an imaginary point in the future as an exercise in convincing yourself you had a future…they are still not a memoir.

Dani Shapiro kindly suggested that my journal entries might not be as useful as I wanted them to be, but her advice took another two years to sink in. It took two years to walk that much farther away from the events I was writing about (infertility-miscarriage-cancer, that old tune) so I could see them more clearly.

Actually it's been forty.
Recently my friend Dan and I started a writing group. It’s had a couple of hiccups getting off the ground. One member was pregnant and got intense migraines that kept her from looking at screens. Another got busy with a book tour. We have a new member who seems great, but we had to postpone this week’s meeting. Still, it feels lifesaving to have an actual audience to share my work with along the way. Imagining them as I work helps me trick myself into thinking my writing matters. (I know that sounds sort of pitiful. Make no mistake: I believe deeply that I am a genius who has something to say. I believe with equal conviction that the world is fully of more geniusy geniuses and would be just fine without me.)

I try to accept that writing is a painfully inefficient process. I’m horrible at accepting that life is a painfully inefficient process, but I’m much more mature as a writer than I am as a human. I want to write an essay called Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My Writer-Self.  

But OMG writing is a painfully inefficient process. It doesn’t help that I’ve been grant-writing my ass off at work, and AK and Dash and I passed around two or three different viruses over the past month. I spent a lot of time asking myself How can the exact life I want be so fucking hard? I felt like I was trying to climb out of a hole, but more dirt kept falling in. I did so much coughing and crying and cough-crying that Dash still conflates the two words. 

My nostril and I are not a people person.
In a good week, I get maybe two hours to write. I have ideas for essays and stories and blog posts, but I have to ask myself whether I want to give up one of my two precious memoir hours to work on them. I can’t think about it too much, because then I’ll get sad and resentful, and where’s the place of sadness and resentment in the exact life I want?

2. bread and bread and bread

Jackie Kashian, my possibly-favorite comedian whom I’ve mentioned here before, tells a story on her new album, I Am Not the Hero of This Story, about the Armenian Genocide. It’s amazing; I literally burst into tears while laughing, which I don’t think ever happened to me before. I won’t try to retell it and spoil it, but she talks about how her teenage grandmother was at home baking bread when the Turks came for her family. As Jackie describes it, her grandmother was haunted by a nagging sense of what happened to the bread in the oven. (“I think it burned,” Jackie says.)

Jackie and her lizard Tiberius. You can see why I'm a fan.
I imagine that for Jackie’s grandmother the bread symbolized a life interrupted. The path you choose (though “choose” might be a strong word for a female Armenian peasant at the turn of the century) collides with the one you don’t. The latter burns the former to a crisp. I picture flames running along a wire.

But also: Say that bread in the oven burns to a hard black thing, and it becomes a story, and you tell that story to your granddaughter. And she has a hard life herself, but survives like you did and grows up and becomes a stand-up comedian. Goes on the road, does shitty gigs, works shitty day jobs for years. Then does better, gets to quit her shitty day job. Puts out album after album until finally she is the artist who can do your bread and your story justice.

It takes a hundred years to make art.

When life gives you lemons, make grilled cheesus.
The whole point of art, in my opinion, is to connect to something bigger than ourselves, to own what tried to own us. In that case, so what if it takes a hundred years? Time is a cast-iron skillet seasoned by the generations.

But also, fuck, life feels so short. No wonder the internet is so appealing. There are diseases and war. We have Kim Jong Donald for a president. It could all end so quickly. I don’t want to be the person whose bread burns. I want to be the granddaughter who triumphs and hears her audience laugh and cry. But we don’t get to choose.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

we're here, we're queer, we're not yet used to it: s-town and my uncle bob

Like all my favorite novels, the podcast Shit Town is about a lot of things: the tension between home and the larger world; the many sides to every story; what it means to care for another person; the curse of genius; depression; time; clocks. Like all my favorite novels, it's a mystery whose answers are both bigger and heartbreakingly smaller than the questions initially posed. It is a work of art, and you should listen if you haven't already.

But today I'm blogging about Chapter VI: "Since everyone around here thinks I’m a queer anyway." Our protagonist, John B. McLemore, embodies many paradoxes (worldly hick, tender asshole), but he especially straddles a generational and regional divide between Out Gay/Bi Man and Shadow-Dwelling Pervert. I listened to Chapter VI with a growing recognition that was one part empathy, one part dread. 


Uncle Bob was a redhead too.
My Uncle Bob wasn't a suicidal mad genius. He didn't have gold buried on his property. He was an accountant who lived in a tract home in Torrance. But he was born in 1943 and died in 2013, and those decades encompassed a sea change in how America views gayness. I have to imagine that trying to contain such radically different messages in one lifetime could make a person a little neurotic.

Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob had a tendency to rant ad nauseam about topics in a way that made me wonder, Is that really what you're mad about? Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob was obsessive about his cultural passions: ancient Egypt and British comedies. He spoke about the latter as if we'd all caught the last episode of [insert random Britcom here] because it must be as popular as American Idol (which I also didn't watch). I believe the stories we consume can save and sustain us, and that both high and low art forms are as important to our culture as most elections. Yet hearing Uncle Bob prattle on about TV shows always made me cringe a little; it seemed not just nerdy, but like a painfully transparent substitute for a life. And to consider that he was lonely is to face the fact that loneliness was the only semi-acceptable option for queer people until incredibly recently. 


"Did you see that one Bucket Woman where...."
Uncle Bob wasn't my biological uncle. He was my dad's best friend from childhood, and they both hung out with the funny, eccentric lady who lived up the hill from Bob, who I know as my Grandma Jac. It's a credit to my parents that they both accepted Uncle Bob when he came out to Grandma Jac's crew in the '70s, and were candid with me about the fact that he was gay, and didn't pass judgement. That shouldn't be a lot to ask, but in the '70s and '80s it was.

Uncle Bob brought various "friends" to holidays at Grandma Jac's. Some must have been his boyfriends, but I don't think they all were. I think gay men back in the day defined relationships in terms I wouldn't completely understand. Take John B.'s relationships with Tyler and Mike--he never acted sexually or inappropriately with them, and yet it doesn't seem like a coincidence that they were both young, good-looking men who needed him, loved him and ultimately rejected him. My parents talked in vague terms about men who'd taken advantage of Uncle Bob's generosity. In his latter years, Uncle Bob lived with a younger man named Dean. Everyone in our family liked Dean, but none of us quite knew whether he was a boyfriend, a friend, a roommate or a sugar baby. Maybe because he was none and all of the above. 

When I was first inching toward coming out, I decided Uncle Bob was super interesting, and I wanted to talk about all the musicals under the sun with him. Later, when he struck me as painfully old school, when his conservative politics got under my skin, I cooled my affection in a way I'm not proud of. Part of my internalized homophobia was not wanting to see the ways that earlier, deeper homophobia shaped who he was. It's easier to love and accept John B., because I'm not John B.'s niece.


All good stories are a maze.
In my Parenting for Social Justice Facebook group, which I recently left (on friendly terms), I often got frustrated with how the recognition of oppression seemed to follow trends. Currently race and transgender issues seem to get the spotlight and the benefit of the doubt. If a comment contained the faintest shadow of a racial micro-aggression, the admins were all over that commenter. But I--and some of the other queer women in the group--were often left with the vague feeling that the group was like "Sure, yeah, of course we're all pro-LGB here, but we wrapped that up in 2015 with that one Supreme Court decision, right?" It's not that anyone would say that (and it's not that I think racial micro-aggressions aren't real; I strive not to participate in the Oppression Olympics), but most people didn't seem interested in considering the deep, insidious ways that, even for someone like me--born in 1977 to accepting parents--the message that "Your desire is disgusting at best, evil at worst" still lingers. Slavery still lingers in major ways--in DNA itself, according to epigenetics--so why wouldn't widespread systemic and cultural oppression against queer people?

My friend Nicole runs a social media/storytelling campaign called #StillBisexual that sort of speaks to this. I admit to going back and forth over the years as to how much of a thing biphobia (as distinct from homophobia) actually is. But the underlying message of the campaign's title, as I read it, is "Look, you can change the term to 'pansexual' and change the laws every five minutes, but there is a group of people who have always loved both men and women and dealt with the consequences of it. We are here and our stories are particular and worth telling." Maybe John B. McLemore was one of them.

I guess my point is It wasn't that long ago. And one of Shit Town's many beauties is how it conveys this point, not in social justice lingo with pointed fingers and manifestos, but in an intricately woven personal story. 

A long time ago I read a profile of an elite swimmer who'd had a serious and poorly treated injury early in her career. Eventually she got a new coach and the treatment she needed, but you could see how the muscles in her back had grown around the injury to compensate. Her back was her story. I think we are all like that.

Friday, April 07, 2017

ciudad de parques

From my travel journal:

Thursday, our first in Mexico City, we kept it mellow and walked around Polanco, which all the guidebooks say is the "Beverly Hills of Mexico City." It's true that I saw a BMW motorcycle and lots of professional dog walkers, but Polanco has more urban flare than BH. We spent a lot of time at Lincoln Park; there's a statue of Lincoln here that says "a gift from the people of the United States to the people of Mexico." Nearby a store had hung a #fucktrump banner.

Better than a wall.
We stayed up talking to the friends we're staying with, Laura and her wife, Molly. I've known Laura since I was a little kid; our moms were good friends, and hers passed away recently, from Alzheimer's. Laura said that navigating her mom's illness would have been twice as hard without her sister Lindsay, and that's part of why they wanted a second kid (Cora is four, Evan is 20 months). It's sobering, but it did push me more in the direction of trying--somehow, with some nonexistent money and energy--to bring a sibling for Dash into our lives. I don't know. Maybe we can start with a cousin and take it from there.

Friday morning we visited Coyoacan, an arty, historical neighborhood that's held a place in my mind since reading The Lacuna (although I sort of thought it was a small town, not part of Mexico City). Being there was immediately just-right--the blue and yellow and salmon-colored buildings, the red and pink flowers. The market like the old Grand Central Market, with its gorgeous fruit-porn, neon smoothie kiosks, fish, chiles, arte, pinatas.

Mexico loves fruit.
The first restaurant I saw with Frida's name on it, I started crying. More than any other artist, she embodies for me the spirit of "My body may have problems, but it is my tool; I will make you share its fierce beauty and pain. No one gets to look away." Some people make pilgrimages to La Virgen; the artists and lesbians line up against a bright blue wall in the sun to pay our respects to Frida.

Frida loves fruit. Fruits love Frida.
AK played with Dash in the courtyard (he loved throwing coins in the agua) while I visited a temporary exhibition of Frida's clothes and all the plaster casts she decorated; even a prosthetic leg with a gorgeous red flowered boot. For lack of a better word, it was kind of triggery, taking me to a time when I didn't have the luxury of forgetting about my body and had to convince myself that losing parts of it was cool if I could figure out how to own it. All those hours I spent perusing alternative nipple tattoos. I cried and felt grateful and wanted to throw up all at once.

That night Molly and Laura and I went to Lucha Libre, which was pretty great. Afterward, I told AK (who stayed behind because we had some logistical confusion and because Dash has bedtime separation anxiety), "They say it's a sport, but it's actually acrobatics and theater."

AK said, "So what you're saying is 'but it's actually good.'"

I think Molly was mildly worried I'd be offended by all the eye-candy girls in fishnets and pseudo-violence, so she did a lot of contextualizing. But the whole thing is amazing, even ideologically. It's this mix of improv and choreography, stereotype and complexity, masculinity and homoeroticism. One of the "good guy" teams consists of two beefcakes who do hip circles after pinning a dude, and a guy in a little tutu who literally minces between (badass) moves. To me, that's three or four degress removed from mocking homosexuality. It's more like finding a way to embrace it.

Maximo Sexy.
Saturday we paid a guy named Dante to drive us to the church where La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego, and then to the pyramids. Seeing La Virgen--the painting with the blue and gold rays emanating from her--is a little like seeing Frida imagery. She's in a million hipster boutiques and on the side of the closed-down convenience store across the street from our house, but this is the real thing. It's hard to wrap your head around. But two of the three churches on the site were beautiful (the third was built in 1972 so...not so much). These ornate, listing, brick-and-concrete homages to faith and colonialism.

I was wearing shorts, semi-inappropriately, but the space was full of little kids in frilly dresses and tiny white suits. We saw a couple of people making pilgrimages on their knees. Families of poor Indios with skinny kids who seemed like they'd come a long way.

Dash pointed and said "house."
CDMX traffic being what it is, we had a lot of car time with Dante. All of us improved our Spanglish. We learned about his four kids and his parenting philosophies; he asked about adoption and our parenting differences, and teased AK about her bad Spanish (the consensus seems to be that I have a few more words, but she has more confidence and a better accent).

By the time we got to Teotihuacan, we were both exhausted from trying to carry on a conversation with a stranger in a language we didn't really speak. I'd been letting AK do the heavy lifting on that front. She was intimidated by all the shallow-but-steep stairs, but I was seized by a sudden desire to do something impressive. I've spent so much time lately feeling mediocre at everything--work, writing, parenting, marriage. I wanted to do something great in the simplest way. So with Dash strapped to my chest, I powered up all those stone stairs. And my knees were jelly and I cried; I think my body just remembered what it was like to actually push myself to do something other than stay awake. In other words, I finally worked out hard enough that some endorphins got released.

Dusty but happy.
We ate fish and lamb and drank tequila with Dante while Dash got drunk on mango juice and befriended some hairless dogs.

Dante and Dash.
Sunday we hit Chapultapec Park with Molly and Laura and their kids in the morning. It's a beautiful space--the center of CDMX seems like a gorgeous maze of parks. There was a long walkway of fountains--a kind of stream divided into like twenty connected rectangles--and the kids went nuts making their way upstream.

Babies on parade.
Then AK, Dash and I walked to the Museo Antropologia, which has to be one of the most beautifully designed museums I've ever visited. In the courtyard, there's a big column with water pouring onto the ground, looking out at a sliver of cityscape horizon, like an urban rain forest. Dash adored the fish pond. Pointed to a big fish and said "orange." Insisted the fish go into a "tunnel" (new obsession since riding around the city sans car seat, which is more fun that I'd like to admit).

I understand the significance of ancient artifacts, but a lot of times they don't speak to me. It's like, yep, there's a carving. But behind each exhibit, the doors opened onto an outdoor space where you could climb on replicas of pyramids or wooden houses. It was jungley and kid-friendly, and it felt more like inhabiting an ancient world than learning about one.

Our docent had a short attention span.
We ended our week in Xochimilco, a neighborhood of canals where you can charter a boat. You become a captive audience for people to sidle up on smaller boats and sell you things: mariachi and marimba songs (which Dash decided were too loud), jewelry, food, pulque, flower tiaras, plants, dolls. It was a little overwhelming, but I had a good quesadilla and AK bought me a silver and coral ring for my birthday.

I'm forty now. That's a whole other post.

Friday, March 24, 2017

conflict is not abuse, but interminable engagement is not an obligation

Dear Sarah Schulman,

I'm writing my review of Conflict Is Not Abuse as an open letter to you, because your book is about conflict and the importance of dialogue, empathy and repair (vs. disengagement, which you call "shunning"). So I feel like you'd be open to actually hearing about stuff I found troubling, as well as the stuff I liked. You draw parallels between conflicts on the personal, community and international levels, and you attempt to show how dividing people into the black-and-white categories of "abuser" and "victim" harms both parties and resolves little.

I love me some personal/political parallels, and I heartily agree that us-and-them thinking leads to much of the world's shittiness. After all, I work for an organization whose mission is to tell gang members that they deserve love, and that they are not the worst thing they've ever done. I try to tell myself the same. Without repair, we don't have much hope as a species.

So why did I find myself so very much in conflict with this book?


First, you open with a personal but super vague account of (as best I can tell) a time you liked a woman you met on the job, and she seemed to like you back, but then ignored you. Maybe she rallied a couple of people to her cause. You suspect she did so because she was afraid of her own feelings as a result of some past trauma. This is a common and likely occurrence. But it reads as condescending at best, harassing at worst ("How dare she ignore me?!"). In this instance and others in the book, you seem to always know people's feelings better than they know their own. That might be true sometimes. But how could it be true all the time?

Your argument focuses on wrongful accusations of abuse and how unfair they are to the accused. Maybe the accused isn't an abusive jerk who deserves to rot in hell; maybe the accused is even "right." But the idea that anyone owes anyone constant, unending dialogue is absurd. People often disengage not to punish the accused (deservedly or undeservedly) but because it's the healthiest thing for them.

An example from my own life: My dad is a kind, generous and hyper-logical person. Growing up (and still), he never got mad at me for mouthing off or disagreeing or asking for stuff I wasn't going to get. He just wanted a logical explanation of my opinion. But the catch was that he decided what was logical. We have an ongoing (twenty years and counting) debate about whether the majority of poor people are lazy and entitled or trying to survive in a system that has fucked them both economically and psychologically. (Guess which side I'm on.) Sometimes I just have to end the conversation, because his stance tends to be "You haven't convinced me yet." Why do I have to do the convincing? Why is the burden of proof always on me? Why does he get to set the terms? (And maybe it's your own setting-of-the-terms that rankles me most about this book.)

When I'm not in the mood to prove myself to him--especially if it's about a personal decision or even an emotion, the last thing anyone should ever have to defend--I shut it down.

Sarah, you might argue that my relationship with my dad is actually a great example of conflict without abuse (or accusations of abuse). It's true, my dad and I have a very healthy, mildly conflicted relationship over all. He is a good listener, and as long as I'm willing to put in twenty years of patient, carefully researched debate, I get modest results. I'm incredibly grateful for that. But sometimes the healthiest, most productive thing for me is to step back. And to imagine extending that same level of emotional work to someone who wasn't kind and generous and logical and my dad is incredibly unappealing.

Ironically, in your critique of defended behavior, you never interrogate your own. Your lack of self-critique seems defended in itself. All your stories are about times you were unfairly accused or took the high road. And you have a big beef with the family as central social unit, which I suspect is about your relationship with your own family. Personally, I don't think society has problems because of families so much as families have problems because of people and society.

Hegemony!
I tried to read the section about "compensatory motherhood" and queers having kids with an open, "undefended" mind. I'm only two years past giving major envious side-eye to any gay couple with kids, at which point I probably would have welcomed your theory that lesbians have kids to gain social status in a culture that devalues their romantic relationships. It's an ugly truth, at least for myself: I think I wanted to prove I could do anything straight people could, which is one reason infertility hit me so very hard. But I was also self-aware enough to know that mainstream acceptance is a terrible reason to have kids, and that any satisfaction in that arena would be shallow and short-lived. Ultimately AK and I adopted because we wanted to raise a child. I know that's the truth because I am enjoying raising my child. (P.S. He's only two, but he's learning to clean up after himself; you seem very concerned about women raising their sons to be spoiled mama's boys. Lord knows those dudes are out there, but I'm not sure it's the epidemic you imply.)

Dash, take note. There's a sink full of dishes and a jazzy apron in your future.
What if queer parenting isn't a failure of feminism and a triumph of nuclear-family hegemony, but a triumph of feminism? It's true that families with same-sex parents don't inherently raise little feminists. But the option to live a fully integrated life is a feminist success story, as is the fact that more straight women are choosing not to have kids or get married. If people are behaving according to their desires and temperaments instead of some demographic mandate (picket fences for straight folk, radicalism for gays!), that's a good thing.

The part of this book I found most interesting and resonant was your case study about Canadian laws that slap people who spread HIV with prison time. You explain that by involving the police and legal system, which inherently divide people into perpetrators and victims, we take power away from the community and put it in the hands of the state, which does little to actually solve the original problems. You imply a need for a sort of tribe of elders devoted to conflict mediation. I think that would be awesome.

Wanted: a tribal council that doesn't vote anyone off the island.
And then there is the long, confusing section about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. You point to an incident in 2014, in which Israel used the killing of three Jewish teenagers to justify a military massacre in Gaza. You see this as a classic example of the "overstatement of harm"; and history is rife with others (Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as an excuse for the first Gulf War; the sinking of the USS Maine as an excuse for the Spanish-American War). But these horrors don't feel like the geopolitical version of a woman who gets hyperbolic about her boyfriend's behavior when she's pissed. They are orchestrated land grabs by aggressive nations.

It probably doesn't help that, rather than narrate the Israeli/Palestinian events and the reactions they spawned, you let us experience them mostly via excerpts from your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I'm one of those Americans who doesn't know enough about Palestine and Israel, and that's a problem. But I can't think of a worse way to learn than to scroll through fragments of someone else's three-year-old social media feeds.

All that said, I really enjoyed reading this book. That's where you and I are cut from the same cloth. I like reading a book that makes me jot "?!" in the margins every few pages. I don't mind a little drama. I like books (and people) that are broad and ambitious and difficult. Thank you for writing one of those.

Sincerely,

Cheryl

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

anger management

At some point in my life, I decided that injustice was the only thing it was okay to get angry about. It could be a small injustice or a big one. It could be a boss blaming me for something that wasn't my fault, or it could be, like, homophobia.

I still think it's a good goal not to be the asshole screaming at a CVS clerk because your prescription isn't ready, but you can probably guess that my "injustice only" stance on anger has run into some problems. Because 1) anger isn't a decision, it's an emotion, and 2) there's lots of shit to get pissed off about that is no one's fault.

I spent many therapy hours and blog posts sorting through the rage that bloomed in the wake of infertility-miscarriage-cancer. None of these things was anyone's fault, but they were also categorically unfair and shitty. But weren't most of the good things that had happened to me (being born into a middle class life, having parents who loved me) equally unfair? That's when I'd get tangled up, at least until I discovered it was possible to harbor genuine gratitude and genuine rage simultaneously.

My anger has curly hair and a chocolate croissant in her hand.
My Anger Years were healthy for me, a good girl conditioned to bite my lip or cry or eat my feelings rather than yell at anyone. I did a lot of rage-blogging and filled my drafts folder with (mostly) unsent emails to people who pissed me off. My Anger Years were not always easy on others.

One nice byproduct of all that therapy is that it allowed me to enter parenthood with relatively realistic expectations. I expected to fail constantly, and I have, albeit in smallish ways SO FAR. I staked my money on love, resiliency and basic physical safety, and figured the rest would sort itself out. Despite the unspoken bargains I made with the universe, along the lines of If you just give me a baby I'll be good and grateful and graceful all the time, I never expected that I would actually be good and grateful and graceful all the time.

I am often exhausted and sometimes disengaged; I'm on my phone too much and I feed Dash granola bars for dinner too often and I let him drink milk before bed without brushing his teeth. But to my surprise as much as anyone else's, I actually do feel grateful most of the time. 

Or I did.

Dinner at our house often resembles Sad Desk Lunch. Lunch at work is also sometimes Sad Desk Lunch.
No, I still do. But as he fully blossoms into the two-ness of being two (AK and I have text exchanges that end with a resigned "#two"), there's something new growing alongside it: I get pissed off at my kid.

I know, shocking. 

In a rare moment of realism in Sex and the City 2, Charlotte breaks down and confesses how guilty she feels, having longed for her children for years and now needing so much to get away from them. Of course, she's breaking down in a deluxe hotel room in Abu Dhabi. 

Charlotte as harried mother, with a white kitchen and spotless apron. It's like they know us.
My most recent breakdown was on the floor of Dash's room on Saturday afternoon. It was raining. AK was out. Dash wasn't napping. Our deal is that I'll lay on the floor and look at my phone while he jumps around, cries, sings to himself and eventually knocks out. One time he climbed out of his crib and I caught him on his way down. But it seemed like a fluke, so I postponed the inevitable. 

On Saturday he decided it wasn't a fluke anymore. He kept climbing up and balancing on the crib railing on his tummy. Each time, I gently--then somewhat less gently--pushed him back in his crib with my bare foot or my hands. He thought it was hilarious. Then my toe grazed his chin and he pouted. 

"A Mommy!" he said, patting his mattress. Lately he'd been wanting me to climb in with him. Sometimes it was cuddly and sweet. More often it was anything but restful for either of us. Saturday he grabbed my hair and hit me and laughed. I held his wrists and pried his fingers open. All of a sudden sleep had become the stressful wrestling match it was when he was eight or nine months old.

"Stop. It. That hurts Mommy. That makes me feel ow." I wasn't yelling, but I wasn't quite achieving the "calm but firm" thing I was going for, either.

A terrifying movie of an angry mother, abused child and DCFS intervention flashed before my eyes. 

Instead I decided to be honest with myself: I was mad at Dash. It wasn't the first time, but this was the first time I didn't transfer my anger to AK (If she hadn't messed up his nap schedule yesterday, this wouldn't have happened...) or chalk it up to pure exhaustion. 

I had a flash-forward glimpse into the messy heart of our intermingled psyches. I understood--really understood--that Dash was a person with a complete and distinct personality, and we'd both go through the full range of emotions that any two humans in an intimate relationship experience. The kitchen of our souls would be as messy as our actual kitchen.

I also felt frustrated with my own frustration. What was the point of it? Not only had no act of injustice been committed (at least as far as I was concerned; Dash may have felt differently, and I guess that's part of the story), but something shitty and unfair had not even occurred. It just felt shitty and unfair. In reality, the events that were unfolding were perfectly developmentally appropriate. Two-year-olds are supposed to test their parents' limits, and parents are supposed to work with them to find and enforce those limits. 

I climbed out of his crib, stomped to the laundry room and returned with an Allen wrench and a screwdriver. I used the former to dismantle his Ikea crib. He used the latter to "help." Together we cleaned the dusty spot that remained with baby wipes. It was actually kind of fun.

Wait, it all makes so much sense now.
After the election, I shared some of my Trump rage with my dad--rage that is absolutely about injustice at like 75 different levels, and when I think about Hillary winning the popular vote it still makes my blood boil, not to mention the part where Trump treated America like his personal, typo-laden vanity publishing project--and my dad said something along the lines of "He won. There's not a lot of point in getting angry about it. We just have to elect someone else four years from now."

He conceded that if rage fuels activism, it might be useful. I countered that it has a purpose beyond that: "Anger helps you figure out how you want to be treated. If you were walking down the street and someone came up and kicked you in the head and then ran off, you could say 'Well, there's nothing I can do about that, so I guess I'll just get on with my life.' But that would be saying to yourself in some way that it was okay that it had happened. And then when someone else came up and tried to kick you, you'd think on some level that it was supposed to happen and you wouldn't run or fight back."

Later I realized I was describing at least one reason that people who get raped once are more likely to get raped a second time (there are undoubtedly others). 

So I'm going to try to take my own advice. In this case the person who kicked me in the head happens to be adorable; I happen to adore him; I would throw myself in front of a train for him. (He would happily exclaim "Train!" because he's on a train kick these days. But after that he'd miss me.) But I don't like getting kicked in the head. I don't like having my hair pulled or my house trashed. It is okay not to like those things. And the "point," I guess, is that my anger motivates me to teach him how to live in a world that has other people in it. People whose bodies and stuff you have to respect.

Ideally I'd throw myself in front of one of the trains from Chuggington. They seem nice.
This morning, before 7 am, I'd already cleaned up cat poop, changed a poopy diaper and wiped up coffee and milk he'd spilled. Dash has been demonstrating great gentleness and impulse control toward the cats lately, but not this morning. He kept pulling OC's tail, then looking at me, waiting for my (angry) reaction and his ten-second time-out. He was working something out about boundaries and consequences, and I was angry that he was working it out at the expense of a relentlessly friendly 16-year-old cat. 

The only kind of cat that's safe around Dash is a large wooden tiger.
"Tail!" Dash bemoaned as I pulled him away for the fifth time.

"OC's tail belongs to him, not to you," I said, not very kindly.

I woke up AK for her shift. "My morning is going okay, and this isn't a guilt trip," I prefaced, "but can I vent about everything that's gone down in the last hour?"

I concluded, "I'm doing my part to tackle rape culture by teaching Dash body autonomy. There. I have to pretend I'm doing something bigger and more noble to make myself feel like I'm not just hitting my head against a wall."

And it's not pretend--raising a kind child should be valued more highly in our culture. I am part of a great movement of unsung teachers and nurturers, goddammit, and no matter how much you love and pursued and longed for the opportunity to teach and nurture, it's not easy. Or at least this is the story I'll tell myself next time I'm up to my ears in poopy paper towels and we're on the fifth time-out of the morning.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

people under pressure

1. when in doubt

I signed up to help with the Homeless Count because I have house guilt. (I’m also working on a story about homelessness in L.A. for Razorcake, because what is more DIY than building your own makeshift shelter?) As we’ve settled into our new place, the streets of Highland Park and Chinatown have filled with motor homes like the one my family camped in when I was a kid. It’s like a post-apocalyptic time capsule. Meanwhile my middle-class friends struggle to pay rent on tiny apartments, and a not-small percentage of staff and clients at Homeboy commute from Palmdale. It’s safe to say L.A.—despite all its blue-state benefits—has a housing crisis.

Glamping?
After watching two online training videos, I arrive at W.O.R.K.S., an affordable housing organization in Highland Park. I actually emailed them a while back to volunteer, but I never heard back. Ah, nonprofits. W.O.R.K.S. will be the starting point for counting NELA census tracts. I see my former neighbors, Micah and Saskia, at the other end of the table, and an old friend of AK’s named Barbra.

We watch the training videos again. I’d imagined approaching apparently homeless people and explaining the project, but we learn that this is a “visual count” only. It’s pretty simple: If you see a person who looks homeless, a car or camper that’s being used as a home, or a boxes-and-shopping-carts-type shelter, put a tally mark on a clipboard. Every group will have a driver, a navigator, a tally keeper and counters.

A man in a bright yellow vest announces that he needs six or seven able-bodied people to tackle some tracts that are likely to have high numbers of homeless people. I volunteer; so do Micah, Saskia and Barbra. Saskia later says she thinks her faux leopard coat scared the guy away; he doesn’t pick her or Micah.

The man with the yellow vest seems like some sort of authority, but soon we’re handed yellow vests too. His name is Erik, and he’s a civil engineer with the county parks system, as is our navigator, Eddie. Erik participated in counts in other neighborhoods earlier in the week, and he sees himself as an expert. He says “vehicle” instead of “car.” When we debate whether a given person is homeless or just kicking it on the sidewalk outside CVS, he announces “Remember, this is a visual count. We have to make our best guess.” Later he shortens this to a near rhyme: “When in doubt, count.”

The four tracts we cover comprise my commute to work, exactly: from Highland Park through Lincoln Heights, culminating in Chinatown. In true Angeleno style, there is no actual walking involved in our supposedly walking-intensive trip. We just weave through neighborhoods at a creeper’s pace (nothing suspicious about a big white van inching down the street at five miles per hour), talking, swinging our flashlights into parked cars and snacking on Chinese New Year candies that resemble miniature empanadas.

2. unintentional community

In addition to Erik, Eddie, Barbra and myself, we are: another Eddy—this one with a Y—and his wife, a high school principal; an attorney who has three children under six (HOW DOES SHE HAVE TIME TO VOLUNTEER?); and an older guy named Dan.

Almost immediately we see a guy sitting cross-legged beneath a lamppost near a gas station, smoking and making funny gestures with his hands. There’s an uncomfortable I-caught-a-fish feeling to the endeavor. I’m weirdly grateful that I wasn’t assigned to count, like, Beverly Hills. There are a few others like him throughout the night, but what becomes immediately, painfully obvious as we make our way down residential streets is this: A hell of a lot of people are living in cars.


It’s not just the putty-spackled motor homes, which stand out like turtles in a city of rabbits. It’s mini vans with curtains hung in back windows. Sedans with tilted seats waiting for sleepers. Hatchbacks packed with junk. It seems there are one or two on every block.

The houses here, in L.A.’s first suburb, are delicate Victorians and bungalows. The alleys are marked with tags from the Avenues and Dogtown. The businesses: Bi-Rite, a mysteriously lifeless drugstore; Jaime Caro, the guy who did my taxes up until last year; and Razzle Razzle Razzle, a bright clothing store full of H&M knockoffs.

How much do you want to bet they keep the sign and reopen as a hipster bisexual bar?
“Wow, they didn’t have anything like that when I lived here,” said Barbra, as if Razzle Razzle Razzle were Tiffany & Co.

We roll down Sichel, the street where she lived for eight years and where AK lived for three, in an “intentional community” (it’s a vaguely Christian thing) of young adults. One of their cohort, Meg, is now working as L.A.’s Homeless Czar.

The count doesn’t cover people who are crashing on friends’ couches or living in motels or sleeping in shifts in shared rooms. I met a Homeboy trainee who told me that he and his girlfriend once lived in an apartment with no running water, for which they paid $400 a month.

I get a text from a number I don’t recognize: How is your count going? All ok?

I bricked my phone a couple of months ago and am still gathering the numbers I lost. I assume the sender is Micah or Saskia, and I reply: It’s interesting. Lots of car shelters. No walking yet. Our driver is kinda bossy; I think he secretly dreamed of being a cop. How’s yours?

When I don’t get a reply, I realize the text was actually from Francesca, our site supervisor, who collected all our numbers. I hope she won’t rat me out to Erik.

Erik tells us about the time his Chinese grandmother tried to arrange a marriage for him, when he was sixteen. He refused, but he wiggles his ring-less hand for us now and says “I don’t know, maybe I should have gone for it.”

There is a sandwich-and-beer shop next to Bi-Rite called The Heights. The font and color scheme (red, brown and baby blue) all but announce Hi, we are here to gentrify! Lincoln Heights is being squeezed by a gentrification sandwich, between Downtown and Highland Park. It’s resisted this long mostly because it’s a tough neighborhood, I think. Maybe that resistance will turn intentional, like in Boyle Heights.

It looks kind of great, actually. That's how they get you!
Barbra points out a pale yellow building with an arched entryway. “It used to be a crematorium, but it was remodeled into expensive lofts.”

3. putting the grief in machtergreifung

This week my anxiety about Trump’s executive-order rampage reached a tipping point. All my coping mechanisms are dusting themselves off and preparing for battle. It’s disturbing and righteous. I spent my therapy session yesterday crying to my German therapist, who assured me that the Weimar Republic was a young, unstable government with a shaky economy. I felt mildly comforted; then I read about a rumored anti-LGBT order coming down the pipeline, which would deny federal funding to foster care agencies that place kids with queer couples.

As you can imagine if you know me, that pushed every button I have. I bought eggs and milk from the little Persian market next to my therapist’s office and wondered if the checker had relatives detained at LAX. I wanted to hug her, which would be obnoxious and presumptive, but there it is.

Heart of the beast.
Driving home, I felt almost like something physical was rearing up in me. A kind of…pregnancy, you might say, except my baby is an immense beast made of claws and duct tape and a beating red heart. It is ready. It has been through some shit before, and it knows what to do: how to act and compartmentalize, how to beat back its inner scaredy cat, the one who might choose safety over morality. It knows how to fight and rest and love, and do it all over again the next day.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

you gotta fight for your right to write

1. getting there is half the fun

“It doesn’t even look like we’re on Earth,” says Janice.

I am in a car full of writers I don’t know, driving toward wet black mountains half hidden by clouds. Today Donald Trump is being inaugurated as president. Our hearts and our friends will be at Women’s Marches around the country tomorrow, but we’ve decided to leave town and write.

Cole took the train from Santa Barbara and met us at Union Station in L.A. It arrived late, so we sat in Janice’s Prius for an hour, watching the rain. Not long after getting on the 210 freeway, Janice’s tire blew. We limped to an off-ramp and waited for AAA.

 
Sporting a new used tire from Moreno’s Tires New & Used Llantas in Irwindale, we are back on the road now.

Cole says she’s writing a book of lyric essays about uncertainty. I tell her I’m writing about uncertainty too, and proceed to tell my three fellow travelers “my story.” I don’t mean the story I’m writing, although I build a literary framework around it. I mean it the way the homies I work with do: the messy ball of events that reshaped your insides forever. Figuratively but also literally.

We talk about living with uncertainty, and how some people—perhaps violent men especially, perhaps our new president especially—are so scared of being wrong or unsure that they try to shoot their way toward something solid. I don’t understand the action, but I understand the temptation.

I say, “By middle age, most people have discovered that their defense mechanisms only work to a point, and they have to discover a new way of living with uncertainty.”

Jessica, who is sitting next to Cole, reminds me, “Or you can be born into chaos, like I was, and you have to learn how to live with stability.”

The freeway forks off, and we start to climb the mountain. The fog is so thick it’s like being in the belly of a ghost. It’s not snowing yet, but we pull into a cluster of cars at a turnout to put chains on our tires, since we know a California Highway Patrol checkpoint lies ahead.

We want visibility.
An hour ago, the other car in our party discovered they had the wrong kind of chains and hitched a ride to an auto parts store with a local. Putting chains on tourists’ tires for extra cash is a cottage industry in the mountains. Her name was Melody. She was seven months pregnant and behind on her rent. She told them locals don’t bother with chains; they know which roads to take to avoid the checkpoints.

2. tools from our mothers

We inch along the icy road, stopping at every turnout to adjust the cables on our tires. From the car’s undercarriage, we hear flapping and clanging and crunching.

“Is it supposed to sound like that?” Janice asks. We are all a little rattled by the obstacles we’ve already encountered today.

Jessica Googles it on her phone, and I think about how a kind of automotive hypochondria is possible. How, at a certain point, all the things that are normal seem like they belong on another planet, and vice versa.

We are just a mile from our rental cabin when we pull over to take one more look at the chains. This time we slide too far to the right, and one of the front tires ends up in a snow bank. When Janice tries to start the car, the wheel smokes. We use a doggy water bottle, an empty coffee cup and the metal lid of a rice pot to dig at the snow around the wheel. The chain has come off the tire, but seems to be stuck to a part of the car we can’t access.

A man in a Nine Inch Nails hoodie pulls up. “Having trouble?”

He thinks it’s just a matter of pushing the car, but when that doesn’t work, he says we’re screwed and need a tow. Phone service is intermittent, so he lends us his cell to call AAA (“Hi again…”) and then gets out of there.

I redecorated.
AAA tells us that the weather is too bad and they’re not sending anyone out. Once—and perhaps still, if I were the one driving—I would have been crying at this point, but I feel okay. There are houses nearby. We have a car full of snacks and coats. And when no one’s life is in danger, everything else is workable.

“Okay, we have two phones that are getting service,” Cole says. “We have a pot lid. We know the other car made it.” She and I have been doing less of the dirty work than Janice and Jessica, and she pauses. “I can’t do anything except narrate.”

While we wait for two of the writers ahead of us to pick us up, I make a sign that says Please don’t tow us, since it looks like we’re going to have to abandon the car.

Janice says, “Humor me” and does some more digging, this time with a multi-purpose, Swiss army knife-type gadget given to her by her late mother. This time, the car inches forward, and we’re able to pull the tangled chain loose.

Our rescuers—not AAA but Sara and Melissa, two curly-haired women writers in an SUV—cheer for us and lead us to the cabin.

“It’s crazy what busy working women will do to write,” Janice says. Our two-hour drive has taken us more than seven.

Why is it so much easier to write at someone else's kitchen table?
We peel off our wet clothes and pour ourselves red wine. We contemplate our hard-won, very short retreat, and also that any one of us could be going through the same motions—chains, tires, ice—for rent money instead of contemplative space.

One of the toilets is clogged, the WiFi is dead and more snow is expected tonight. We can’t do anything except narrate. But we have a big pot of pasta, a bag of mini marshmallows, stacks of books and a low hum of support—it sounds like percolating coffee and the tapping of keyboards—and that will get you through a storm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

it's always both

All the sentences I say to AK lately begin with "In Far from the Tree...." When I was reading the chapter about prodigies, she would say, "Ugh, what about prodigies now?" I think I've shown great restraint in not diagnosing myself or Dash with the various maladies and challenges covered in the book, but right now I'm feeling a little extra empathy for the schizophrenics in the schizophrenia chapter. Many of them know that the voices they hear aren't real; it just takes a lot of energy--spoons in the language of disability and chronic illness--to shut them out.

In the same vein, I know that my anxieties aren't grounded in a ton of reality, but it still takes effort to whittle them down to a manageable size. It's haaaaarrd, and I don't even have an official anxiety disorder, let alone auditory hallucinations. 

Here's what's on my plate today:

1) Is it a problem that Dash dropped a lot of height percentile points between his 18-month and two-year doctor visits? (His doctor thinks it's not. I may have Googled "pituitary dwarfism." There may be a chapter about dwarfism in Far from the Tree. I may have been a little bit wrong about not self-diagnosing. Also a main point of the book is that there's nothing wrong with being a dwarf, etc.)

2) Is it a problem that my right tonsillar lymph node is tender and swollen? I had a shitty cold last week that wiped me out and made my head hurt, so that's a far more likely cause than metastatic breast cancer. But then one of the (non-literal...but almost literal) voices in my head was like "How convenient, Cheryl. Do you really even have a cold, or are you just trying to explain away your tonsil cancer?" So I looked in my bullet journal to confirm that I had a note about my cold on Wednesday of last week, a full 24 hours before I noticed the lumpy tonsil. 


Behold the bullet journal, a beautiful container for your anxiety.
That kind of hyper-vigilance is insane, I know, but that's my history. I thought I had breast cancer when I "officially" didn't (but actually did) and then went through a year of treatment after it was already gone. In the same way dieting can ruin your metabolism, hypochondria can ruin your ability to monitor what's going on in your body.

3) Will AK and Dash and Nicole and Jamie and Kendra and Kim be safe at the Women's March on Saturday? I'm going to be out of town, and big crowds are scary. Like people who fear air travel more than auto travel, despite statistics that say the former is safer, I imagine that my presence would help control their safety. I worry, even though they all have excellent judgement (well, Dash does not, but he has an excellent Mama) and aren't really the type to taunt cops or sacrifice themselves on the altar of social justice.



I keep asking myself: What is this really about? Is my hypochondria a mask for my fears about Trump and the repeal of the ACA? Is all of it just a product of having lowered my dose of Effexor? What is real? Do we live in the Matrix? Does it matter?


Hyper-vigilance, meet hyper-reality.
My brain does these funny dances in part because I'm always trying to figure out whether I'm privileged or not, as if privilege were just one fixed, binary thing. 

I have race, class* and citizenship privilege, so therefore I must not really be worried about Trump, right? I might hate him and all that he stands for and all the ways in which he fails to take a stand at all, but that must just be a fun intellectual exercise, right? Just another college paper, another blog post. So if I'm scared, it must be because I have cancer or my kid is a Little Person, right? (Again, it is fine to be a little person--I was honestly more concerned with a note, several Google pages deep, that pituitary dwarfism can be the result of leukemia.)


This is the kind of book that would make me laugh during the day, then keep me up all night.
This is where the schizophrenia comes in. It's like I've forgotten that I'm a queer woman married to a queer woman of color and we are raising a little Mexican kid and I'm a giant, living, breathing preexisting condition. 

(Side note re: ACA: I have health insurance through my employer. I literally owe my life to it, and am eternally grateful. But if AK becomes a self-employed therapist, I won't have the option of being self-employed at the same time, because who would insure me? If I ever have the wonderful problem of earning a living as a novelist, it better be one hell of a living, because I will be paying for any healthcare I need out of pocket, which only multi-millionaires can do. Or I guess I could get much poorer and go on Medicaid, if it still exists.)

I don't know if my denial of these realities is a form of self-protection or self-flagellation. I.e., I don't want to be a victim vs. I don't get to be a victim. It's probably both. It's always both. 


But imagine if stripes weren't an oppressed group, and Bob's stripes were always telling his triangle-ness to STFU.
This morning Homeboy announced that it will be sending a contingent to the Women's March in L.A. Consuelo, a staff therapist in her sixties, gave a moving and intersectional speech about how Cesar Chavez didn't take injustice sitting down and neither should we. She tried to get a si-se-puede chant going, and it didn't really take, either because it was 8:30 in the morning or because a lot of people trying to leave gangs don't see national politics or women's issues as their cause. Probably both. Always both.

Consuelo reminded me that trying to contain my fear in a neat little box can be useful in the short term and when the fear is small enough to fit in a box. But the fear is always a pointy chip from a giant iceberg, sitting in oily black water. That fear will always flatten me when I try to battle it with my usual defenses: probabilities and carbohydrates. It can only be melted with a long hard Care Bear Stare, aka love-and-truth, the kind that leaves me in a puddle too.


Rawr, I love you.
I've read that Donald Trump is obsessed with videos of himself, and only wants to think about his big win on election night, not about the hard work he'll need to do as president. Something about that felt eerily familiar. I imagine him watching footage of the falling balloons, the cheering crowds and his own face as he tried to pretend he belonged there.  


"Hi, I totally believe I deserve love and am not ruining the world as a personal defense mechanism at all!"
Sometimes when I'm Googling cancer statistics, I'll come across that one reassuring number, and for a moment I believe I'm immortal. Later, when fear and reality set in (because even if I never get cancer again, I'm not immortal), I return to that webpage. It becomes practically etched into my screen. I recite the favorable statistic like a rosary. But it wears down, and the only thing that ever really saves me is living my life with love.

Donald, I see the shadow of your dark iceberg too. Maybe it's reductive to say you are the way you are because you've never felt loved, but is it inaccurate? Like a high school smartypants who gets to college and realizes he never learned how to study, your immense wealth and privilege kept you from ever having to deal with the ways in which you're not privileged at all. Your figurative walls are so much bigger than the real one you want to build, and we're all suffering for their success. So I tell you this as a fellow human with a fucked-up head: Googling won't help. The high will wear off. You know it will, because it's already happening. 

Writing, for me, is a form of Walking Into It. I don't know what your equivalent is, Donald. Maybe you don't have one. I hope you find one. The Homeboy CEO said recently "I am a big believer in people being transformed by their jobs." I hope he's right.



*Class privilege is its own can of worms and false binaries. What it means for me at this moment in time is that I have an education and a dad who helps me out in some ways and would help me out more in a pinch. It means I can pay my bills, if barely.