Monday, March 15, 2021

news (the good kind)

No make-up Rainbow Brite glasses selfie as temporary author photo 

I've never fully understood the phrase "No news is good news." I think it means that if you haven't gotten any updates, things are probably proceeding as planned. I was raised to believe in plans and routine and the supremacy of consistency. 

But at some point—maybe when I was 14 and didn't see my name on the list of girls chosen for drill team, posted at the entrance to the locker room, maybe when I got my first negative pregnancy test—I started to feel like "All news is bad news." It's silly, because I've actually gotten a lot more good news than bad news in my life, yet every time I'm waiting to hear back about something, even when the possible outcomes are only "good" and "neutral," my stomach twists and the apocalypse twinkles on the horizon. 

I wrote a book about my annoying brain's apocalyptic flirtations, and about some other things: wanting a baby, miscarrying, getting cancer, adopting a kid, the advantages and dangers of the human impulse toward narrative, and crying at Starbucks a lot. 

And now I have some good news about it. A wonderful independent publisher, Brown Paper Press, will be publishing it in 2022. It's called Crybaby. Because, you know, babies are part of the story, and also because Crying at Starbucks probably raises copyright issues.

Corresponding and talking with Wendy, BPP's savvy and kind editor, was both buoying and a strange emotional roller coaster. Because news. Because pandemic grind, and all its associated good fortune and constant specter of disaster; a year in which I've been called a poophead and not-enough in both subtle and screamy ways, and it's taken a toll on my self-worth. Because I've been writing this thing for eight years, and I've wondered so many times whether I'd live long enough to see it published. I mean, not to be dramatic about it, but one of my first thoughts after finding a publisher was, Even if I'm diagnosed with metastatic cancer, statistically I'll still make it to 2022. 

But hopefully, knockonwood, I'll get to stay healthy and have a book in the world. My therapist has taught me it's okay to want two things. (Actually I want at least one hundred things, starting with A Solution to Climate Change and continuing right on down to Some Candy Right Now.)

It's weird to put a story about your boobs/lack thereof into the world, but I've been blogging since 2005, so I guess I'll be okay on that front.

One of the best parts of forthcoming publication is crafting the acknowledgments page in my head. Like a tiny Oscar speech. This is a first draft of that: 

The people who helped me keep living: AK, Cathy, my dad, my mom from deep within my soul. Nicole, Kim M., Joewon, Annette, Amy, Jamie, Keely, Meehan, Kathy, Bronwyn, Pat, Lori, Holly, Molly. Molly did not get to keep living, and that will never be remotely fair. My online adoption groups. Erica. Dash. Dr. Schmidt, Dr. Hills, Dr. Chung, and Dr. Jasper, who said, in her wonderful Russian accent, "This is not the cancer that kill you."

The people who helped me keep writing (which is to say, more people who helped me keep living): Aubrey, Debbie, Jennifer, and Shea of the IKEA Writers Collective; my IRL/now-Zoom writing group, Elizabeth, Jane, Joliange, Kate, Kim Y., Sarah; Dan, who told me to just write it in order; Dani, who told me in the kindest, most encouraging way possible that my draft was basically a collection of notes and scenes, and having an eight-week-old child was just the beginning of the stress of being a parent, not the end of all my worries; Meg, the best editor and advocate a writer-mom could ask for; Kerry, who kept trying to sell my novels despite the madness of the publishing industry.

There are so many more. And, full disclosure, there are a couple of people on my "Hmph, fuck you" list as well. If you want to know who, you can buy the book in mid-2022. 


Monday, March 01, 2021

shadowrise


As an oversized kitten, he chomped the hand of a friend,
and we said, I'm sorry, he's still figuring out
what kind of cat he wants to be. 

Which is to say: he is not a metaphor
any more than he's a bad omen flitting blackly
across someone's path, but I must tell you this—

A year ago a new cat moved in;
we brought her here, I held the door 
for the invading army, and she marched in

On short legs, waving her tortoiseshell tail,
purring and rolling for the humans, 
but chasing him down like a tiger

He scaled the nearest fence,
a big brother witnessing the horror of an infant,
and disappeared, but he never bit or clawed her.

He's figured out what kind of cat he wants to be.
We don't see him in the sunlight anymore,
and this is my great failure, among many.

My mother birthed my sister because she loved
having one child so much, she thought why not two;
she ruined my life and created my best friend.

It only took us twenty years to retract our claws.
When I say this has been a nightmare year,
I mean there have been good parts and weird ones

Too, sudden cameos by elementary school friends
and psychedelic vistas, unearthly Seussian trees.
Each night before bed, we call our black cat.

Each night I take to the sidewalk unmasked,
sometimes unshod, shake a bowl of dry food,
and call his name like a woman who has long ago

Eschewed sanity. My voice bounces against windows
of lit-up bungalows, their flashing TVs and late dinners.
It is a year of new routines.

I said this sidewalk rosary—Olliebear, Olliecat, Ollie,
Ollie—the night we gave the baby back, the night
I thought we had the virus, the night the vaccine

Emerged on the horizon, a beacon of hope, sure, and also
something hard and literal: instructions to our bodies
to make a spike that fights an insidious enemy.

His body grows bigger beneath the streetlights.
He's middle-aged now, has made friends with
the neighbors, who call him Willie and Jack.

He is all fast feet and qualified forgiveness
and the sight of him is an injection of something.
He smells like a driveway fire pit, or someone's cologne.

If you told me to start a gratitude journal
I would fight you, but when I plunge my face
into his dark fur, it's a kind of sunrise,

One I don't know for sure will happen,
one tainted by my complicity and threaded with shadow,
but true as ink, squirmy as love.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

tops of 2020

Seeing year-end round-ups and reflections makes me feel as tired as just about everything else in 2020, but here's mine because hypocrisy, because tradition. No philosophizing, though. I've been scared, exhausted, grateful, irritable, and productive most days this year. My productivity has, at best, kept me sane, hopeful, and employed. At worst, it's contributed to my irritability and made me extremely unpleasant to live with for the two people who cannot escape me (and honestly the neighbor girls aren't big fans of me at this point either)...all while being futile! No baby, no book. Yet? I don't know whether it's optimism, entitlement, or pure Aries stubbornness that keeps me believing a baby and a book could still happen.

And there are still six months without school ahead. But maybe "only" three or four without childcare of any sort? 

Till then, I will keep my head down and stick with my mantra, which is I need more coffee. 

With that preamble out of the way, here's a list of the best things I read and watched that helped me escape into other people's problems in 2020. 

Books:

(I got ARCs of a few of these, so technically they come out in 2021; others were published in the 1940s. This is a what-I-read list, not a what-was-published list. Also all but one of these books are by women, and 6/10 are by writers of color, which is kind of cool, though maybe I should read more books by men?)

The Street by Ann Petry: This is a gorgeously written and infuriating account of how poverty and racism grind down a handful of characters in 1940s Harlem. Reading it during the drama of 2020 sustained me, as I thought about all that people have endured throughout history, but it doesn't exactly end on a "they can't crush our spirits" note. Spirits most definitely get crushed.

At one point, Lutie Johnson, the beautiful young protagonist who is trying to save her son from the trouble and indignities that await him on the street, traces the cause of all that's befallen her back to a white society that won't pay Black men enough to support their families. (After she took a nannying and housekeeping job, her bored, unemployed husband cheated on her.) I struggled a bit with the gender essentialism of that theory, but, you know, 1940s. Meanwhile, Lutie finds herself a pawn in the schemes of both white and Black men, and Petry paints a perfect, devastating portrait of misogynoir in lush, layered prose.


Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina: A stunning and intense braided memoir that combines the history of Okinawa with the author's evolving relationship with her mother, who left her home on the resilient and oft-conquered island to marry Brina's American father. 

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld: Curtis Sittenfeld writes so many tricky things well. On display most prominently in this speculative novel are love (she makes Bill Clinton so likable and then so hatable!) and randomness. People read in part to escape the randomness of real life, but Sittenfeld considers the role that chance plays--in her universe, Donald Trump is as egomaniacal as in this one, yet willing to throw his support by anyone who flatters him, even Crooked Hillary--without depicting life as meaningless. It was wonderful to inhabit this world for a while, and not just for the obvious reasons.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado writes: "When I was a kid, I learned that you develop immunity when an illness rages through your body. Your body is brilliant, even when you are not.... It learns. It remembers. (All of this, of course, if the virus doesn't kill you first.)"

This memoir in fragments frames an abusive queer relationship in more than a hundred different ways, capturing the nature of (largely) psychological abuse, which is impossible to legislate and difficult to describe even in traditional prose. Machado frequently references Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature as one way of communicating how societies have told secrets without telling them. And then there's the opposite of taboo: "We think of cliches as boring and predictable, but they are actually one of the most dangerous things in the world.... To describe an abusive situation is...awful and dehumanizing, and yet straight out of central casting." She rescues her story and other women's from central casting, giving it the fierce and honest examination it deserves. This is performative writing as public service; what may have begun as un-tellable has become intensely readable.

The Likeness by Tana French: This book is getting a high ranking not just because I love me some Tana French, but because it might be the book that inspires what might be my next writing project, a maybe-literary-maybe-murder-mystery. Maybe!

This is the third Dublin Murder Squad book I've read, and while I've enjoyed them all, this is my favorite yet, a meditation on the tension between freedom and security with a satisfying mystery at its center and lots of delicious crumbling countryside cottages at the periphery.

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets by Margaret Kimball: Kimball's debut memoir showcases her technical skill as an illustrator, questions the authority of both memory and "official" documents like marriage and hospital records, and tells a poignant, intergenerational story about mental illness and family relationships. 

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed: Like the protagonist, I was a high school student in an affluent part of Los Angeles when the city erupted following the Rodney King verdict; I found Reed's references and descriptions perfectly attuned. Unlike the protagonist, I was (and am!) white. Reed depicts Ashley's racial awakening over the course of spring 1992 in a way I found believable, complex, and moving.

A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong: Another realistic portrait of high school girlhood, this time contemporary, and following a diverse cluster of Venice Beach basketball players. Leong's sunset-hued illustrations are as gorgeous as her words are poetic. 



The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen: The middle school protagonist is a gay boy trying to come out to his mom, a Vietnamese immigrant who loves him deeply. They inhabit different worlds and lack the language to communicate about sexuality, but they connect through both western and Vietnamese fairy tales, which Nguyen illustrates with incredible beauty and research-informed imagination.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro: By her own account, Dani Shapiro lives a well examined life--an author of multiple memoirs, a practitioner of mediation. But in her fifties, she gets the surprise of a lifetime when a just-for-fun DNA test reveals that her late, beloved father is not her biological father. What ensues is a love letter to both genetics and upbringing, and the fragile, malleable identities that thread them together. With the possible exception of Dani's narcissistic mother, the story is populated with kind, lovely, functional people; imagine if everyone on one of those Maury Povich paternity-reveal episodes had an advanced degree and a few years of therapy under their belts. Yet there's no shortage of drama and suffering, largely as a result of layers of secrets--because of shame, because of religion, because of sketchy practices in the early days of reproductive medicine. The book inspired me to start listening to Dani Shapiro's Family Secrets podcast, which also unites different kinds of families under the umbrella of secrets that once held them separate.

Also, this book inspired me to interview one of AK's family members about her own family secrets, which was one of the most meaningful things I did in this stupid year.

Screens:

(Again, these are not 2020 movies, necessarily. Also, some of them are TV shows. Also, I miss movie theaters so much.)

The Babushkas of Chernobyl: If you're not foraging for radioactive mushrooms and drinking vodka straight from the bottle, are you even cottage core? This is the perfect movie about survival.


Little Women (2019 version): A very different vibe, yet also a movie about survival—for women, for families, during wartime. Jo remains a hero for all writers and baby dykes, but Gerwig elevates Amy and suggests that there are many paths to love and goodness. AK and I also decided that Louis Garrel's Friedrich Bhaer is the definition of spicy-white.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution: When I was a counselor at UniCamp, UCLA's summer camp for kids living below the poverty line, we often talked about "camp magic," the spiritual feeling that came from creating your own world with people you loved. It happened a lot at Homeboy, too. Made by a former camper, this documentary about a hippe-run camp for kids with disabilities—which started with the radical notion that disabled kids were humans who wanted to have agency and do fun things—shows how camp magic shaped the disability rights movement.



The Crown: I could not have cared less about the royal family going in, but the family's relationship to duty and show's depiction of it is endlessly fascinating. Probably because of excellent writing and performances, but also because it's helped me understand that my own family's commitment to responsibility-over-joy might be somewhat cultural. (My dad's mom and grandparents moved to the U.S. from England in the early twentieth century. Usually, I just default to "Oh, we're all white, we're just oppressors," but there may be ways in which we're more particular than that.)

"And we could all together/Go out on the ocean" episode of Social Distance: Like most anthology shows, Social Distance is hit and miss, and I didn't watch that much of it. But this episode! Starring the wonderful Danielle Brooks, it sums up the harried, multi-tasking, tech-fueled nature of being a working parent during quarantine (she plays a home health aide and single mom who watches her kid via FaceTime while she works), and the notion that your pod might not be like-minded besties so much as a marriage of convenience. It resonated hard, and ends on a transcendent and poetic note.


#blackAF: I haven't watched Blackish, for no other reason than vague confusion about how to watch network TV now, but this series, based on the show's creator and his family, is what this blog aims to be. If, you know, I was super successful, worked in television, and was a Black man with six kids. It is about a neurotic, self-absorbed artist who cares deeply about culture. Each episode is a witty deep dive into the intersection of art, race, and class. The series makes so many other conversations about these subjects look ham-fisted; Kenya Baris is an embroidery artist who relates to and through culture in a way that resonates with me and AK.

Dead to Me: I watched a bunch of episodes of How to Get Away With Murder before I realized that Viola Davis' excellence was distracting me from the fact that the show was so nonsensical as to be completely predictable. Then I found Dead to Me, which has all the suspense and much better writing and character development. Bonus points for an organic BRCA-gene plot line. Thank you, Christina Applegate! 

Midsommar: The best break-up movie ever, with some good 2020 vibes. But you might want to fast forward through the parts where old people get beaten to death with rocks.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold: Like the Brady Bunch movies and Mean Girls, this movie plops a perky innocent in the harsh landscape of contemporary high school. But we're firmly on Dora's side, and soon enough, so is everyone. Lots of clever moments, an anti-colonialist message, a great cast, and enough fart jokes to satisfy Dash.

Pose: No one will ever accuse Ryan Murphy of being too subtle, but Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Billy Porter sell every storyline. It's always a good time for a show about chosen family, the cultural impact of marginalized populations, and surviving/dying of a virus, but now is an especially good time. Also dancing and costumes!


Monday, December 21, 2020

iduna remembered


They tried shutting her away:
their strange blue-eyed girl
who brought ice to life,
but they’d read enough fairy tales
to know stone towers don’t hold.

Agnarr erred 
on the side of concealment.
He had a kingdom to consider,
not to mention 
their younger daughter,
not his heir, but always 
his favorite.

Iduna remembered
the forest of her birth,
how the leaves turned
plum and rust each fall
and the reindeer’s coats 
grew thick and musky. 
She knew the weight
of carrying another world
curled inside your cloak.

Their strange girl belonged
to neither fjord nor forest,
and it frightened them. 
How to prepare her
to use her own power
when Iduna herself
scarcely understood it?
How to prepare her 
for the ways fear could curdle
into cruelty?

It was dangerous to sail
in winter, Agnarr argued.
It’s dangerous not to,
Iduna said. She had a map,
a song, a memory
of nursing a young man
from another land 
back to health. 
If it was so wrong 
to choose the unfamiliar
over the soft moss
and dense furs 
lining her father’s house,
would the gods have rewarded
her daughter
with magic?

Uncertainty churned in Iduna 
like the waves of the Dark Sea.
Their destination remained
a riddle, but her resolve
ran deep as a glacier; 
even when the wind picked up,
she knew what she’d known
since her first daughter’s first breath:
there was no turning back.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

what child is this

I understand a little better this year,
when the air is thick with phlegm
and desperation, the impulse to look up
and ask for a miracle.

Urgent case in California,
begins the email from the adoption agency.
A woman due two days before Christmas.
I picture us racing up the coast

guided by starlight
playing the song our son danced to 
last December, parents packed
shoulder to shoulder in the auditorium.

He'll nod along and then he'll nod off. 
His eyes look more like his birthmom's 
when he's sleepy. We'll talk giddily
about TV shows, high on gas station coffee.

None of this comes true. 
Like the Christmas story, it has been tainted 
by the teller. The woman chooses 
different parents for her baby.

Photo by Magnus Ă–stberg on Unsplash


This year our son is obsessed
with his Christmas list: night vision
goggles, L.O.L. dolls, a plastic waffle maker.
He has discovered the power of wishing

but not, yet, its limitations,
which lurk at the edge of the frame.
When he rages and plunges his fists
into every pocket of his advent calendar

I suspect that he suspects
how desire can propel and destroy:
a rocket, a supernova, some sublime deity
not meant to be looked at straight on.

And so we will point our longing
toward quieter things, no less miraculous:
our cat's safe return moments after
two coyotes paw silently across the street

stillness that dims the blue light of screens
immune systems that rally and bend
to meet new intruders
a trough that softens and becomes a bed.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

things i have smelled to prove to myself i don't have covid (knockonwood)

Redwood trees

Camellias

Chipotle bean dip

Soap and water on my son's skin

My own unshowered skin

A veggie hot dog with onions

Canola oil blistering in the pan

Sheets, peed upon by aforementioned son

A billow of kid-fart

Mown grass

A flurry of leaves, startled by a blower

Exhaust, the start of someone's commute

Bacon wafting from a Craftsman

Unidentifiable flowers, the way perfume 

is supposed to smell and never does

Pasta water

Shea butter shampoo, the good stuff

I'd never buy myself

My cat's fur

when he comes home each night,

having dodged cars and coyotes,

having befriended new neighbors,

his return as reassuring as the moon


Monday, November 23, 2020

the microclimate in our living room

It usually goes something like this: We do our morning things. Dash starts angling to see the girls next door. If it's after 11, we walk over and knock on the metal screen. They pop up or they mosey. Change out of their pajamas or don't. Gather up their homework and shoes and spend the next two or three or five hours at our house. 

They are three amigos: small, medium, and not-quite-large, ages four, almost six, and newly eight. They play post office and pizza restaurant and school and family. They whiz around on scooters and beg me to push them on the swing. 

They want things: raspados and cheddar cheese slices and trips to the beach and to Dollar Tree. 


Lately, Jasmine's* wanting has felt like a current that's pushing us along and sometimes pulling us under. She gets upset if we don't all do things her way. This used to manifest mostly in the dynamics of play, typical older kid/younger kid stuff. It was frustrating, but reminiscent of how my childhood neighbor and bestie, Lizzy, used to say, "It's my house, so we have to play what I want" and also, at our house, "I'm the guest, so we should do what I want."

Now, sometimes, if I offer a trip to the park but say we can't stop at Dollar Tree to buy stickers and fairy wings and tiny erasers, Jasmine's initial excitement turns to pouting. She starts muttering about homework. If I say "Maybe a different day," she assures us that she will not be able to play on a different day. It's now or never. The other night, when she was upset about not being able to ride her preferred scooter, she said she would not be able to play again for the whole year.

Dash is loud and screamy and physical and intense. He's easily hurt and doesn't know how to deescalate. He repeats, "Are you still playing with me?" whenever there's a pregnant pause. Just to make sure. He is not the easiest neighbor or best bestie himself. But his needs are still a little simpler, and I'm more equipped to meet them.

I wish I felt less like an eight-year-old myself in responding to Jasmine. I want snap and pout and get passive aggressive. I want to yell, "I just did five fun things with you! Can you please be less insatiable?"

But as AK and I have slowly and stumblingly realized, she's insatiable because what she needs isn't tiny erasers. What she needs is more of her parents, who work outside the home all day. From everything we know--by way of observation and Spanglish front-porch conversations--her parents are lovely people. Kind and boundaried and hard working. They work outside the home all day, but they're around their kids as much as we ever were pre-pandemic. But back then, the kids had real school and after-school programs.

Now, Jasmine and Juanita have long, aching gaps in their day. They have an older brother who is a good kid, but who spends a lot of time playing video games until it's time to skateboard with his friends. They have YouTube and a kitten and us. It's more than a lot of kids have, it's less than Dash has (though they have each other, which Dash does not have), and it's not enough. 

Jasmine is old enough to see that there are some class differences. We have the same number of bedrooms in our house for three fewer people. We go out of town periodically. We get weird fancy pizza, when she would prefer Little Caesars (or Yiddle Scissors, as Dash calls it). I'm constantly, cringingly conscious of these differences, and my M.O. has been to share what we can, celebrate what they have, and downplay material shit in general. 


But AK has wisely pointed out that the material stuff is more of a symbol. So I'm trying to set aside my own projections. Capitalism isn't a parasitic machine of destruction because Jasmine doesn't have enough LOL Dolls. Capitalism is a parasitic machine of destruction because it pushed businesses to open at the expense of schools and dragged out the pandemic for eight months and counting, because it forces people to "choose" between working and caring for their children. 

Realizing what's going on is a little like coming to understand systemic racism: It's a relief to know it's bigger than me, and it's devastating to see how big it is, and to know I'm not going to fix it, no matter how much I decolonize the language I use in fundraising materials. No matter how much I give in to Jasmine's whims or help her with her homework or make her Annie's Shells and White Cheddar macaroni and cheese, the only acceptable kind, I'm told.

It feels like it's time to pull back a little and set some boundaries. AK assures me this is best for Jasmine and for Dash. I worry that I'm a failed white savior, a Myka Stauffer returning her kid like a sweater that didn't fit.

AK is reading Jesus and John Wayne right now, about evangelical Christianity, and she said, "There's so much in the bible about loving your neighbor. The best parts are all about that. The bible doesn't have a lot to say about marriage or most of the other things evangelicals are hung up on."

I'm not Christian, let alone evangelical, but I do want to be a good neighbor. I want to invest in my community, to not see anyone as disposable. I want to do one small mutually helpful thing in this horrible fucking pandemic, and hosting J&J has been that. It's still that. It just has to look a little different, I think, and figuring out how is taking up a lot of space in my therapy sessions. 

The inside of my brain

The other night, Dash said, "When you were a kid, did you have a neighbor who wasn't nice sometimes?"

I told him about Lizzy. He instantly became fascinated with her. He wanted to see a picture of her as a kid (I had none) and now (I showed him Facebook, and Lizzy's two tween daughters). He wanted to see her house (Google Maps). He wanted to know if she still had the super cool pencil box she had when she was six, which she informed me was "just for first graders." I was in kindergarten at the time. 

I assured him that Lizzy was a very kind person, that her childhood bossiness had done what the girl-power books promise, and transformed into leadership. I texted Lizzy and told her the story. She said she still feels bad about being a jerk as a kid. I told her not to, that she wasn't really a jerk even then, and I thought about the time Stephanie's mom yelled at me over the phone when I was being a jerk to Stephanie. I still feel bad about making my My Little Ponies gang up on my sister's My Little Ponies. I gave and I got. It's just really hard to learn how to be a person in the midst of other people learning how to be people. 

And it's not easy to teach small people how to be people, either. Especially during a pandemic in a horrifically unequal world. 

At work I write about educational justice and the gaps that have grown wider during COVID like untreated cavities. I feel like I'm the gauze stuffed into that cavity. The minutae of the three-kid pandemic microclimate in our living room is my world, a product of the rest of the world that often feels so far away now.  

Today I'm promising myself that I'll send J&J home after two and a half hours, max. Jasmine will probably do things that remind me of my younger self; she will probably be sweet and creative and anxious. She'll probably say things that make me want to scream, and I won't scream, but she'll hear the tension in my voice, the momentary coldness. She might sense that there's a knot in my stomach, and without even knowing it, she'll try to use that knot to her advantage, even though neither of us knows exactly what's in her true best interest. I'm trying to figure it out, because all I know is that it's not her job, and the more I let it be, the more she'll spiral.


*Name changed