Monday, May 27, 2013

the shittiness evangelist takes memorial day off

1. dispatch from debbie downer

I’m writing this at Huntington Gardens. A few feet from me, there’s a pond full of Jurassic-looking lily pads and well fed gold-brown fish. Two families of geese are roaming about, getting harassed by families of humans.

With lily pads and random children.
We wanted to start a "Hey girl..." meme featuring actual goslings.
I’m telling you this because I worry I’ve acquired a reputation as a Debbie Downer. On Friday Alberto was talking about taking care of his parents when they get older—when he’s fifty and they’re seventy-five—and I said something along the lines of, Yeah, hope I make it to fifty. As if taking care of one’s elderly parents were a First World Problem akin to one’s yacht needing polishing.

I know my odds of making it to fifty are actually very good, but I’m superstitious. I want the universe to know I don’t just take things for granted (even though I take all kinds of things for granted, like clean air and well stocked grocery stores and the possibility of emergency loans from my dad).

This concoction of magical thinking and gratitude have merged with my occasional inability to talk about good things, for fear that those good things will go away, and for fear that people will think, Aw, how sweet, Cheryl is appreciating the little things. Because that’s all she has. But I haven’t given up on the big things, dammit. Long life. Kid. Vacation to Tasmania. Critically acclaimed midlist novel.

Also, I’ve become a sort of evangelist for owning up to life’s shittiness, which I really do believe in.

But maybe, as a result, people think I’m really depressed?

I know people mostly don’t think about me one way or the other. That’s the nature of people. I’m sitting here not thinking about them right this minute.

But still, I want you—as people—to know: Life is good, in big ways and small ways.

2. open mic, open minds

For instance: On Friday night AK and I went to a barbecue/comedy-writing party hosted by New Friend Molly. Her husband took a standup class a while back, and the group still gets together, draws a topic from a hat, writes on it for fifteen minutes and then performs it at a mic set up in their living room.

The idea of doing standup comedy—even for a small, friendly and sufficiently intoxicated crowd—was mildly terrifying. I think of humor as a pleasant byproduct of writing and conversation. Actively trying to be funny is like taking a class to meet chicks; if you make that big of an effort, it probably won’t happen.

Then again, I do enjoy the sound of my own voice, on paper on otherwise. There’s no denying that. And although it’s a big cliché, it’s true that big scary illnesses make you fearless about anything that’s not a big scary illness. (The little-discussed asterisk is that it’s not because you’re so into embracing life now; it’s because you’re busy fearing the obvious, so you don’t have time to fear anything else.)

Now that I think about it, standup comics are the ultimate evangelists for life's shittiness.
Both AK and I made some people laugh—the topic was hair, so I had a built-in prop—and felt proud of ourselves. On the drive home, the gist of our conversation was, “Why are we so good at this?” (“Well, we’re literary types, so we naturally pay attention to detail and story….” “And I think we both come from the school of thought that things have to be true in order to be funny, and you should go for the truth first and the funny second….”) (Other possible reason: small, friendly, slightly intoxicated audience.)

On Saturday my organization threw a reading at the Last Bookstore, one of those warm, inspiring events that left me buzzing. This morning AK and I went to yoga and I felt like I was working all the gnarls out of my legs, which have recently taken up running again, ever so slowly. Some teenagers barged in toward the end of class and wanted to shoot a movie there. They clutched fistfuls of wigs and camera equipment.

Tonight we’re going to have drinks on a roof. It feels like summer.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

offensive tattoos

1. relaxing with sex workers

AK is taking this class where she’s required to put herself in culturally uncomfortable/unfamiliar situations and write about them. I clearly don’t totally understand it, because every time I suggest something (“Ooh! I know! Take that improv class you’ve been talking about!”), she tells me, No, it’s not like that.

But somehow we ended up at a Korean spa at ten p.m. last night because one of the “spheres” she can investigate is race/ethnicity. All I knew about Korean spas was that they’re really naked, and Margaret Cho got kicked out of one for having too many tattoos. Sure enough, there was a sign at the front desk that said: We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone with offensive tattoos or infectious skin conditions. 

The pride parade committee was not offended.
All signs were pointing to this not being a great place to run around without nipples. I mean, I don’t think my tits look infectious, but the thing about having a nonconforming body is that the burden of proof somehow falls on you.

I kept my swimsuit on, which seemed like the lesser of two nonconforming evils. The place was quiet and steamy and full of good shampoo smells. We had our choice of Hot, Warm or Cold hot tubs. Only a big-time masochist would choose anything but warm, which was actually pretty hot.

I’d just opened the new issue of Redbook to get tips on flattering fashions from Khloe Kardashian when the manager looked up from disinfecting a surface.

“No…” she said, gesturing to her chest. No swimsuits allowed.

I wish I was the kind of fierce Margaret Cho type to whip off my tankini top right there and confront her with the reality of me—but it’s kind of like why I would never find it funny to fart on someone. If it’s your body that’s freaking someone out, it seems like the joke’s on you. So I just trudged to the locker room with my head hung cartoonishly low.

I returned in my regulation white robe and slipped back into the Warm hot tub naked. No one was around except AK. My big stand was very anti-climactic, which was fine with me.

We checked out the gym, where AK tried one of those exercise belts you see in old movies, and the lounge, where a dozen middle-aged women with face cream lay in Barcaloungers watching a Korean movie.

Best gym shoes ever.
We discovered the spa’s secondary population when a girl with Britney-on-a-bad-day hair extensions opened her bag at the locker next to mine. Inside was a pair of six-inch heels bedazzled in red and blue rhinestones. She didn’t have the body to be a stripper except maybe at some very Portlandia-type club, and her look wasn’t Suicide-Girl enough for that. So we concluded: actual prostitute.

This was somewhat fascinating to me. I’ve read my share of feminist sex worker lit, but other than driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, I’ve never seen a prostitute up close. I mean, I’m sure I have, but not an obvious one who’s only recently off the clock. But given that this spa is open twenty-four hours a day and includes showers and futons with the $15 entry, it’s kind of a perfect between-shifts hostel.

It seems a little offensive to be fascinated—it seems like the right answer is Sex Workers: They’re Just Like Us. Then again, aren’t they kind of in the fascination business?

2. radiation: also not a pedicure

This morning I had my first actual radiation appointment. Unlike chemo, which was in a big open room full of spa chairs and friendly staff ready to get you a cup of ice, radiation is all business. It’s in the basement. It feels like a basement. The machine looks like a robot from the 1970s. The staff jostles you around and marks you up with Sharpie while telling you to stay still. They say things like, “Now we’re putting some permanent marks on you” and one second later you have three freckle-size tattoos that feel much more offensive (to yourself) than anything Margaret Cho might have on her body.

How about you respect me, huh, radiation?
Your arm, positioned above your head in the custom groove you made on the clinical-strength memory-foam pillow, falls asleep within minutes. Anytime any limb falls asleep, it reminds you of the time you thought you might have some kind of disease where your limbs fall asleep. The dropped ceiling is a graph of those depressing cardboard tiles, interrupted only by a flat-screen TV—on the ceiling like this is some kind of porny hotel room. Images of cheaply lit Zen gardens float by. It’s like a karaoke video without the sound. The actual sound in the room is smooth jazz.

The machine comes close but never touches you, like a tentative cat. Behind its glass face are metal teeth that position themselves according to your Treatment Plan, you suppose, although your Treatment Plan perplexes you at the moment (why are they radiating the lymph nodes in your neck? You had no cancer in any of your lymph nodes). The machine’s moving teeth remind you of a player piano. One that only plays smooth jazz.

Then it’s over and a very pregnant nurse is talking to you about skin care, and you’re thinking, Since the last time I saw you, before chemo, I lost all my hair and you created life. You’ll have a little permanent tan, she says, but no major long-term side effects. Radiating the clavicle lymph nodes only increases your risk of lymphedema by a little bit. At least, she thinks so. But the doctor’s not here today, you can talk to her tomorrow.

What you know now that you didn’t know six months ago: You can lose and lose and lose and still be you. If you have the skin of an eighty-five-year-old and an arm full of fluid, you will be okay. What you also know: This knowledge is a shitty consolation prize.

You drive to work. There’s a construction-related detour that lasts longer than your radiation appointment. Beneath your sweater, you’re still covered in Sharpie.

Friday, May 17, 2013


One of Cheryl’s Crazy Dreams or Part of Last Night’s NELAArt Short Film Series?
(With apologies to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.)
  1. Italian students march in lockstep through a lecture hall to turn in their ballots before realizing the election is a fraud.
  2. Cats, rats and ferrets wage species warfare on the roof of an apartment building.
  3. A young woman hikes through the snow in search of a lost parent.
  4. A girl’s mother grooms her to be a prize-winning knitter.
  5. A couple tries to hide a runaway German prostitute in their garage during a dinner party.
  6. One bookshelf-lined attic stands in for three different apartments.
  7. A woman is reunited with her elementary-school crush on a bus trip to Mexico.
  8. A man with a handlebar mustache tap dances.
  9. Residents of a small Chinese village develop bizarre mutations as a result of pollution.
  10. Best friends are subjected to body cavity searches in a South African prison.
Like this, but bloodier and with ferrets.

Cheryl’s crazy dreams: 2, 4, 6, 7, 9
NELAArt Short Film Series: 1, 3, 5, 8, 10

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

this just in: exercising is good

Kim is my hypochondriac idol because, despite years of panicking that she had ALS and getting checked for cancerous moles every six months, she is now getting a PhD in public health. Way to flip the script! Take that, hypochondria!

On good days, I think that being diagnosed with cancer might have done the same for me: The thing that I thought was the end of the world wasn’t. On bad days, I’m still a nervous wreck.

Kim and I have gone to a few seminars for breast cancer patients at USC’s medical campus. She gets course credit, and I get a vague sense that I have some control over my life. Much of the last three years of my life has been about relinquishing control—realizing that things haven’t worked out because life is random, not because I failed (not that there’s anything so wrong with failing, and I’ve done some of that too).

So it actually takes me by surprise to learn that I can control something beyond what I’m wearing today and what I’m eating for dinner tonight—the two areas I let my mind wander to instead of daydreaming/worrying about the future. But here’s what we learned at yesterday’s seminar: Studies have shown that exercising reduces the risk of recurrences in estrogen-positive breast cancers by twenty-five to thirty percent.

That’s huge, right? And that’s not some Self Magazine factoid twisting a vague statistic about pomegranates being good for you into a recipe for a pomegranatini. That’s actual science, as communicated by doctors, who said, “Well, some studies say fifty percent, but they weren’t as rigorous. The good studies say twenty-five to thirty.”

Just remember: Don't prevent cancer and drive.
The oncologist and kinesiologist on hand also said that it’s been hard to separate out diet from exercise, since the studies are usually linked to body weight. Estrogen feeds my type of cancer, and estrogen is stored in fat cells, so most of my health choices right now have to do with what Tig Notaro referred to in her now-famous cancer stand-up routine as “my forced transition.”

My glee over possibly being able to exercise my way to permanent remission was tempered by a picture of my future self as manly, with thin head-hair due to hormone therapy, extra body hair due to hormone therapy, a couple of extra pounds due to hormone therapy and a big hump on my back due to osteoporosis brought on by early menopause. Add that to my nine surgery scars and weird radiated skin.

At least the body hair and peasant blouse conceal the scars.
But all the more reason to work out and try to look hot, right?

I’ve exercised semi-regularly since I was five—even when I was a teenager and ate a half a loaf of bread and a box of Snackwells pretty much every night, I still had to step-clap my way through cheer practice every day. I’ve had periods of slackerdom, but they’ve never lasted more than a month or two.

Still, I like a reason to renew my resolve, and yesterday I found myself vowing: four times a week, no less. Lift weights, go to the hard yoga class, work my way back to circus class.

Then I started worrying: If AK and I manage to adopt a kid, won’t exercise be off the table for a while? But isn’t part of the point of trying not to die of cancer so that I can have a kid and, added bonus, watch him/her grow up? (At times my bargaining gets whittled down to just wanting some little crying thing to think of me as Mom for like fifteen minutes before I keel over. But mostly I’m more hopeful/greedy than this.) So if we have a kid, can I relax because I’ve reached the finish line? Or will that be all the more reason to work out and keep cancer at bay?

I’m guessing the latter. I’m guessing my workout routine would wilt for a while, then inch back up again. I used to worry a lot about never writing again if I had a kid, but after going through various personal hells, I realized that 1) when writing goes away, I don’t care and 2) it comes back. Exercise is probably the same. The human brain has a natural triage approach to life. And the self, like the kind of cancer no one wants, is resistant to all interventions.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

to the lighthouse: radiation therapy and you

And to think, it used to just look like a phallic symbol.
This morning I had my first radiation appointment. No actual radiation was involved—they put some waterproof stickers on me and took pictures to make sure they don’t radiate the wrong person or the wrong body part (is this an issue?), and ran me through that big medical donut, the CT scanner.

Before my appointment, I finally cracked Radiation Therapy and You, a pamphlet I grabbed at my consultation with Dr. Chen back in January. It has a picture of a lighthouse on the cover, with a beam of white light aimed at the horizon. This picture is both serene and disturbingly accurate.

Here’s what’s inside. (I’m paraphrasing.)

Hi! You’re reading this because you have cancer. Just wanted to remind you. In this guide, you’ll find many facts that will help you through your treatment.

Q: What is radiation therapy?

A: Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses radiation to do therapy. Against cancer.

Q: Who gets radiation therapy?

A: You do. Because you have cancer.

Q: What does radiation do to healthy cells?

A: Nothing good. It’s fucking radiation.

Q: What type of radiation will my doctor prescribe?

A: Your doctor will prescribe the type that he or she feels will work. Sorry, we don’t want to get all science-y here.

Q: What side effects will I experience?

A: You will experience the type of side effects that you will experience. Remember, every patient is different, and we don’t want to get sued. Also, your psychotherapist is discouraging you from having expectations.

Q: But really, what side effects will I experience?

A: Diarrhea, fatigue, hair loss, mouth changes, nausea, vomiting, sexual and fertility changes, skin changes, throat changes, urinary and bladder changes, and other.

Q: Other?

A: Have you seen Spider Man?

Q: How should I take care of myself during my treatment?
  • Don’t wear lotion or deodorant to your radiation therapy session. 
  • Don’t use sunscreen. 
  • But don’t get any sun, either. 
  • So, just stay inside. It’s not like you’re the life of the party these days anyway. 
  • Stay away from children, as you are basically a walking Superfund site, not to mention depressing to small innocent people who don’t yet know about all the shit life has in store. 
  • To combat fatigue, try not to do anything. 
  • But make sure to exercise, cook healthy food, floss, quit smoking, bathe frequently and grow your own aloe vera.
Q: Are there any extra humiliating things I should do?

A: Use a saliva substitute to moisten your mouth, wear a wig, clean your rectal area via something called a “sitz bath” and purchase some adult diapers.

Q: Are there any permanent side effects of radiation?

A: Permanent and long-term side effects include:
  • Skin that looks like Megan Brockelsby’s mom’s—-you know, who used to chain smoke in her tennis skirt and cracked bare feet while waiting for Megan after school? 
  • Super powers* 
  • Cancer**
Q: What happens after I’m finished with radiation?

A: You will need to meet with your radiation oncologist for the rest of your life to check for cancer—-the one you were treated for and new, ironic cancers caused by cancer treatment. Oh, you’re in the system, honey.

Q: Um, this is all kind of terrifying. Is there anything I can do to cope with the emotional effects of cancer treatment?

A: Try taking a walk or closing your eyes and imagining a peaceful meadow.

**Not as rare as you’d like.

Monday, May 06, 2013

the burrito-lover’s guide to vegan-adjacent-ism

It’s been two weeks since I made the bold decision to kinda sorta* be a vegan for, you know, a little while. Last night I dreamed I was in some unnamed war-torn country in which bands of guerrillas charged down the street, setting stores on fire and yelling, “Revolutionaries go to that side of the road, conservatives to that side!” Whichever side you picked, you got shot.

In the dream, I was looking for a good gelato place.

So, I guess you could say there’s a lot I would do for dairy. I miss lattes and Greek yogurt. And without fish, soy, eggs or milk, it can be hard to get enough protein. I’ve been eating a lot of beans and nuts. If you are imagining a pot of red lentils soaking on my kitchen counter, great, keep imagining that. I’m imagining it too. They’re organic and I got them at my local famer’s market! I brought my own container, so no plastic was involved!

Just don’t imagine me at Leo’s Mexican Food ordering a bean and cheese burrito, hold the cheese, while my grandma—in a bright teal poncho—gets her picture taken with the mariachi band.

Cinco de Mayo: when white people dress up as Mexicans, and sometimes, also, Mexicans dress up as Mexicans.
(Recently a poet I like a lot, Craig Santos Perez, posted this picture of his fridge. The food is gorgeous and social-justice-y and earth-friendly. Amazingly, there is not one thing—not even one organic thing—wrapped in plastic. Apparently when Craig isn’t busy writing books, traveling the world and fighting injustice, he pickles his own vegetables, or maybe trades poems for vegetables someone else has pickled. Even his milk is in a GLASS CARAFE.)

Surprisingly, I don’t miss cheese that much. Don’t get me wrong—I love cheese and I will taste it again. But when my burrito doesn’t contain a brick of it, I feel less disgusting afterward. Who would have guessed?

I have, however, been putting guacamole on pretty much everything. Burritos, veggie burgers, bread. Also, after chowing down at book club on Saturday, I swear I had a hummus hangover.

Kale (yes, kale) with avocado and TJ's Cowboy Caviar salsa. Ready in five minutes.
I visited Sprouts, the slightly cheaper version of Whole Foods that opened near my office, last week and bought some lentil crackers because they sounded interesting. They were labeled gluten-free.

Jamie looked at the box. “Are you trying to avoid wheat?” She is, a little bit.

“Lord no,” I said. “There are so many things I’m not eating right now—fish, dairy, soy, alcohol—that I’m giving myself free reign with wheat. And caffeine.”

Avocados and coffee: my advice for the vice-loving vegan whose liver is still detoxing from chemo. But this weekend I’m going to have such a big fat cocktail.

I’ve been cooking a fair amount, which is a great stress reliever, even in my imperfect, lots-of-packaged-stuff, un-Craig-Santos-Perez-like way. Here are a few things I’ve made:**

Toast totally counts as cooking.

Whole wheat vegan pancakes.

TJ's seaweed ramen with added veggies.

There's a (non-soy) veggie burger under that bun. And guacamole, of course.

Barley, potatoes, carrots and leaks. Barley is my new favorite carb.

Here are a few things I haven’t made:

Macaroons are totally dairy-free. They ARE, okay?

Leftover Noo Deli noodles from Fred 62.

I got the kind without frozen yogurt, because I'm hardcore like that.

Disturbingly named kiwis, especially when pictured alongside a young Asian girl.

Cereal. Always cereal. And I know I need to bleach my grout, okay?

Always, always cereal. With almond milk and Ripe & Easy kiwis.

*Permissible loopholes: milk in coffee, eggs in baked goods, a little square of butter in pans. And when the woman ahead of you in line at the taco stand asks whether the beans are made with lard, don’t listen to the answer. 

**I didn’t use any pretty Instagram filters, so this is the food porn equivalent of a grainy home video of naked people with a lot of cellulite.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

states of wonder: teen film prodigies and what i read in april

1. just imagine the horizontal plane as facebook

Margot, my church therapist (not to be confused with my regular therapist, couples therapist, physical therapist or radiation therapist), was talking about the horizontal plane and the vertical plane. The former is the everyday stuff, the latter is the sublime. They intersect and form a cross, she said, unless cross imagery makes you uncomfortable. People at All Saints are always apologizing for sounding too Christian.

Fabulous jewelry doesn't make me uncomfortable.
The good thing about Shitty Life Events, she said, is that they break you open and allow you to access the vertical plane, where God and Jesus and Buddha and the best book you ever read live.

I mean, she said, the horizontal plane is still valid and important. Some people live their whole lives there. (And when I studied Margot’s amazing preppy angora cardigan, I believed that she had an investment in the horizontal plane.) But they’re missing out.

Of course I wanted to take this as Proof That I Was A Better Person than all those people out there getting what they wanted. But back when I was getting what I wanted more regularly, I didn’t like the implication that God was on Team Shitty Life Events. I mean, I think the point is that God is on Team Everyone, but sometimes we see our team captain more closely than other times.

2. lords of covenant house

Tuesday night AK and I went to a mini film festival at Covenant House, the shelter where our friend Laura teaches a film class. These are all kids who’ve had more than their fair share of Shitty Life Events. Some of them had the excess fat or pungent body odor to show for it. Most of them, I think, had the wisdom—because in order to stay aboard the tight ship that is Covenant House, they have to stay off drugs and go through a lot of programs. These were the kids who put the “open” in being broken open.

The first film was a documentary in the spirit of Lords of Dogtown, by a guy named Eduardo. He wore big plugs in his ears and wrapped his wrists in leopard-print fabric when he skateboarded on the Venice boardwalk. He grew up in SoCal but moved to Mexico with his mom after his dad left, when he was thirteen or fourteen. In Mexico, kids called him a fag and tried to fight him. They associated skateboarding with homosexuality and Satan worship. Not that there was anything wrong with homosexuality, Eduardo told the camera, but he believed in God. He went to church. Not that he was a Christian or anything.

Not Eduardo. Not a Satan worshiper. Possibly a homosexual, I don't know.
But there was the time when he was sixteen and put a gun in his mouth. When he was working up the courage to pull the trigger, he looked at the skate poster on his wall. He saw an angel in the shadow next to the poster. God wanted him to live. To keep skating and drawing. He showed the camera a notebook with an illustration of a face with flames flaring out from its angel head.

He closed the film saying, “One life, one love, one God, hang loose.” He stuck his tongue out.

The other films included:
1) a giddy love story to editing software called A Day in the Life of a Teleporter
2) a meta-film in which a serial killer offed everyone on set
3) a very short film of someone running backward
4) footage of a black girl with bright purple eye shadow performing a Wiccan moon ritual and chanting, “I love the Goddess and the Goddess loves me”
5) a film about a girl and her mom arguing in the bathroom, dedicated to Tyler Perry

…and my other favorite, ‘90s Babies, in which all these kids in their early twenties waxed nostalgic about WWF, Pokemon and Resident Evil the video game.

“You would hear the crushing and the squishing,” one guy said wistfully.

They remembered That ‘70s Show and how their dad used to berate them just like the dad on that show. I wondered if it was the equivalent of children of the seventies getting nostalgic for American Graffiti.

“If you didn’t grow up in the nineties, you don’t understand how we think,” one kid said.

Except I think I do.

And then the credits rolled as “Gangnam Style” played in the background.

3. here is what this eighties* baby read in april

The Pigman by Paul Zindel: It's easy to see why this became a classic of the young adult genre. I suspect it was ahead of its time in depicting adults as highly fallible and teens as carrying on rich inner and outer lives below the radar of the authorities. Although some elements are charmingly dated (like using @$#! for "hell" and a subplot about rotary phones), the voices of narrators John and Lorraine are timeless. AK said the juxtaposition makes the novel feel oddly Canadian--relevant and fresh but just a little off. I was especially impressed with the ending, in which the young narrators contemplate how their parents aren't awful so much as worn down by the harshness of life. They know this will be their fate too, but with luck they'll maintain a little of the Pigman's magic.

American Born Chinese by Gene Yuen Lang: Yang tells three narratives grounded in varying degrees of realism: At one end of the spectrum is the seemingly autobiographical story of Jin, a Chinese-American kid whose FOB-ish BFF alternately supports and embarrasses him. At the opposite end is a folktale of the Monkey King, who denies his simian nature to achieve godlike status. In between is a white kid named Danny, who is visited yearly by a mysterious stereotypical cousin, who is Chinese in the "me play joke, me go pee-pee in your Coke" tradition. Yang's illustrations have clean lines and comic-style pops and zaps, with the Monkey King's thread being the most vivid. Although the thematic parallels are evident from the start (each protagonist struggles with identity and shame), Yang weaves the strands together graphically and narratively in unexpected ways.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: So many elements of this book are tough to pull off: fictional Amazonian tribes? Miracle cures for infertility and diseases? Plot developments that result from incredible coincidences? Not to mention the whole "American learns about herself while encountering the third world" thing, which can be straight-up racist in the wrong hands. But Patchett is so good with mundane details, and builds her world so slowly, that by the time the crazy shit happens, we've drunk the Kool-Aid (or eaten the magic blue mushrooms, in this case).

As always, everything feels so real and multifaceted that the point of the book seems almost superfluous, but it's there--and it's about the inevitability of hard choices, I think. In a world that is one big, delicate ecosystem, delaying parenthood has consequences, curing malaria has consequences, teaching a boy to drive a boat has consequences. But the only way to really live is to stare unflinchingly at all of it, as the protagonist learns to do--in her own way--from her wizened mentor.

Final note, which contains speculative spoilers: Did anyone else think Marina was pregnant at the end of the novel? You know, because the trees started repulsing her and stuff?

On a vision quest with Ann Patchett.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: I can see why this is a classic: It was one of the first YA novels to depict teens with tough, working-class live, and it's full of dreamy bad boys with hearts of gold. But even though S.E. Hinton could write circles around my sixteen-year-old self and should be lauded as the prodigy she was, it still feels like a first novel--on-the-nose dialogue, improbable events and a loooottt of time devoted to describing the boys' looks and tastes in snack food. There were a lot of sentences like, "People say I'm good-looking because I have golden hair and green eyes, but I think my eyes are more gray. Soda, he's the good-looking one, like a movie star." Either there's some underlying homo-eroticism (and I'm sure there is in any real gang) or S.E. Hinton was crushing out on her characters. Not that I blame her.

menudo & Herb by Myriam Gurba: There is an odd satisfaction in good bowel movement, and these short, punny, offbeat poems have a similar effect. They're as silly (and sometimes dark) as nursery rhymes, but once in a while you have to dig to "get it." And sometimes the "it" is a finger that points back at you and says, "Ha! You were looking for me?! I'm a pot of fool's gold!" As with most of Gurba's writing, there are refrains of the sexual and racial and scatological. Her irreverent approach opens up the possibility for dialogue, although it's hard to see this as a text in any _____ Studies class. And I mean that in a good way.

Here's a typically atypical poem, titled "On the Plate Between Mashed Potatoes and Turkey":

In Little Armenia, they serve tiny baklava and Kim
Kardashian's ass is normal-sized.

(Get it?)

*I mean, I was born in 1977, but since I wasn’t a very culturally savvy two-year-old, I consider myself a child of the eighties.