Monday, July 29, 2013

carmel is the new idyllwild

Our plan had been to camp for a couple of days in Idyllwild, where we’d once celebrated AK’s birthday in a luxury cabin and where, longer ago, I’d gotten a cheer-camp sock tan that made the remnants of my radiation burn look like nothing much. Then Idyllwild caught fire. It seemed tacky to complain about the dissolution of our vacation as people and animals’ homes were getting charred.

Selfie with radiation tan.
Meehan offered her dad’s house in Carmel as an alternative, so on Friday night we drove north instead of east. A couple of weeks before, Meehan’s wife Sally had told me, “Meehan and I were talking about how great you’ve handled these past months. So many people would have shut down, but you opened up and weren’t afraid to ask for help.”

I’d almost cried right there in the middle of C.C.’s graduation luau. Lots of people had expressed admiration for my stamina during cancer treatment, but most had viewed my vulnerability as a sort of understandable evil. Well, of course she’s emotional. She has CANCER. A couple of people had treated it as the disease itself, and stopped speaking to me altogether. For a friend to say what only my therapist seemed to believe—what I only half believed myself—was HUGE.

So I was especially happy to climb into a Subaru with them and head up the 5 and across the 46 where James Dean was killed and up the 101 and through the foggy hills until we touched down in the Carmel Valley. It was a land of golf courses and shops that sold Victorian birdhouses, but it also happened to be Meehan’s ancestral home, the place where her great-grandfather once built a house out of stones with his bare hands.

We woke up in her grandparents’—now dad’s and dad’s wife’s—fifties ranch house and ate eggs and fruit and tiny artisanal toast. We hiked uphill, among wind-whipped coastal trees and butter-white cliff-side remnants of spring waterfalls. Meehan remembered a salamander pond around here somewhere, but the one we found was populated mostly by medium-sized fish with shimmery tails and dark spots on their cheeks like gothic blush. A bullfrog croaked behind some rushes and we joked about the ghost cow in our midst.

Sally hearts NY, but she loves Carmel more.
We sampled $40-a-bottle wine at Chateau Julien, and AK and I remembered that actually we liked wine, which we often forgot when drinking from Trader Joe’s bottom shelf.

Making their best wine snob faces.
Then we drove to an area Meehan called The Barnyard and did a thrift store crawl. I’d sworn off buying new clothes until January; I needed to save money, and restocking one’s closet as a means of self-consolation after a tragedy got a little ridiculous when one had a tragedy every six months. But buying vintage…out of town…that was different, right?

Wealthy Carmel ladies were shedding their high-end stuff, and there wasn’t a hipster with an eBay store in sight.

I came away with a pair of J Crew shorts, a silk scarf, a fringed capelet and a wide-shouldered striped dress that made me feel like I was about to plug a glass IV into the arm of a wounded sailor.

Back at Casa Rasch, Meehan’s family was grilling. Her mom and her newish beau came over; you’d think Meehan’s parents were lesbians for how friendly they were with their exes. We ate salmon and pesto pasta on the deck and drank the mom’s beau’s home-brewed beer, which was thick and chocolaty, my favorite kind. Exhausted from the hike and the sun and the alcohol, we all lounged like cats in the living room, playing word games until the parents dispersed and we could watch Orange is the New Black.

The patio.
“Alright, you enjoy your violent lesbian sex show, and we’ll see you in the morning,” Meehan’s dad said.

We probably spent a good ten percent of the weekend discussing OITNB. Which characters did we identify with? (Meehan was regal and reserved like Alex. AK was Piper—good at making the best of the moment, but easily distracted by feral chicken sightings.) Who would we hang out with? (“Nicky and I would have fun being loud together,” Sally said. I thought I would have some good talks with the intellectual tranny firefighter who was pissed off about hormonal injustice.)

All of us who’d put up with The L Word—its bad writing and ripped-from-the-viewer-letters-file attempts at diversity—were finally being rewarded for our patience with a show about real women with real problems doing real things and sometimes having super hot sex.

We went for a morning run on Sunday. Sally and AK peeled off and I walk-ran by the golf course and thought about my novel—whether Kate would tell Serge about her pregnancy during her holiday trip to Chuckwalla, or whether she’d put it off and inadvertently set a bad example for Tilly. I used to frequently puzzle through plot problems while I ran, but for years it seemed the plot I’d been obsessed with was my own life.

And it still is—on the drive back we talked relationships and possible parenthood and crazy exes and crazy selves. You’re never free of those things. But you can get away from them for a couple of days.

Monday, July 22, 2013

black, white and orange

AK and I were going to see World War Z in the theater with the comfy couches, but instead we decided to see Fruitvale Station in the theater with the only-sort-of-comfy stadium seats, because we are socially conscious like that.

Oscar and Tatiana.
The movie depicts the police shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African-American man who got into a scuffle with an acquaintance at a BART station early New Year’s Day, 2009. According to the film, the shooting happens as you might imagine: angry young black men, crowd roiling with energy and alcohol, outnumbered cops ready to put a bullet in their own anxiety. It’s hard to make a good movie about random violence because the nature of such events is that they’re quick, confused and, well, random.

The film is fairly simple in structure, following Oscar’s day in flashback as he hangs out with his family and tries to get rent money without breaking the law or losing face. But this is no easy thing for a poor kid with a conviction record—even if he has a naggingly loving mom and a sweet disposition. Writer/director Ryan Coogler shows how, even if the shooting itself is the result of a butterfly-effect bouquet of circumstances, it’s part of a pattern that poor young black men experience every day.

Oscar faces what I think of as the Catalina Problem. To put it in middle-class white-person terms: When you go to Catalina Island, there’s an ice cream store on every corner, with two or three gelato shops in between. They all smell like burnt sugar. They all sell chocolate-dipped waffle cones. You ignore the first one because your boat has just arrived and it’s only ten a.m. You ignore two more because you don’t want to be another dumb tourist with an ice cream mustache getting sticky in the sun. But eventually the dam of your willpower will burst, and you will eat a thousand-calorie snack, and your body and society won’t give you any credit for the five ice cream cones you didn’t eat.

No one gets off this island without looking like Big Olaf.
Oscar’s girlfriend doesn’t care that he chose not to sell weed that day; she cares (understandably) that he rolled in late to his grocery store job and got fired in the first place.

The character I related to most was Oscar’s mother, played with warmth and worry by Octavia Spencer. She’s constantly telling him to use his headset in the car and avoid getting a DUI. She knows that Oscar lives in a world that has declared him dangerous, and this puts him in danger. The fact that I identified with the mother of a twenty-two-year-old confirms that I’m old. But I’m also thinking about how to raise a black son in America.

AK and I are back on the adoption market after being on hold for a year. First we had some emotional shit to sort through. Then AK decided to try to get pregnant (she didn’t). Then I got cancer. Theoretically, we could get a call or an email from an expectant mother any day now. It’s such a big deal that I felt blissfully hopeful for a minute, then mad at myself for hoping—because I’m trying not to live in the future; I’m trying to remember that having kids won’t make me more of a real person; and, on a less healthy note, I have a superstitious belief that exciting news is always followed closely by terrible news. So of course I proceeded to imagine being handed a baby one day and some sort of You Have More Cancer certificate the next.

I know this is unlikely. I know they don’t make You Have More Cancer certificates.

They do make T-shirts and tote bags, though.
Anyway, when I’m not thinking about ways my life could go terribly wrong, I think about how I’ll try to prevent our kid’s life from going terribly wrong, and how we’ll live with the knowledge that we can’t guarantee it won’t.

“So, if we adopted a little black boy baby, how do we tell him that there are certain ways he has to act to hedge his bets safety-wise, while still sending him the message that he shouldn’t have to do those things?” I asked AK. “Like, how do we let him know that it’s the world’s fault, not his, but still encourage him to be strategic? Especially since I’m some white lady.”

AK reminded me that Barack Obama was raised by some white lady and said, “I think you could relate as a woman. Even though there’s no justification for rape, there are still precautions we take—places we don’t go at certain times, that kind of thing.”

The old me tried to run from uncertainty. The new me doesn’t exactly embrace it—see paragraph about how much I hate hope, above*—but I don’t bother trying to preemptively worry my way out of it either. I can’t just shoot my anxiety in the back. Also, I know I can handle shit. I think I can raise a kid who will be able to handle shit. At least, I’m going to have the audacity to hope so.

*And see episode of my/Emily Nussbaum’s/everyone I know’s new favorite show Orange is the New Black, in which Miss Claudette—a stoic Haitian woman rumored to be a voodoo practitioner and murderer—lets a ray of hope crack her OCD shell for the first time in decades. I can’t even describe the way her face transforms, but it pretty much sums up all of human experience.   

Monday, July 15, 2013

i'm one too

1. blowing up

I was driving to Stories to hear Michelle Tea and Wendy Ortiz read when I got stuck in a snarl on the part of the 2 that meets the 5. I’d heard that an oil truck blew up on the 5 earlier in the day, but I didn’t think traffic would still be backed up. I also didn’t understand why the traffic cones were pushing us from the 2 onto the 5.

McSweeney's makes pretty books.
Alberto, who’d been thinking about going with me, texted that he was going to hang out in Downtown L.A. that night, since he could get there by public transportation. Someone needs to come up with a name for that particularly Angeleno experience of basing your plans around traffic avoidance. CAReography?

I sat on the freeway listening to NPR announce the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Earlier I’d heard a report where people were chanting, “Murder, not manslaughter,” so I was surprised to hear that the jury chose neither.

I wasn’t on the jury, and I certainly wasn’t in George Zimmerman’s head, so I hold open the possibility that it really was self-defense the way we think of self-defense, as opposed to some twisted version. But I don’t hold it very wide open.

Chasing down a black kid, then freaking out when he reacted and calling it self-defense suggests that George Zimmerman believed Trayvon Martin and/or all black males in hoodies were his to victimize. That the most outrageous crime a member of an oppressed class could commit would be defy his place in the order of things. Isn’t that the story of all racial oppression as it unfolds over generations? It’s kind of like when Ollie bats Ferdinand with his paw and wonders why Ferd hisses at him. If, um, instead of standing there looking surprised and adorable, Ollie pulled out a gun.

2. i actually do have a mermaid in my circus novel, but i swear i didn’t copy michelle tea, even though i’m blogging about how i should copy michelle tea

And then I got to Stories and got myself some coffee and settled in to hear the four ladies on the bill that evening. Sara Finnerty read a really funny piece about growing up in a haunted house and having the hots for a Polish handyman. Her New York accent made it even better. Wendy Ortiz, whose tweets about themed summer reading and truckloads of submissions make me feel like a mess, read about her youth, when she was actually a little bit of a mess.

I thought, not for the first time, that the ideal life for a writer is to misspend one’s youth—do drugs, have inappropriate affairs, join a cult, get really immersed in some sort of nerdy/scary subculture—and then become an organized, productive, well adjusted adult.

I think I’ve done it all backward. I was well behaved and organized and ambitious when I was nineteen, and then I began to unravel in my thirties.

A homeless man who appeared to live on the Stories patio treated the whole thing like a call-and-response kind of deal. When the emcee introduced Wendy as a psychotherapist, he said, “I’m also depressed.” When Wendy read about being young and dumb and lonely, he moaned, “I’m one too.”

One what? Probably “a person,” I decided. He was just making the experience of empathy more vocal than the rest of us usually do.

Michelle Tea read from Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, and I remembered how much I like Michelle Tea, because she writes about young people in a way that feels so right-on that it’s completely familiar, but so full of spark and detail and truth that it’s completely fresh. I thought of my languishing YA novel. Note to self: Be more like Michelle Tea.

I spent the rest of the night prepping for AK’s graduation party. Chopping pineapple, making sangria, stringing together the letters “MA” and “MFTI” on a pink-and-zebra-print banner, because nothing says “master of clinical psychology” like pink and zebra print.
The graduate gets lei'd.
It was like two hundred degrees on Sunday, but it cooled down to ninety-ish eventually. A bunch of our friends came, and I could tell AK felt happy and proud of her accomplishment in a way that me just saying, “Hey, finishing grad school is a huge accomplishment!” a bunch of times didn’t really accomplish. They bought handmade leis and pineapples and fancy champagne, and I felt really grateful.

Monday, July 08, 2013

urban fairy tales

1. come and knock on our door, take a stoop that is new

AK and I really needed a break, so we decided to take a quick trip to San Diego this weekend. Then we decided we needed a break from labor-intensive breaks, so we canceled it at the last minute. Who says I’m not capable of spontaneity?

That’s how we found ourselves, Sunday night, at Griffith Park watching the Independent Shakespeare Company perform a play not by Shakespeare (that’s how independent they are, I guess). It was called She Stoops to Conquer, an eighteenth-century farce by Oliver Goldsmith about a young woman trying to determine whether her betrothed is a tongue-tied goof or a lecherous Casanova. He has a rep for being the former with society ladies and the latter with barmaids.

These cousins have to pretend they're in love. Of course!
Most comedies of that era are basically Three’s Company episodes, which is why the heroine sets up elaborate ruses designed to reveal her man’s true character. The moral of every story is, Why communicate when you could use trickery! Also, re: the heroine’s barmaid disguise, which she dons after meeting him in her teal taffeta finery, all characters written before 1900 seem to have that condition wherethey can’t recognize faces. I’m curious whether this is strictly a literary device, or whether it seriously has something to do with how we saw the world before widespread photography.

The play was a little long, as you can imagine a two-and-a-half-hour episode of Three’s Company might be, but well acted, with glam rock touches on the period costumes and a lot of genuine LOLs.

A group of three girls sat on a picnic blanket in front of us, dressed in high-waisted shorts and floral crop tops. I.e., the clothes of the early nineties, which I wore in high school, now worn by college students.

Alberto poured white wine for our little group and said, “Looking at them, I think, This is totally the kind of thing I did when I was in college in New York. But then I remember, Wait, I’m doing this now. Here.

“Nostalgia is weird,” I agreed.

2. love is a dangerous yet well trod angel

I tried to describe what it had been like, on Saturday, to reread parts of Weetzie Bat, a YA book I fell in love with in middle school and again in college. Like the Little House books, Song of Solomon and Rent, it was instrumental in shaping how I write and how I view the world. It’s a sort of urban fairy tale about a pixie-like punk chick and her boyfriend and her bff and her bff’s boyfriend and their magical life in the Hollywood Hills. I can see now how it’s a snapshot of late-eighties punk culture with a touch of New Age culture, but at the time it just seemed saturated with magic.

First edition of Weetzie.
In middle school, the magic was the faraway variety—a taste of queerness and color and danger. In college, it was the so-close-I-could-taste-it variety. Once I broke through the suburban curtain, reading about Oki Dog and Graumann’s Chinese and the Farmer’s Market was like reading about celebrities I’d just met. Having read about them in 1989 was what made them celebrities.

Now, sitting on my bedroom floor and organizing AK’s bookshelf (because now that I no longer have cancer as an excuse, even my weekly cleaning seems like it should be above-and-beyond), sentences like “She massaged My Secret Agent Lover Man’s pale, clenched back with aloe vera oil and pikake lotion” seem kind of comical. Less subculture-y and more Whole Foods-y than I remembered, although in 1989, whole foods were still a subculture.

Or this one: “At Noshi, they ordered hamachi, anago, maguro, ebi, tako, kappa maki, and Kirin beer.” Why the restaurant and beer brand name-checking? This is a text from a time when my references were different, and when the cycle of subculture-to-mainstream-appropriation was just slightly slower and looser.

But other passages still sparkle with their vivid, chaotic lists: “And so, Witch Baby stayed on in the house…eating up all of Duck’s Fig Newtons, and using Dirk’s Aqua Net, and insisting on being in My Secret Agent Lover Man’s movies, and dressing up in Weetzie’s clothes, and pulling heads off Barbie dolls and sticking them on the TV antenna and ruining the reception.”

When the sun set in Griffith Park, the coyotes came out. They yipped in packs just beyond the abandoned animal cages of the Old Zoo. They sounded too close and crazy and human to be real, but they were.

Monday, July 01, 2013

celebration with an asterisk

1. the plasticity of the human spirit

Things that are over: DOMA, Prop. 8, the Voting Rights Act, radiation.

Things that aren’t over: racism, homophobia, my personal cancerphobia.

I realize that this lead sort of equates my personal shit with important historical developments, but this is a blog about my personal shit as it relates to the larger culture, so there.

My point is that last week was bittersweet, and that some endings come too soon and others come too late, and most are false in some way.

Wednesday night I found AK’s long-lost iPad Mini under the passenger seat of my car while looking for my own newly lost phone. When I found my phone, I texted her the good news. She replied, “Can we celebrate at the York?”

I told her that I was feeling fried—literally and figuratively—from radiation. I hadn’t played the cancer card much in my seven months of treatment, so I decided I’d use it to get some extra rest between then and Friday, my last day of radiation.

The next morning, something occurred to me: “I thought you wanted to celebrate finding your iPad—but did you mean gay marriage?”

June 26, 2013: the day it sucked just a little to be queer and single.
“No, I meant my iPad,” she sighed. “I thought it would be fun to go to West Hollywood too, but I figured you’d want to stay close to home. I’m sorry—I shouldn’t make you feel bad about being tired.”

It hit me that one of the many things I’ve lost along Camino de Cancer is my engagement with what’s happening in the world.

South African students: no desks, no books, lots of raised hands.
Although, as a side note, I find longer-ago history profoundly, almost spiritually comforting. Last week I saw an exhibition of Ernest Cole’s photos of apartheid-era South Africa at the Fowler Museum. They were intense, but seeing how long days in the mines or nights in cramped maid’s quarters didn’t destroy anyone’s humanity—even as apartheid destroyed almost everything else—was reassuring. I felt like I was supposed to come away disturbed and depressed, but I felt the way I imagine more nature-oriented people do when they look up at a star-strew sky: small, humbled, part of something big.

2. i’m a self-centered white person

What I know now about outside events—laws, disease—is that they can’t kill your much-lauded-in-film human spirit as easily as you once feared. But they will change you more than you thought possible, and they can kill your human body.

I heard some NPR interview in which the reporter asked someone involved with the anti-Prop. 8 fight, “So, does this mean the struggle for gay rights is finished?” I’m sure this reporter also asked people whether Obama’s election meant that racism was over. And I’m sure he knew what the answer would be and was just trying to be provocative in a stupid way.

Most victories come with an asterisk. Marriage is hardly the only battle. Legal equality is hardly the same as true equality. (After all, racial discrimination has been illegal since 1964.)

The Voting Rights Act decision, which I don’t know all that much about because I’m a white person in a highly self-centered phase of my life, declares racism over in a way that denies the reality of millions of people. Few things feel worse than invisibility.

3. goodbye chocolate binges, hello lifetime of knocking on wood

I’m no longer an active-duty cancer patient, which is cause for celebration. And I celebrated: AK and I had dinner and our favorite donut balls at Westside Tavern, and I allowed myself a chocolate binge, because I figured it was the last day I could rely on medical treatment to rid my body of cancer rather than, you know, blueberries. We saw The Bling Ring, a deliciously deep and shallow movie.

One part social commentary, one part shoe porn.
But my right armpit still looks like a warzone, all sunburn and no beach. And I’ve known from day one that even the best-case scenario involves years (and years and years, knockonwood) of vigilance and tests and worrying-while-trying-not-to. So that began Saturday. Well, not really. I did eat a lot of vegetables and go to the gym, but I also felt light and free and newly inspired to tackle various organizational projects around the house.

War metaphors are weird; I’ve never liked the phrase “battling cancer” because 1) I’m a linguistic contrarian, and 2) every one of my cancer cells contains my own DNA. Did I want to battle myself? (Even though battling myself is the story of my life, and the story of everyone’s life.) Wasn’t there a more peaceful way to engage with my cancer patient status?

But war metaphors are tempting nonetheless, and I find myself explaining to people that while I’m no longer an active-duty cancer patient, I’m now in the reserves. I still have weekends of boot camp (hormone therapy, ovary-ditching surgery, reconstructive surgeries) ahead. I still have PTSD, although ironically less so than after the miscarriage, which is probably the Desert Strom to cancer’s Iraq War. I have to try to be forgiving and nice to myself in a way cancer gave me permission to be; I have to be nice to the rest of the cells in my body.