Monday, May 30, 2011

church of the motorcycle

Last night our book club met to discuss Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell’s book about missionaries in Hawaii in the 19th century. My official review will go up when I post my May reads in a couple of days. My unofficial review is: meh. But the evening itself will go down as our most on-theme yet (with our zombie-themed World War Z book club coming in a close second).

We had some sort of Vietnamese catfish called swai (if that’s not an unfamiliar fish, I don’t know what is), Spam musubi, macaroni salad, pineapple upside-down cake, mochi cake, coconut pudding and mai tais. It was plate lunch at its proudest.

We even had a small child with a Hawaiian (and Japanese) name. Kohana was about twice as big as when I saw her last, which was half her lifetime ago. It was fun to play with her—she gives high fours and makes farting sounds with her mouth now. Sometimes I think I have all this angst toward babies. Hanging out with a real one (especially the kind that appears never to cry) reminds me that my angst is actually toward my ovaries and the imperfect medical profession and the legal hoops of adoption and self-righteous parents who think that changing a diaper is somehow harder than any of the aforementioned. Babies themselves are the opposite of all that. Babies rock.

This morning I met my friend Pat for coffee. I hadn’t gotten to really sit down and talk with her for a long time. At the risk of sounding a little woo-woo, Pat is a healer. The kind of person whose not-insubstantial struggles have only made her more loving and understanding toward those of us struggling substantially with much smaller stuff. She was telling me about fostering her daughter, and how, when A. was two months old, some biological relatives came forward and said they wanted to take her.

“I’m not Catholic,” Pat said, “but it’s what I know, and it’s what I turn to when times are tough. So I went to St. Dominic’s and prayed that the thing that was best for A. would happen.”

Her prayers were answered, because now A. is a happy, goofy, creative tween living with, as Pat describes herself, her butch daddy mama.

“Now my motorcycle is my church,” Pat said. “Wanna go for a ride?”

In theory motorcycles are just one of many things that seem to me like more danger than they’re worth. But cruising along in Pat’s sidecar, I quickly saw what she meant. Something about being so close to the ground felt safe, and the sky was close at the same time. We took winding green side streets all the way to the Rose Bowl and back. It’s been a few years since Pat has been to my house, but she knew right where to drop me off.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

bad story, good story

I spent most of this week making a terrible movie pitch to an evil director in my head: Unsuspecting girl goes into the basement. Something lurks there. It’s been waiting all this time. If she’d known, she would have done things differently. Poor unsuspecting girl.

Except the girl does suspect, because she is me, and a part of her floats outside herself at all times, narrating horrific outcomes. The fact that she’s a convincing storyteller is biting her in the ass because she’s believing the worst possible stories she can imagine. And she feels guilty about it because the world is full of people actually living those outcomes or worse. What is the difference between something being real and something being in your head? Probably a lot. Definitely a lot. But when you’re in the bubble of your car screaming along to a musical about in-your-head-awfulness, that difference shrinks just a little bit.

And that, my friends, is post-semi-traumatic anxiety in a nutshell. I’m going to try not to dwell. This is a new thing for me, as I am a dweller. I believed in dwelling. But it wasn’t working.

So today at lunch Jamie and I walked to Westwood Park and ate sandwiches and strawberries and did a couple of writing prompts. Below is my (slightly fictionalized) prose poem-y response to “Write about your parents before they met”:


She was the girl everyone expected to live at home forever. She and her mother, side by side in art history class at Saddleback College. She studied Chinese water dragons, wrote about them until her dreams swam with round-nostriled serpents. She took her niece and nephew to the zoo, sketched monkeys while her sister toured with a group of belly dancers. When the white pain of a toothache flooded her jaw like the Yangtze, she stuffed the cavity with tissue. The dentist would have to wait until next month.

He joined a Catholic singles group, although his mother hadn’t taken them to church since his father died. His father was a rogue Catholic anyway, with his tiny church in the hills, his marriage blessed, his life cursed by war and a penicillin shortage. The young man was on his own, his brother in the police force, his mother in the early stages of the lung disease that would make him steer clear of pugs and Persian cats. Their rattling breath. He took communion alongside these good girls, these earnest girls. These girls who could raise two boys alone if they had to. Imagine his surprise when they swore, forgot to pay bills, didn’t know what they wanted.

He always knew. He wanted a girl as solid as the cement he would lay outside their second home. They would place their hand prints and their baby’s too in the new driveway that led to the new garage. The girl would press her palms into the wet clay, think this was better than Grauman’s Chinese. The way liquid could become hard ground.

Friday, May 20, 2011

don't go swimming in the indian ocean; osama's head gone be poppin out the water

From now on, I'm going to get all my news from M.A.R., as she calls herself. This girl covers it all: international news, sports, weather and human interest stories. Including but not limited to such topics as:
  • where not to swim if you don't want to encounter Osama bin Laden's remains
  • just how hot it is in Cali, Hawthorne, Santa Clarita or wherever you wanna be
  • whether or not the cheerleaders know how to do their cheers
  • who needs to get laid
  • what mints to invest in if you're going to see your lady and you have stinky-ass breath

M.A.R. is also an investigative journalist, as demonstrated by her probing video "Girls:) Question," in which she polls females at her school about same-sex attraction. I would definitely brand her an advocacy journalist, however: There is a correct answer to this question, as Sandy "who's single but talking to someone" and other friends find out.

Monday, May 16, 2011

something old, something new

Apparently all one has to do to round up friends on an otherwise lazy Sunday is say, “We’re going to see Bridesmaids. Want to come?” That snagged Christine, Jody and Holly, and almost Emily, until she had some sort of emergency involving a chicken pot pie.

There has been much debate in the media over the very important question: Is Bridesmaids the chick equivalent of The Hangover? And the corollary question: Is Bridesmaids Sex and the City plus puke? The studio is playing up the raunch factor in the marketing, so you can’t really blame anyone for thinking the answers are yes and yes. (This backfired in the case of one radio reviewer I heard, who all but said, “Chicks should be hot, not gross.” And this was NPR, not KROQ.) The posters also depict all the bridesmaids in hot pink satin dresses that don’t appear in the film. For a really good movie, the marketing team is certainly acting like it has a lot to hide.

But I guess that’s what you have to do to sell a nice, uncontroversial movie that happens to be hilarious and happens to be about female friendships. Kristen Wiig is Annie, an endearing loser much like many Apatow-franchise heroes, except she still doesn’t have the luxury of being not-sexy (even when getting thrown off an airplane for bad behavior while hopped up on booze and Xanax, she still looks great in her skinny jeans). She finds herself competing with Helen, the sort of bridesmaid who always knows the restaurant owner, for the affection of bride Lillian (Maya Rudolph). They’re all basically level-headed women—this is not Bride Wars—who might even identify as feminists. But faced with the ego-crushing perfection of a fellow female, who hasn’t taken out a fondue fountain or two while shoveling carbs in our mouths a la Cookie Monster? Are you with me?

The movie doesn’t always do what you’d expect—I kept waiting for the bachelorette party, which never quite happened—yet it isn’t exactly nontraditional storytelling. It’s just a good movie starring very funny people. But because it follows the Bechdel rule, we have to act like it’s radical, or defend its lack of radicalism, or sound like we’re kissing male moviegoer ass when we say, No, see, it’s just a good movie starring very funny people who happen to be women. As if it wouldn’t be okay for an actual radical feminist movie to exist, and for it to be good and relevant to men. I would see that movie too! So would a lot of guys I know!

Anyway, I feel like Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey have a lot to talk about, and they probably have.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

your presence in my neighborhood is an incentive to stay inside and bank online

(Given the recent onslaught of heart-on-sleeve posts, I’m feeling the need to write about something pop culture. So, cue Jerry Seinfeld voice: What’s up with bank ads?)

On the radio, a fake traffic report featured the following (paraphrased) dialogue:

GUY: It’s slow-and-go on the 405 this morning and a little sluggish on the 10—

WOMAN: What about the 271?

GUY: What do you mean?

WOMAN: There’s the 110 and the 215 and now the 271—that’s how many locations US Bank has in Southern California!

Chase and Bank of America have similar ads, though I’ve mostly just seen billboard versions. Chase’s are plastered with palm trees tinted Chase blue, and B of A’s feature the same lame freeway jokes when touting “the 572” or however many ATMs they have around town. There’s also one featuring a guy saying, “Now I can bank online while I wait at the food truck!”

You can practically see right through the billboard to a table of executives—in New York or Beijing or wherever banks are headquartered these days—saying, “Okay, what’s Southern California known for? What will make locals think we really understand them?” And the execs shout out, “Palm trees! Traffic! Oh, and they put ‘the’ in front of freeway names, which is weird.” Then the meeting leader turns to the trend consultant they flew in from L.A. and says, “But what’s hot right now?” and she says, “Food trucks!”

I don’t really mind that advertising works this way, and I’m probably not even holding the fact that banks totally destroyed our economy a couple of years ago against them as much as I should, but I resent the shitty Mad Libs they use to create the actual ads. They’re like, “Hey L.A., we know you like [food trucks] and hate [sitting in traffic]. Please associate the fact that we know these things with warm, friendly feelings about our many bank locations.”

I refuse to, [name of a big lame bank]. Not unless you start trying a little harder.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

tea and empathy

I was going to say that having lost both my mom and babies-to-be makes me feel like a single person on Valentine’s Day today, except I lost three people, so it’s kind of like being a polyamorous widow on Valentine’s Day. Taking in ads for flowers and brunch specials,* I pitied myself hard. Some people had moms! Some people had babies! How was it even remotely fair to have neither?!

Then I kind of started laughing at the pathetic figure I’d created for myself. Then I cried some more. Then I worked on some adoption paperwork, which, I’ve learned from AK’s psychology program, is called “sublimation” and is considered one of the healthier defense mechanisms, thank you very much.

Nicole and her sister Vanessa decided to host a Motherless Mother’s Day high tea, which felt like a nice respite—“the first Mother’s Day I’ve looked forward to in eight years,” said Cathy, who came too. They took it seriously: I kept getting very specific texts from Nicole like, “Can you bring a box of Twinings Earl Grey tea?” and “Can you bring some Brussels cookies? If they don’t have them, Milanos are an okay back-up.”

“That’s all Vanessa,” Nicole said when I arrived. “If it were up to me, I’d be like, ‘Bring some cookies.’”

Vanessa is very glamorous. After visiting her apartment, I want to display stacks of vintage French books around my house too, except I don’t actually speak French.

For the tea, she’d made her own tiered dishes by stacking plates on overturned glasses. There were charmingly mismatched mugs. There were dainty salmon sandwiches and bread served with butter and radish slices. There were petit fours and berries with clotted cream that Vanessa may have clotted herself.

There were eight women in all, longtime members of the Motherless Club and recent conscripts. We didn’t go around in a circle and talk about our grief or anything. The longest conversation of the day was about the politics of yoga. But we talked about our moms here and there—Jessica mentioned recipes that had been passed down in her family; my sister brought up our mom’s flour-dusted recipe book, in which most of the recipes began, “Take one box of yellow cake mix….” Mostly it was just nice to be in a room full of people who get it, even when the “it” stays offstage.

I had some quiet time with my journal and the Squeakies too. I read a chapter in Children of Open Adoption that cautioned against proceeding with adoption when the grief of infertility is too fresh. I think that would be true if I were handed a baby tomorrow, but it will take weeks just to get my driving record from the DMV. And I think I can mourn my first babies while making sure they’re not my last. Since when did life not unfold in complicated, overlapping layers? I know how to multitask. I hear it’s what moms do.

*Things that would probably send me scrounging for proof of my still-coolness if I were actually a mom. “Why brunch?” I would say to my kids. “You don’t think I’ll still be awake at dinner time, do you? You might as well just get me a book of inspirational quotes from the Mother’s Day table at Barnes & Noble. I want funky jewelry and tickets to edgy plays with swear words in them, dammit!”

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

loftiness, existential crises and what i read in april

Pedro and Stephen just moved into a new loft in what I’m pretty sure is the exact building my friend Miah lived in until a few months ago. Maybe the building managers have a quota of sweet, stylish gay boys they have to maintain. We ate panini and fancy desserts from Bottega Louie at their place last night, and I admired how, when they have objects that don’t fit into their closets, they put them in giant matching tupperware containers. Over at our place, we put them in a pile. A neat pile, but still.

Stephen is excited about our current book club selection, Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell. “I guess we probably shouldn’t talk about it too much before book club,” he said, with a sneaky expression that suggested he’d be down to break the taboo if we were.

But Pedro, AK and I hadn’t read it yet, so no rules were defied. I have a lot to read in May: Fishes, a student thesis, two adoption books. I’m pretty excited about all of them, actually, but this is quickly turning into one of those periods when I need to not think too hard about all the balls I have in the air. Even though having a bunch of balls in the air keeps me from thinking about scary existentential stuff, which is how I spent last month, which is why there are two books on my April reading list by TV comediennes.

And here’s what I read last month:

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff: This novel begins as a riff on classic children's literature, where kids get sent to the English countryside during wartime and the parents are largely out of the picture. The war in question is fraught with unanswered questions. Narrator Daisy is more interested in starving herself and pursuing her hot, psychic cousin than in understanding how and why the invaders invaded. Although this is believable, I didn't always love her generically disaffected voice. But as the hardships of war changed her priorities, the book grew on me. The plot is innovative and at times brilliantly simple, and peppered with fun quirks (see hot psychic cousin).

A House Waiting for Music by David Hernandez: This is what "accessible" poetry can and should be: razor sharp, a window into understanding that doesn't sacrifice strangeness. Anxiety, especially as related to disease and accident, hovers at the edge of these poems (or maybe that's just where my head is these days): Unacknowledged cancer is a fish caught, injured and released. Humor, cruelty and love dance with pop culture and pharmaceuticals in Hernandez's tight lines. Although a few of the poems feel like "early work" (and I think they are), the book as a whole is carefully crafted and brimming with music.

Saturday by Ian McEwan: Saturday is a long day for neurosurgeon Henry Perowne and his family, one fraught with the distant threat of the impending Iraq war and the closer-to-home threat of Baxter, a mentally unstable man whom Henry collides with in his car and, later, in his home. McEwan employed a similar strategy of exploding one life-changing day into a novel in On Chesil Beach, which I loved. Maybe I was in the wrong mood this time around, but I found the level of detail monotonous and I sympathized more with Baxter, whose world is crashing down around him, than with the privileged Perowne family, who are mostly just unnerved by the idea of the world crashing down. In making Henry's daughter a poet, I think McEwan is trying to say something about the intricate interplay of medicine and imagination, fact and possibility. But as neurology novels go, I much prefer Richard Powers' The Echo Maker.

Bossypants by Tina Fey: Like Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down, this is a lighthearted book that got me through a rough time. But while Tina Fey makes not taking herself too seriously a sort of mantra (back off, feminists against photoshopping--unless you plan to take issue with all forms of physical enhancement, including earrings), the book is anything but shallow. She calls the entertainment biz on its subtle sexism without ever becoming the whining shrew that female whistle-blowers are often accused of being. (And her point is that she doesn't care if you think she's a whining shew. She is not living her life for you.) I loved her chapters on the little ways women take each other down, from drama camp competitions to child-rearing orthodoxy. I'm probably flattering myself by saying I related to her--the anxious, ambitious product of a happy childhood who wants to do right by her favorite people--but there it is.

Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler: Chelsea Handler is fearless, and I think that serves her TV comedy well. But on the page, her willful lack of introspection gets old fast. She's one of those people who thinks that racist jokes, if accompanied by an "I'm so un-PC!" wink, are not racist. Or maybe she just doesn't care. Although there are some funny passages about her family and her drinking habits, the book never quite settles on a tone or even a degree of realism. I'm sure David Sedaris exaggerates too, but he creates a world in which characters behave consistently if bizarrely. Handler's tone is more like truth, truth, crazy impossible lie. Her elementary school self speaks like a 30-year-old. I kept trying to figure out if that was supposed to be part of the comedy. And by the time I got to the chapter in which she and her evil drunken friends cackle their way through a birthday dinner for a girl they all hate, I just hoped I would never meet her.