Sunday, June 04, 2017

transcendence and the inner city

1. first, let us meditate on how we suck

I’m about to blog about yet another podcast. This strikes me as a problem—where are the books and movies in my life?—but arguably the bigger problem is that I think everything is a problem. During my Drama Years, I learned to be more forgiving of myself. I thought it was because I’d finally discovered the Meaning of Life or something, but recently my therapist suggested that I get really anxious about medical stuff because I think it’s the only thing I’m allowed to have Big Feelings about. Like, if it’s not a matter of life and death or a few central relationships, what business do I have caring? Doesn’t stressing about work just make me a banal cog in the capitalist machine? Isn’t my need for peace and a clean house and writing time just a first world problem? So instead I worry that seasonal allergies are cancer.

I just did a mandatory transcendental meditation session—long, very Homeboy-specific story—and it felt so great and necessary. It made me reflect, dejectedly, on the fact that my life consists of bouncing from grant to grant to child-chasing to exhausted Polyvoring (while listening to podcasts), with hardy doses of Facebook in between. Noah, the guy who led the session, said that while it can be hard to make time for TM when your plate is full, it ultimately expands your plate. That was appealing to me.

Like this, except I was wearing an old Homeboy 5K T-shirt, and instead of what appears to literally be Heaven, I was in an empty classroom where a train squealed by the window every fifteen minutes.
On one hand, I think I’d thrive if I had better life-hygiene, for lack of a better phrase (I guess the better phrase is “self-care,” but that’s so overused and abused). If I could actually put my fucking phone away at 9 pm, brush my teeth, wash my face, apply some kind of cream like girls in movies do. Rather than just sort of collapse at the finish line.

On the other hand, this running narrative of what I should do feels damaging in itself. So I really don’t know. My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to meditate. I downloaded an app on my phone and did the three-minute option most days up until January 24, at which point Dash came along and I never did it again.

Now that he’s a little older, my internal monologue is like Now what’s your excuse, asshole? And the result of this self-accusation is ugly—just a lot of shuffling around the house muttering about how chubby I’ve gotten, then feeling ashamed for body-shaming myself and by extension all the beautiful fat girls in the world; a lot of talking about writing I’m not doing; a lot of worrying that I’m not cut out to ever be a mother of two; a lot of frustration that I don’t have time for myself, followed immediately by concern that I’m not spending enough time with Dash and/or AK. I am exhausted; I’ve forgotten how to relax; I’m too needed and not useful enough; too obsessed with utility, because doesn’t that mean I’ve bought the lies of ableism and capitalism? (Although, isn’t communism obsessed with work too? I don’t even know the basic world economic structures that I should.)

I am a fortunate person, so I should be capable of more than other people. I am full of hubris for thinking I should be capable of more than other people.

Is there a way to meditate for ten minutes a day without beating myself up if I don’t? Is there a way to [eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, write more, read the newspaper instead of Facebook, be kinder, call my congressperson more often, wear that mouth guard I paid so much for back in 2011, steam clean the rug in the living room, stop giving Dash so many croissants, stop thinking so much about myself, etc. etc. etc.] without beating myself up if I don’t?

2. the comfort of being a tiny marble in a big solar system

Now that I’ve thoroughly downloaded the contents of my brain, here’s what I actually logged on to talk about: Episode 261 of 99% Invisible, Roman Mars’ beautifully produced art-design-and-sociology. It’s called “Squatters of the Lower East Side,” and it’s about the chain of events that preceded (and kind of pushed back against) gentrification in New York City. I’m going to summarize this poorly, but basically white flight in the 1950s led to plummeting property values in the 1960s and ‘70s, which prompted landlords to abandon buildings that were no longer profitable to keep up and rent out. The city took ownership of the crumbling buildings, and in the 1980s squatters—poor people, artists, folks who didn’t like rules and various combinations thereof—took up residence.

How the light comes in. (Photo c/o Peter Spagnuolo via 99% Invisible.)
My ears perked up because this was the backdrop of Rent. I wondered where Jonathan Larson, with all his affection for la vie boheme, saw himself in this historical arc. The lyrical banter of Rent actually does a respectable job of interrogating the idealization of urban decay, even in the midst of idealizing urban decay. But the musical stops before the podcast does: In the early 2000s, years of legal battles between squatters, the city, and private developers were finally settled, largely in the squatters’ favor. Imagine if the “path to citizenship” described in immigration reform pitches was a “path to home ownership.” I’m keenly aware that I live on a tiny island in a sea of overpriced housing, and I was heartened to hear a happy ending for a handful of people who didn’t rent from their dads.

La vie boheme. (Photo by Ashley Thayer via International Business Times.)
I say this with a certain amount of wariness, because I know that some people viewed the squatters as rich kids who were slumming, and that the happy ending did nothing to help the poor people of color that the landlords fucked over in the first place.

The idea of a ghost town slowly repopulating fascinates me, but here’s what else keeps tripping me out: In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the fallout and reversal of a major historical trend. (I guess another way of framing this would be “Yes, you are forty, Cheryl.”) 

My coworkers were cleaning out some old storage containers the other day and unearthed a poster advertising “Homeboy Tortillas: Our handmade tortillas provide jobs for inner-city youth.” The phrase “inner-city” is rapidly becoming dated as the city becomes hot property, and the poor move to Palmdale.

When I graduated from college, Jonathan Larson types were already a decade into their urban homesteading, but huge pockets of the city were still cheap and tagged up. (Now they are expensive and tagged up.) I remember looking at a one-bedroom in Silver Lake that was renting for $380 a month! I am old! But it’s not just inflation. I think about how lucky I was to graduate into a city of cheap rent and a good job market. Twenty-somethings now face the reverse—not to mention people without a college education who are trying to raise families.

Putting things in perspective.
It’s eerie and beautiful and humbling to see your life overlaid on history. Like seeing the Earth from the moon. On balance, I feel like the trends that have directly impacted me have done so for the better: medical advances, gay rights. It’s humbling to know that if you lived just fifty years ago, you’d probably be miserable or dead. (If I’d been writing in the ‘90s, I think I might have had better luck with publishing, but I guess I’ll take gay marriage over a book deal…not that I should have to choose; not that I get to.) Trump and his army of Twitter Nazis are so awful that it feels almost blasphemous to posit that some things are going well. But some things are, and let’s not give the bastards more power than they deserve.

Other things, not so much. When you look at your life, what trends hold it up? Trample it? What anvils fell just behind you, leaving you shaken and gasping?

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