Monday, January 30, 2012

fruit and doves and blood and body parts

I’ve always liked the color and precision of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and I probably dress as much like her as a white girl can get away with (though in dressing like an indigenous peasant, Frida was arguably an appropriator herself—but at least she had the revolutionary chops to back it up). But I never really felt like I had the right to be as Frida-crazy as, say, my grad school friend who had a tattoo of the MEChA logo and spent a few months in the jungles with the Zapatistas. So I resisted the urge to run out and buy me a Frida tote bag (though when I got one as a party favor, I was really excited).

And then I read The Lacuna.

Barbara Kingsolver makes Frida come alive as a person betrayed by her body and her loved ones, who responded with passion, humor, stubbornness, ruinous pride or shameless dramatic gestures. I have no idea if this is what Frida was actually like, but I fell in love with Frida the character.

Suddenly I saw the blood and body parts in her paintings not as goth accessories to offset all the fruit and doves, but as, well, blood and body parts.

She had several miscarriages, and predictably, this was where I connected. Yesterday I got to see some of her paintings at LACMA’s In Wonderland exhibit of American and Mexican female surrealists (specific, no?). I stood in front of Sun and Life, in which a three-eyed sun glows in front of vulva-like pods, one of which contains a grotesque fetus, and I cried. I always thought crying at paintings was something only a really pretentious person would do, or rather pretend to do, because no one would ever actually do that, right?

But I could write a list poem called “Public Places I’ve Cried.” I feel like I should be more embarrassed than I am about it. There are a thousand things I care way too much about, and apparently this is just not one of them.

I also encountered other surrealists whose work I quickly developed crushes on: Gertrude Abercrombie, who looks like she’s about to strangle herself with her own black demon hands in Self-portrait of My Sister, and Remedios Varo, whose Celestial Pablum says a thing or two about the dark truths of art-making. (Also, she has an awesome name and there’s a great photo of her with a cat that I totally can’t find online.)

I love how all of them are like, “Oh, so there’s something about my life and soul you find unsavory? Tough cookies, mister. You’re going to look at it.” Except they don’t really use the phrase “tough cookies.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

everyone’s a critic (in which i pat myself on the back a little bit)

The other day I fell into the wonderful black hole that is Regretsy—a blog that makes fun of Etsy’s wackiest shit. There are crazy ideas, executed beautifully (and, in the case of the Star Trek Enterprise coffee table, photographed against unflattering backgrounds). There are regular ideas, executed terribly. And then there are those magical items that are the holy grail of poor/insane concept and execution, such as the Eva Peron butt plug, featuring a portrait of Santa Evita that is only recognizable as such only because EVA PERON is written in big gold letters at the plug’s base.

Regretsy’s approach is mostly celebratory, and if you make Eva Peron butt plugs and sell them on the internet, you’re pretty much asking for it. But…(pun intended?), I found myself thinking, Helen Killer [as Ms. Regretsy calls herself] is totally hilarious, but it’s really hard to make an Enterprise coffee table! The product description even mentioned how the maker had gone through a couple of sheets of glass before making the perfect tabletop. (She did file this particular item under “Things I Love,” so I don’t think she and the artist were necessarily in disagreement.)

The relationship between artist and critic or, more broadly, doer and critic, is a complicated one. Back in my Zap2it days, I wrote a semi-scathing review of If These Walls Could Talk 2, a TV movie about lesbians living in the same house over the course of multiple generations.* Scathing was my specialty. I’d learned in Free Speech 101 that it was my constitution-given right to write about how crappy TV movies were. I titled my review of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Aubrey Hepburn biopic “Jennifer Love Blew It.” Ha!

The filmmaker who’d made These Walls sent me an equally scathing email accusing me of homophobia and saying, “Do you know how hard it is to make a movie? Have you ever made one?”

Hate mail! The ultimate way to flatter a journalist (or, in my case, a “journalist”)! I laughed about it—if only she knew I was a baby dyke currently taking my first queer lit class!—and wrote back, “I’ve never made a movie. I’ve also never been president, but I still vote.”

I stand by that, and by the much-maligned role of the critic. I believe that progress requires introspection, and that an unexamined culture is not worth inhabiting. But I’m older now, and although I still haven’t made a movie, I’ve written two books and I do a lot of blogging (some in critic mode, some in creator mode). I think I have a better idea of how hard it is to make an Enterprise coffee table.

As an artist, my skin is pretty thick. Okay, medium thick. But as a doer—specifically, as a wannabe parent who sometimes writes and responds to articles about adoption—my skin is the thickness of a newborn hamster’s.

I know that no one lies awake at night making lists of reasons I shouldn’t become a parent. But I am discovering that lots of people have Thoughts About Adoption. Not all of them are warm and fuzzy. In fact, I wrote a three page post in response to some lady’s response to my response to a Huffington Post article by a woman who’d been adopted. The solipsism of that little knot of communication is almost unfathomable, and so that post will never see the light of your computer screen. Even though it was all sociological and stuff, and kind of smart!

What I will say is more or less what that filmmaker wrote to me: At least I’m putting myself out there—not just online, but in life. Over the past year and a half, I’ve taken a lot of risks: gotten myself knocked up, gotten through the grief when it didn’t work out, filled out a thousand reams of adoption paperwork. AK and I have put in serious hours trying to figure out ourselves and our relationship.

It’s so easy to be self-critical and to find confirmations of my own worst insecurities out there in the world. So what if I seem a little desperate and crazy to myself? So what if I’m the equivalent of an Osama bin Laden commemorative oyster shell? (Okay, maybe that’s a bad example.)

And now we’ve offered ourselves up to the world: This is us. Do you want us to be the mothers of your kid? It’s harder to do this than it is to have Strong Opinions about what parents should and should not do. It takes serious balls, or, as Dan Savage would say, ovaries. I’m glad mine are good for something after all.

*I realize that this bears some striking—though not copyright infringing!—similarities to the plot of Lilac Mines. Irony noted.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

dragons, snakes and unicorns (ay yi yi)

Yesterday I looked up my Year of the Dragon* horoscope, hoping for something along the lines of “You will get a baby and a book deal, fall even more fabulously in love with your loved one, and for once all of the bulbs in your kitchen light fixture will work at the same time.”

Instead it was more like, “Meh.”

I’m a snake, which is like a junior dragon. According to this horoscope, Dragon is my Happy Star, but “Dragon travels alone, so Dragon is also the Lonely Star to Snake.” Huh? Why is Dragon such a snob, and why does he want me to be lonely?! Two thousand eleven, though full of love, was also plenty lonely. Two thousand twelve is supposed to be about an embarrassment of riches, dammit.

This horoscope (thanks, Cathy Che!) puts a brighter spin on the same info. The first one was sort of like, “Just keep your head down and stay out of trouble,” while this one throws a few exclamation points into the mix. It promises that 2012 will be “an exciting and busy time for you and your partner.” That either means BABY!, or that AK will have a lot of homework.

Both horoscopes agree that I should exercise a lot. I’m cool with that. I took my second aerial fitness class on Saturday and was slightly less sore afterward. I love that trapeze tricks have names like “mermaid,” “mermaid angel” and “unicorn.” It’s a sport that speaks straight to my seven-year-old heart.

Despite the ambiguous nature of my horoscope, and feelings of residual blueness when the rest of the world seems to be charging full speed ahead, I’m determined to make the Year of the Dragon a year of mermaids and unicorns. Once I found a book or a webpage or something that said my “secret sign” was sheep. I haven’t found it since, but it was as much of a revelation as learning that Cancer is my rising sign. Sheep are supposed to see a “flurry of activity” around their careers, and take up snorkeling.

Okay, snorkeling it is. Because it could not possibly just be a bunch of bullshit.

*Water dragon illustration by the incomparable Lee-Roy Lahey.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

the sea of smashed things

Public service announcement for anyone who’s trying to shut up her biological clock for a minute: Go see We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s a movie (based on a novel I didn’t read) about a mom trying to raise a little psychopath whose only joy in life is tormenting her. The movie is sliced into short scenes, and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on—all we know is that there’s a Before world, in which Eva (Tilda Swinton) has a husband and two kids and a stylish haircut, and an After, in which she’s alone and haggard in that particular Tilda Swinton, Oscar-worthy way.

But it quickly becomes apparent that her Before was mostly a period of suffering in silence, as she endures daily standoffs with a kid who refuses to potty train until he’s eight, when she tosses him across the room in a fit of frustration. Meanwhile her husband (John C. Reilly) just thinks the kid is quirky.

The opening scene—never fully explained—shows Eva crowd surfing through some sort of Bacchanalian festival, nearly drowning in what looks like a sea of smashed raspberries. Nearly all the scenes drip with blood-like messiness—the red paint thrown at her house by pitchfork-type townsfolk, the splatters from Kevin’s paint gun, a sandwich oozing jam. On one level it’s straight-up foreshadowing of the actual blood that Kevin will summon, a la the opening credits of Dexter. On another it’s straight-up Freudian: Kevin, trapped in the anal-propulsive stage, shits (sometimes literally) all over everything Eva values.

It’s clear that Eva, who at one point makes an offhand comment about how fat people shouldn’t blame their genes, blames herself for Kevin’s strangeness and anger. Not in a traditional handwringing way, but in her stoic insistence on letting the aftermath of Kevin’s crimes ruin her life. In this way she is like him: relentlessly stubborn. He’s the one who destroys, she’s the one who cleans up. Their version of love is a kind of codependent harmony.

The movie’s title is ironic: Eva and her husband never really do talk about Kevin in a serious way. A doctor rules out autism, Kevin hides the worst of his creepiness from his dad, and that’s that. The family seems to be well off, so I wondered why they didn’t hire some sort of behavioral specialist to come by for, oh, like nine hours a day. But I also wondered if, to Eva, that would have meant sharing Kevin and giving up.

There’s no genuine cautionary tale here, just what I imagine is a brutal truth: When you’re a parent, you go where your kids take you. Here’s hoping AK and I get off easy and just have to learn to like soccer or something.

Monday, January 16, 2012

circus weekend

This weekend was a lot of things—MLK Day, Alberto’s birthday, AK’s continued birthday, Amy’s going-away, my biannual pap smear—but it was also…Circus Weekend!

Chapter 1: My sister and I take Aerial Fitness at Cirque School L.A. Since my last (and only) trapeze class, they’ve moved into their very own gym in Hollywood. It’s filled with bouncy balls and trampolines and taped-up trapezes and flowy silks hanging from the ceiling. The good thing about going with Cathy is that we have all the same magical childhood associations. So one of us says, “Trampoline” and the other says, “Seriously.” And no more words need be exchanged.

I have this plan that I will take all necessary cirque classes (about three months’ worth) to fill my grant requirements; then I’ll quit therapy and use the money I save to become a fucking trapeze goddess. That means I have three months to get my head healthy. The anxiety I had about getting a routine pap smear does not bode well for my mental health.

Chapter 2: Cathy and I can barely move our arms on Sunday—just washing my back in the shower kills me—but we make it to the Kodak Theatre, where Cirque du Soleil is staging Iris, its homage to classic Hollywood. Anyone who’s worried that one medium (film) will eclipse another (theater), need only look to Iris to see the possibilities of us all-just-getting-along. Live filmed bits flicker elegantly alongside stage performers who interact with them directly.

Iris has pretty much the same vague premise as all Cirque shows—everyman gets whisked away to mysterious dream world—but since this is what it means to go to the movies, it makes more sense here. Also, since the early days of Hollywood coincided with the end of the circus’ golden age, all the ‘20s costumes give you the feeling of peeking into two histories at once. My favorite number is a Busby Berkley-inspired piece in which a string of starlets and dashing young men follow each other in and out of a row of dressing rooms, interacting with filmed backdrops and disappearing behind doors. It is choreography as magic trick.

Hardcore circus fans also lament that Cirque du Soleil hides much of the apparatus behind its polished sets, and that the visible scaffolding of the circus is integral to its beauty. That’s why I love a showstopper that pays homage to the backstage circus of 1930s, Cecil B. DeMille-style epics. Contortionists dressed as aliens climb a ladder while Roman soldiers stampede and some sort of gaffer-type person twirls from a rope. These are worlds that speak to each other easily; each indulges in the harmonic chaos of Putting On A Show. And no vertical space is wasted, so even the cheap seats are spectacular.

Cathy and I clap plenty loud and raise our hands as high as our aching shoulder blades will let us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

my heart belongs to sodapop

This might be the only old-time photo that my cousin Maria and my childhood friend Bonnie have not put on Facebook, because neither of them had the privilege of starring in the Mira Costa High School production of The Outsiders in 1991. Neither did I—star, that is. I was an extra. I spent hours at rehearsals every week only to do things like walk across the stage pushing a stretcher during the hospital scene. Ah, the endless abundance of time that is youth.

When I found this photo at my dad’s house (actual size: 11” x 13”), I said to my dad and sister, “How much do you want to bet I wrote something like ‘I heart Denito “Sodapop” Kelly’ on the back?”

I flipped it over. I’d been stealthier than that: I’d labeled everyone and who each person played, but I’d written the “O” in Denito as a heart. Sexy.

Denito is the one cuddling up to the girl that’s not me in the second to last row. He’s wearing a lot of blush in this picture. My sister pointed out that this may have been part of the attraction for me. AK pointed out that, despite our attempts at period costume, we all look pretty ‘90s (see: my hair and slouch socks). However, my dress was as authentic as they come: I found it in the green room of our high school theater, which had not been cleaned out since the 1960s. There were probably all kinds of things there that could get big bucks on eBay now.

The little guy in the black shirt is Danny Strong, who played Ponyboy and actually went on to become a real actor. He was a regular on Buffy for a while. The bigger guy next to him, also in black, played Dallas. “He’s the cutest, in my opinion,” AK said.

“It might be because he’s like thirty,” I said. “He could be on Glee.”

I vaguely remembered Mrs. Verhoef (with the bow on her head and the glare on her face) calling in a ringer—some actor friend of hers—for the part.

Wendy Molyneux (far left) went on to semi-fame as a TV writer and author of Everything is Wrong With You: The Modern Woman’s Guide to Finding Self-Confidence Through Self-Loathing, which is as brilliant as it sounds. Her Facebook posts are always really funny.

I’m not sure where the cherub with the trumpet is these days, but my guess is the Mira Costa High School green room. Maybe I left a scrunchy there too, and it will be discovered by some kids performing a period piece about the ‘90s.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

temecula klein, 2001-2012

Dear T-Mec,

When the rescue organization folks delivered you and OC to B’s and my apartment ten years ago, the first thing you did when they opened the door to the cat carrier was walk over to the brand new litter box and take a polite little pee. You’d been in the car for an hour and a half, and now you were in a strange new place that smelled like paint, but you knew what needed to be done.

Last night you left my life just as neatly and tidily: We’d already placed a call to Vet on Wheels, thinking it might be time, but you decided to do it on your terms and save us $300. After a cuddly evening at home, we woke up to the sound of you coughing or…something. The phrase “death rattle” came to mind, and the night felt eerie. But we were there, next to you, until you were no longer there next to us.

We petted you and talked to you and AK went for her bible to find a passage she remembered from Titanic (such is AK’s range of references). We let the boys in the room for a goodbye sniff, because it seemed good to give them closure rather let them think you’d been kidnapped or quietly disappeared by some sinister regime. This morning we wrapped your body in a towel and took it to the not-on-wheels vet. Having you—even though it was no longer you—on my lap in the car one last time reminded me what I’d be missing: your weight and softness, the double-edged sword that is having a body and living on earth.

I feel relieved and grateful. I want you to know that you didn’t have to make it so easy on us—you were worth any sort of trouble you wanted to put us through. The rescue org named you Angel, which we thought was a little schmaltzy. You clawed enough furniture in your lifetime to prove you had a devilish streak, and you swatted Ferd enough times to make it clear you wouldn’t put up with bullshit.

But you are an angel not in a top-of-the-tree way, but in a magnificent Angels in America way. You’re an angel with street smarts. You were with me through the worst year of my life, and although I don’t believe anyone gets to choose when they go, if you had a little bit of a say in it, I believe you waited until I was okay. Whenever those random getting-to-know-you questionnaires ask who my heroes are, I say you, and I mean it. If I could be half as calm, fearless and full of love as you were, I would be in great shape.

I love you, Mec-Mec, and I’m so grateful that all of us got to know you—OC (who’s known you the longest, who cuddled with you even when you smelled kinda funky there at the end), Ferd, AK, me, B, our families, your many generous cat-sitters, Jennifer next door and her little girls, and all the neighbors who probably considered you their cat and probably fed you regularly, which would explain a lot.

Wherever you are now, I hope there is, as AK said, “lots of tuna, but amazing celestial tuna that we’d never even recognize.”

Rest in peace, Temecula. You are loved.


Friday, January 06, 2012

let's go to the beach, or: what i read in december

This morning I looked at the Excel file where I track my literary submissions, and let me tell you, there’s nothing like a highly organized document to let you know in no uncertain terms exactly how unproductive you’ve been. Six submissions in the entire year of 2011! Since my unofficial 2012 motto is “Be less lazy and crazy” (my official motto is “What would Tina Fey do?”), I am particularly proud of myself for meeting the postmark deadline for this summer’s RADAR Lab, in which a bunch of queer people shack up in Mexico for two weeks and write together. That’s practically a novel itself. It will be called Vamos a la Playa, Jotos.

Anyway, here’s what I read in December, back when I was still being a little lazy (and working my way through The Lacuna, which I’m still not done with).

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling: Mindy Kaling name-checks Tina Fey and Chelsea Handler's books in a self-deprecating way. For the record, Kaling's is much funnier and sweeter than Handler's, but not the work of deceptively simple genius that is Fey's. (But no worries, she's got a few years to catch up.) It's a little slight--as you might imagine a memoir by a 32-year-old who adores her parents would be--but I laughed out loud a lot, in a "that's so TRUE!" way. Here's Kaling on making it in New York: "I had placed a lot of faith in Woody Allen's belief that 80 percent of success is just showing up.... Sure, I can just SHOW UP. Here I am, New York! Give me a job! It turns out the other 20 percent is kind of the difficult, nebulous part." That's so true.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King: This book opens with one of my pet peeves: feminism reduced to a spunky, super-genius heroine who is miraculously ahead of her time (WWI-era England) in every way. This particular spunky heroine befriends Sherlock Holmes and learns his methods, enabling the second part of the book, a series of classic Holmes-style puzzle mysteries. I'm not that into mysteries that are more about steampunk forensics than character motivation, but at least the puzzles were fun. Then there's a random, awkward side trip to Palestine. Then the spunky heroine dukes it out with her arch enemy, who turns out to be (spoiler alert) a woman. They're like the queen bees the title alludes to. Except they don't remotely alter the females-as-enemies dynamic the narrator claims to hate. In all, this is a wildly uneven if kind of engaging book.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

the cheryl show, now with more costars and fewer commercials

Zelda Kennedy is one of my favorite people at All Saints because her sermons frequently quote plays and musicals, and because she hugs parishioners like she means it. This morning she quoted a line from The Velveteen Rabbit, which made me cry when I was six and believed my stuffed animals had souls (I still kind of do) and again today. Something along the lines of: “If you become real, you will get worn down and used up, but you will never be ugly to anyone who understands what it means to be real.”

Someone could probably put together one of those photo comparisons a la Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War for me in 2011. Which is not to say that my recent howls of thwarted entitlement* are the same as the Civil War, just that, well, it’s been real, and I think I have some fine lines to show for it.

I’ve had a very nice week-plus off. Last night AK and I rang in the new year with Pedro, Stephen, Maria and Calvin at Onyx, after a potluck dinner at the boys’ place around the corner. We cooked our own food. We had reservations at the lounge, so we didn’t have to do a bunch of standing. Calvin broke three noisemakers. AK took a couple of brief catnaps in our booth and, every time she woke up, immediately started dancing. On the walk back, a man said to Stephen, “I would pay you a sum of dollars for your hat” (velveteen plastic and not terribly real; he gave it to the guy for free). It was all kind of perfect.

And now I’m done with 2011. Very, very done.

Here are my resolutions for 2012 (besides the givens, which require me to become a perfect human in every realm from personal finance to properly appreciating sunsets):

1. Sweat. Recently I realized that, if I were sixty and had high blood pressure, my physician would congratulate me for my regular, reasonably paced three-times-a-week workouts. But I’m 34 with a healthy heart (knock on the wood I pretty much keep by my side at all times). There’s no reason I can’t amp it up a notch. There was a reason, which was that I felt like my body was delicate and unpredictable and I didn’t want to ask for trouble. But that was 2011. In 2012, I’m going to run up the hill, do an extra set of crunches, take the hard yoga class and stick around for all of Zumba.

2. Listen and lurk. I know that in the not-too-distant future, all of us will have fruit-fly attention spans and all art will be interactive, and it won’t really be worse, just different. But I was born way back in the 1970s, and I want to cultivate my erstwhile attention span. Lately I’ve sat in bed with my laptop and raced to the comments section to put in my two cents and read magazines for the pictures way too much. I feel like it’s making me dull and antsy at the same time. It’s not just about reading either—sometimes my self-talk becomes such a running commentary that I forget AK’s life story is unfolding right beside me the whole time. I’m not some dudely dude who wouldn’t know an emotional cue if it sat down next to him and started talking about football, but I could do better. This is not the Cheryl Show Starring Cheryl. In 2012, I will read literary journals, short stories in The New Yorker, books that give me background info for what my students are working on, profiles of writers that make me turn into a puddle of motivating envy. I will read between the lines. I will make space for conversation. I will resist the urge to comment unless I really have something to say.

So it’s ironic that I came to Starbucks to read an anthology I’m supposed to blurb and do a little writing, and I ended up blogging, the ultimate Cheryl Show Starring Cheryl. But I have to state my intention before I can enact it, right? Oh…I guess I actually don’t.

3. Write to an inmate. Although I’m sure there are many willing pen pals in the criminal justice system, the ones I want to correspond with are participants in PEN’s prison writing program, which first crossed my radar a few months ago. Twenty-twelve is the time to actually do it. I figure that when the apocalypse hits and prison gangs start running the post-apocalyptic dystopia, it couldn’t hurt to have a couple of the more poetic ones on my side.

*This is a phrase I recently read in a New Yorker article, describing Carrie Brownstein’s characters in Portlandia. I realized, troublingly, that 2011 was basically one long howl of thwarted entitlement for me.