Monday, July 19, 2021

road trip!

Cross posted from my daily travel journal on Instagram

Day 1: We packed up our car and drove through the desert, where it was 102 degrees in the dark, and landed in Vegas, where we haven’t been in 15 years. “We’ll be creatures of the night,” we decided, as we headed east into a heatwave with an intense year and an intense couple of weeks and dreams of Nomadland in our rear view mirror. Now we are in the sweet AC of our hotel, watching Peppa Pig in the flicker of the strip club next door. 

Day 2: We jumped in the pool at 8:30 and then overloaded our senses at the Discovery Children’s Museum (as seen, notably, in a Blippi video). By lunchtime we were wilting. We stopped for gas at a station called Terrible’s that was running out of gas. 

We hit the road again, and I watched the temperature like it was my own blood pressure, like we were on the precipice of something dangerous. The rocks turned from yellow to red, clouds dumping long fingers of light on the mountains like a prophecy.

We passed Valley of Fire, where I remember my mom taking a picture of me at 12, all Sun-In hair against red rocks, telling me how beautiful I was, as I shrank under her certain lie.

We stopped for salty Chinese food in a little foothill town called Parowan and the temperature dropped to a forgiving 88.

Day 3: This morning we were admiring two duck families in the cow pasture next to our cabin in Torrey, UT, when I touched the fence and got zapped with electricity. After telling Dash to learn from my mistake, I mused, “I guess it’s good to know what that’s like. I’ve always wondered what cows deal with.” C.C. looked at me like I was a little crazy and I wondered if that’s my MO—always trying to turn everything into some kind of universal life lesson five seconds after it happens. 🙄

At a little shop next to the Wild Rabbit Cafe, I picked up Desert Cabal by Amy Irvine from Torrey House Press, and now I want to be a wilderness writer, except for the living in the wilderness part.

“I want to ride a horse through these canyons,” C.C. said.

“I want to write a horse through these canyons,” I said.

“How do you write a horse?”

“I don’t know, but I feel like the canyons would tell me.”

We drove through Capitol Reef National Park (thank you, 
@imorianderson) with its layer-cake rocks in rainbow shades. I made it an official Klein Family Vacation by dragging my child through the heat to a mineshaft containing mildly hazardous materials.

We picked apricots from trees planted by Mormon settlers and drove to Moab, where I remember getting a killer ear infection when I was ten. Retracing the long straight roads my family drove, I listened to “All at Once,” The Airborne Toxic Event’s song about inheriting the world from our parents and grandparents and being totally unprepared.

Day 4: Our last stop in Utah was Moab Giants, a “museum” that really loves 3D shit and does not seem to employ any copy writers, educators, or graphic designers. I love a good tourist trap, but, like…the exhibit about prehistoric sea creatures was a lot like Backdraft: The Ride and included mermaids and the Loch Ness Monster?

Almost exactly at the Colorado state line, the jagged red rocks and Trump stickers gave way to farmland and dispensaries, and I felt a kind of visceral, bodily relief. Even though Utah was stunning and gorgeous, there’s something about a place telling you “stay away” with its topography and politics (which, of course, are not homogeneous anywhere, but) vs. “come on in and chill.”

We’re in Mesa Verde now, staying at the lodge. My dad is too polite to roll his eyes at our bougie ways, but I still feel a little bit of guilt that we’re not camping (it’s drowned out by that sweet AC though). This place completely captivated me as a kid, and I’m so excited to show Dash the cliff dwellings tomorrow. Meanwhile the air smells like mud and fresh grass, and there was a five-minute ice storm.

Day 5: 
I try not to have big expectations about How A Thing Will Feel, but I guess I had some Mesa Verde expectations, because this morning when C.C. said she felt a cold coming on and could she sit out our first activity, I basically burst into tears, baffling both of us. My sister got it, as she always does—how I can hear my mom’s voice reading aloud all the historical markers, and my dad balking at how much we paid for pizza in the cafe. How you can carry your own ghosts in a place with much older ghosts.

Dash and I ventured out bravely on our own, driving the narrow ridges and carsick curves of Wetherhill Mesa Road until we got to Step House Trail. Step House was stunning—like the coolest clubhouse you could imagine, tucked into a canyon wall.

When I got back from my first trip to Mesa Verde 35 years 😳 ago, I wrote what can best be described as Anasazi fan fiction and turned it in as my fourth grade report on Native Americans. Everyone else wrote about, like, staple crops.

“Anasazi” has given way to the more accurate term “Ancestral Pueblo People,” whose traditions live on in Hopi, Navajo, and other Pueblo peoples. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Pueblo People started building their homes in cliff sides, or why they stopped and then started again. It’s good to have some mysteries, I think.

In the afternoon, C.C. rallied and we all drove to the Far View Sites, a set of older mesa-top structures, and Spruce Tree House.

We got dinner and cocktails at the fancy (and only) restaurant near the lodge, and realized we completely forgot to teach Dash table manners. He was full of squirrely energy, charging up the hill on his way back to our room, through the juniper-scented air, yelling “What the hell hell hell!”

Day 6: One of the last stops on today’s Mesa Verde bus tour was the Sun Temple, a D-shaped mesa-top building that probably had some kind of astrological significance. Our tour guide said, “There’s not a ton of evidence to support this, but the building was constructed in the last few years before the Ancestral Pueblo people left this area. I think it was a last ditch effort. They were running out of water, and they built this to appeal to the gods.”

What I’m saying is that if I write more Anasazi fan fiction, I will call it “Sun Temple Times” and it will of course be an allegory for our times.

We left Mesa Verde and drove through Navajo country, where the flat-bottomed clouds and sinking sun conspired to make a vast Golden Hour. There were billboards reminding people to stop COVID by avoiding parties and ceremonies. The only store in Tonalea sold chicken wings and hair clips and laundry detergent and no produce.

Now we’re in Flagstaff for the last leg of our trip. We are road-weary and relaxed. We listened to Paul Simon in the car, and I think there’s reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.

Day 7: We have reached the “Hey, Dash, want to watch some YouTube while moms answer work emails?” stage of vacation. Other than brunch at the Toasted Owl, we explored very little of what Flagstaff had to offer. Sorry, Flagstaff.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

sympathy for the devil and my own dirty hands

1. skip this part if you don't enjoy white tears

When it comes to acts of individual violence, society has little patience for the perpetrators. Or rather, we try to make up for the failures of courts, the child welfare system, public education, and more with our own swift, harsh judgments. The woman who drowned her children, the man who shot up a McDonald's—why should they get a moment of our time when the people they hurt don't get another moment, period?

On social media, we tweet hard against the Trumps and Kavanaughs and white women who commit microaggressions. I'm not sure it should be otherwise—a tweet just composed itself in my head: Just realized that you can't spell Kavanaugh without ugh—but the urge to judge is also a deflection from self-judgment. If I can dehumanize Karen, then I must not be Karen, right? Right?

It's not that I think every villain deserves an origin story, but I do believe every villain has one, whether or not we should tell it or pay money to see it.

After crying my mascara off when someone criticizes me

I'm thinking about these things because I've been (fruitlessly so far) deep in the adoption world, which—like everything else we touch—is rooted in inequality, capitalism, and racism. I published a poem in which I wrote about some of these factors, and a reader identifying herself as an international adoptee left a very harsh, very accurate comment on it. I want to say she misread things, that she brought her own biases to the poem, but that wouldn't make her comment any less valid. 

If I want to say things in this world, about this world—and I don't seem to be able to stop myself—I have to accept the pushback that comes with the territory. People are allowed to and should fight my speech with speech. 

But damn I feel like a piece of shit. 

And sometimes I envy less self-loathing white liberals, who find ways to mostly opt out of tricky situations where they get their hands visibly dirty. The people who write excellent, finely observed novels featuring a tiny cast of entirely white characters; the people who don't venture into adoption because they have functioning ovaries. They vote for the right people and donate to the right places and just keep quietly educating themselves, and they seem so unassailable. 

I spent a long time in therapy trying to learn that innocence and purity are not actually great life goals. Because I'm only half convinced of it, now, I sort of march forward in agony: trying to do good work (that's also a Fake Email Job and part of the nonprofit industrial complex), be a good neighbor (even though I'm unfairly grouchy at J&J almost every day and I worry that they know; how could they not know?), and accept my own limitations as an individual human. That's what humility is: doing what I can, knowing what's above my pay grade, knowing that being so self-sacrificing as to be miserable would actually be of no service to anyone I love. But damn it's hard.

2. don't skip this part; read this book

All of the above is also part of why I devoured The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence Press), a collection of short, unflinching stories by my friend and fellow CalArtian Miah Jeffra. Fiction is in the business of humanizing, queering, complexifying, and daring to imagine an experience not one's own. That's why I love it.

Without, IMO, ever glorifying violence or excusing those who commit it, Jeffra spends time in the minds of both perpetrators and victims. Of course, if you aren't deep in denial, you know that most perpetrators are victims in one way or another. When woundedness meets power—in the case of Mr. Huberty, a man who struggles to find work but stockpiles guns in "Eye Wall"—trouble usually lies ahead.

I was particularly moved by the opening story, "Babies," which imagines how Andrea Yates killed her children to save them from the void she felt: "A cutting away, releasing the doubt, to preserve what good they had left in them.... If she kept on to them, held them close in this world, her world, they would all fall into that gaping hole, the one of eternal torment."

During a week when I've wondered what right I have, if any, to be a parent, I am thinking about how it takes a certain amount of blind self-confidence to parent. You have to shrug and say, "Well, I'm here, I'll do my best. Even though my children will come face to face with the world's cruelty. Even though I'm kind of a piece of shit, I'm the piece of shit my child is stuck with."

But Jeffra also lets us see, in no uncertain terms, what it feels like to be Yates' terrified child. In these ways, the book is much more painful than the bloodiest movie, despite the fact that there's very little graphic violence. 

In "Gethsemane," a realtor gives a gleefully deranged tour of a house in a gentrifying neighborhood, stuffing the violence of its history into the corners, though it seems to push at the doors of every closet. 

In "Ain't No Thing," a man tries very hard to be unassailable his whole life. From his father, he learns how to take a beating. Women complain "I want want something from me!" He tries to be even nicer. He tries to hold it together. He tries to follow the rules and bury his hatred for those who don't—specifically, some young men of color on a MUNI bus, carelessly disposing of their trash—because it would be too painful for him to learn what the young men may already know, that Goodness will not save him. It reads like a cautionary tale.

Jeffra's work is so gutsy and imaginative and searing. Somewhere in here is a manual for how to live in this world, and how not to.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

shallow but vast

"What is time, even" is a thing I say a lot lately, but I'm pretty sure all of these things happened since last Wednesday. In chronological order:

  • My friend Holly found out she has a brain tumor.
  • After a lot of radio silence on the adoption front, followed by a lot of paperwork and fees as we try to crack the silence, an expectant mom in San Diego told an attorney in Temecula that she wanted a same-sex couple from California to adopt her baby. Then she decided she wanted a same-sex male couple to adopt her baby.
  • We met Ignacio, new baby of Alberto and Gracia, and he is small and beautiful with a lot of silky dark hair and an elfin nose. 
  • Dash told me, "It's not fair that J&J are sisters and I don't have no one to play with. That's why I want a baby." (He also told me he has no toys.)
  • My Grandma Jac died yesterday at the age of 91, her dog Zoe curled next to her on the bed.
  • Roadie brought a baby sparrow into the house and it seemed like we might be able to save it, and we woke to discover that we didn't.

This post is mostly about Grandma Jac, because I need to write to make myself believe that a person I haven't seen in a year is not alive. The parts about Holly and adoption are here, my central narrative, the darkness and the hope swirling around me. There's more cause for hope than not, but sometimes I climb into the pit inside myself, where there are all-caps signs posted on the slimy pit walls announcing that the world is divided into winners and losers and guess which I am, and I must be dragging people I love down here with me.  

Just hanging on
Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Jac was the subject of the first creative nonfiction I ever wrote. When I was in middle school and high school, we'd periodically be asked to write about our families, and I found my immediate family incredibly boring (they worked so hard to create my boring childhood, and I had no appreciation), but everyone, my parents included, assured me that Jac was The Interesting One.

She was born during the Depression, but I think her family did okay. Recently I told my dad that her dad drove a Helms Bakery truck, and he thought he did something else, and now I won't get to ask her. She went to college at Pepperdine, at a time when women usually didn't, and had Black friends at a time when white people usually didn't. She was 19, I think, when she met her husband Gordon. He was older and an archeologist or an anthropologist, something professorial that caused him to fill their house with the artifacts that punctuated my childhood, though I never met Gordon himself. Pottery shards arranged in a mosaic in the kitchen. Animal skulls that made their office feel like a true den. He was an alcoholic and the kind of man who expected his wife to earn money while he got degree after degree, only to look down on her for not being an intellectual. Eventually he moved to the Southwest and became a painter and killed himself late in life. 

When I came into the story, Jac was married to Al, a big, good-natured man who was missing the tops of his first two fingers. He adored Jac and gave her jewelry at their holiday parties, which my mom always thought was a little showy, but it fit them both. At one point they almost divorced, but then they didn't. He died after a stroke back in the early 2000s and Jac never stopped missing him. 

Jac lived at the top of a hill in Torrance, at the very southern tip of Crenshaw, nestled between Palos Verdes horse country and the liquor stores of Lomita. It was your basic 1950s tract house, but she painted it a deep olive green and installed a cactus garden years before people talked about drought-resistant landscaping and painted the windows of her enclosed patio to look like Frank Lloyd Wright's stained glass. 

When I think about Jac, she is as much of a place as a person for me. She filled her house with family, friends, and stray humans every Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, and Father's Day. One day someone told her "You'd celebrate Groundhog's Day if you could," and so she did. Somewhere in the carousels of slides at my dad's house is a picture of a groundhog sculpted out of hamburger meat, with an apple in its mouth.

I'm always trying to figure out who's the cricket in this story
Isabelle Sanchez-Chapman on Unsplash

My dad started going up there with his childhood friend Bob as a teenager. Bob was an old-school flamboyant gay and so of course he needed an eccentric older woman for a friend. And then my dad brought my mom and they brought me and my sister. All my grandparents were dead by the time I was four, and so even though she was only thirteen years older than my parents, Jac became my grandma. 

I thought she was my grandma, but later I realized we were strays she'd collected, not so different from the guy from the hardware store she might invite up for Easter. She always told people, "This family is like the mafia. Once you're in, you can't get out." Her daughter's ex-husband had a permanent place at the long stone benches on her back patio, with his second wife and her daughter. But she stopped speaking to her own brother decades before and I never really knew why.

She was forgiving and open-hearted and progressive, loving and caring for Bob's friends through AIDS, and also gossipy and judgmental. My mom always joked that she didn't want to be the first to leave one of Jac's gatherings because then everyone would talk about her. My mom and my sister and I were three introverts in the corner, flipping through Jac's issues of The National Enquirer (she subscribed as a joke) and her copies of Dr. Laura's books, which may or may not have been a joke. When I think about what I miss about Jac's, that's half of it. Being in a corner with my mom and sister while my awkward-but-outgoing dad made the rounds in the only real social circle he's ever had.

Jac was a bit of a foul-weather friend. If you needed someone to bail you out of jail or pay for an abortion, as my cousin sometimes did, she was your gal. If you wanted her to come to your high school graduation, as my sister did, well, she had a dentist appointment that day.

She told a lot of colorful stories about her days as unofficial den mother to all the kids on the hill. She was a bit of a prankster; she once drove to Gordon's house long after their divorce just to show up on his doorstep as a trick-or-treater. I knew her in her storytelling years, not her story-making years. I knew her house as the place of egg hunts and grand buffets spread out on her kitchen counter, cheesy potatoes and green bean casseroles alongside Peruvian recipes and vegetarian dishes made especially for me and my sister. 

There was a time when I gorged myself on her holiday food, and considered holidays at her house some sort of pinnacle, a chance to show off whatever teenage identity I was trying on—wannabe punk, fag hag, etc.—but later, I think her taste buds failed her and the food started to seem suspect. My tastes changed too. She never really asked me questions about myself; she was too busy bustling about being hostess, and I didn't make an effort to change that dynamic.

I called Jac early in lockdown, because we'd been advised to Check On Our Old People, and I told her, just in passing, just quickly, that there had been a baby who'd stayed with us for two weeks before his parents took him back. She said something like "Oh, that's nice," and I chalked it up to her being hard of hearing, but I also wondered if she wasn't listening in a different sense. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, but the fact that it could go either way says something.

I worry for my dad, who has never had many friends to spare, and has already lost a few this year. It feels like the end of an era, and that's something to mourn even if I can't quite feel the shape and depth of my personal mourning yet. Maybe it's shallow but vast, a thin membrane spread over everything.

Midway through writing this, Dash told me, "I think the bird is alive. I heard a tweet!" 

"Oh, I think that's coming from outside, but we can look," I said. Looking at a dead bird before heading off to school was some kind of closure, I supposed.

We went in the office, where we'd made a nest for the sparrow in the cat carrier of all places. Dash had named the bird Benjamin Kasi, after someone on YouTube and a giraffe we met at the Living Desert Zoo earlier in the year. 

Benjamin Kasi stood there, round and fluffed up, looking at us. Very still, with very open eyes. Probably alive, contrary to AK's early morning report. And then Benjamin Kasi turned his head and let out a chirp. 

It's not Benjamin Kasi's job to symbolize hope and resurrection—it's his job to heal and eat bugs—but I'll take this narrative and run with it.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

is there any other kind?

A couple of years ago, the amazing writer-moms of the IKEA Writers Collective started wishing each other "Happy Fucking Mother's Day" because it's such a strange, fraught holiday (though, really, is there any other kind?).

In recent months, we've tried to inject some new strategies into our adoption attempts. So far that's meant a lot of paperwork and frustration. I'm frustrated for many reasons, including old boring feelings of maternal unworthiness, but also because one reason I hesitated about trying to adopt again was that I didn't want to dump all that longing onto the kid I was so, so happy to have. He didn't deserve it. C.C. didn't deserve it. I didn't deserve it.

I don't know how to live in the present—a present that, in these sweet, tentatively sunny, vaccinated days, I am grateful for deep in my bones—while still planning for the future. Maybe there is some super balanced Zen person out there who does. But until I become her, I have C.C., Chaos Muppet to my Order Muppet, who reminds me to come up for air (as I remind her to set an alarm if she needs to, you know, get up at a certain time). She just sent me a beautiful Mother's Day post by Emily Simon, about how we all mother ourselves to fill in the gaps left by our mortal mothers. We can fill them with music and art and of course each other.

I'm glad the zeitgeist has figured out that Mother's Day, like all our faves, Is Problematic, partly because it's fraught with narratives about women who "do it all," when no one does or should. Sometimes I think "Oh shit, I co-edit a magazine called MUTHA when I only have one kid and I'm only one third of his moms, I'm such a fraud," but I guess that's kind of the point. This isn't math. This isn't even fair: so many people mother without being mothers (side note: read Torrey Peters' Detransition, Baby for a savvy, sad, funny take on this theme, and on daring to mother when society tells you you have the wrong body parts for it). Some people are mothers without mothering, and they deserve love and recognition too.

I'm grateful to the mothers who haunt my life in the best way: my mom, Dash's birth mom. And to the mothers who are earthbound with me: to my sister and friends who take care of me when I'm exhausted from making mediocre dinners and filling out PDFs. And especially C.C., who does it all, but not in THAT way—not all at once. Happy Fucking Mother's Day.

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


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. 


(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.


(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!