Monday, September 30, 2013

it’s always something, but some things are not that terrible, or: what i read in august and september

Better than Freedom and shorter too.
Someone broke into my car late Saturday night and stole my radio and iPod but left the novel I had in the backseat. So whoever he was, I guess he wasn’t a reader. Or she. Or maybe he/she just prefers nonfiction.

I had to go to the WeHo Book Festival, and I barely had time to care about the theft. I wondered whether that made me a tough chick who didn’t sweat the small stuff, who was truly grateful for the things that really counted (including the option to borrow AK’s car)—or a spoiled asshole who went through iPods like water, when there were people in the world who actually had no water.

After the book fair, I called the police. I don’t know why. A very nice, but possibly not super smart, guy named Honor (really) took down my information. He asked me to describe what my iPod looked like.

“Um, like an iPod?” I said.

He asked me my race, height and weight. In case it was an inside job? AK and I speculated that our cat Ollie, who was also mysteriously missing Saturday night, might have had something to do with the crime. I mean, he’s not much of a reader. And we call him “The Paw” because he’s always grabbing things. Toys. Ankles. Other cats’ tails. Why not a car radio?

I was glad when he came home; I’d been worried, as always, about coyotes and the tendency of things I love to go away. I told Ollie I loved him more than any car radio.

AK responded in Ollie’s voice: “Good. ‘Cause I fenced it.”

All of which is to say: I may not be listening to as many audio books as usual this coming month/till Christmas. But here’s what I read in August and September.

The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez: I tracked down this book after hearing the "Mimi's" excerpt on NPR. Like that story, the memoir is funny and particular (as opposed to archetypal, though it wrestles with archetypes plenty) in its account of a poor Mexican-American family that makes desperate grabs at middle-class status. At least, that's what stuck out to me thematically. Martinez tells us he's interested in machismo and how it wreaks havoc on generations of males, and that's here--in the stories of his brother's fights and his own misguided relationships--but sometimes the family dynamics he alludes to don't quite line up with the action on the page. He shows and he tells, but there's a slight disjuncture between the two. Never mind, though. Ultimately I loved the book's rambling, tangential style and ruthless self-reflection. The Boy Kings of Texas is raw in all the best ways.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I feel like there's an interesting impulse in some post-colonial lit to inject positivity into third-world narratives in defiance of the tragedy that Western readers have come to expect. Hence Oscar Wao ending with "The beauty! The beauty!" and Americanah providing its leading lady and man with a non-tragic love story. Although the love story isn't what made the novel turn for me, I liked it, and I like what I think it says: that home (Nigeria) and hopefulness (America) aren't mutually exclusive.

Mostly this is a novel of observations, which doesn't make for the speediest read, but I was always happy to immerse myself in dinner party after dinner party, hair salon after water cooler chat after election-night gathering. Ifemelu, the Nigerian student turned American "race blogger" at the story's center, is a wonderful protagonist because she is sharp-eyed and explicit about race in America, but also forgiving and kind toward people she meets. Obinze, her college sweetheart, experiences the dark underbelly of his American dreams as an undocumented immigrant in England (he can't even get a short-term visa to the U.S., which is terrified of all young males from developing countries). Something in him breaks when he is deported, and this something is as irreparable as colonized land and childhood innocence. But a loss of innocence, Adichie seems to say, is not the loss of happiness.

Adichie is an eloquent storyteller with an ear for dialect that I envy. Without pulling punches, this novel is as funny and charming as it is profound. Very occasionally, Adichie seems so intent on representing every possible American perspective on race that scenes can feel like a laundry list of types (albeit very true types) without a lot of breathing room in between. But mostly the book feels delightfully real.

Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum: As opening scenes go, it's hard to top this one: a teenage girl in a wheelchair kicking the ass of another wheelchair-bound girl, clobbering her with the footrest.

I read that Susan Nussbaum was a playwright, so it makes sense that this novel is structured as a series of monologues with spot-on voices. The voices belong to patients and employees in and around a nursing home for disabled kids. The result could easily have been ham-fisted or precious, but I think Nussbaum's work is why they invented the phrase "deceptively simple." Although the monologues are present-tense (one reason I'm putting this on my YA shelf, although it's not marketed as such), most of the action happens offstage. We see the terrible, complicated fallout of a free-market healthcare/foster care system through the lenses of its victims and sometimes-hapless perpetrators. The world and The System are made up of individuals, and the tight first-person narratives never let us forget it.

Words like "empowering" and "inspiring" get thrown around a lot when talking about disabled people, and somehow end up seeming vaguely condescending. As I think about my own body's recent failings--as I wonder in my dark moments how much of a person I still am and how to have agency when I don't have control--I *did* find Good Kings Bad Kings empowering and inspiring. I devoured this book in a few days, and I loved it above all for the characters, especially tough-talking Yessenia, the beat-down inflicter, and Joanne, the paraplegic woman who clerks at the nursing home just to get herself out of the house, but cautiously falls in love. With the kids, and with a handsome aide named Ricky. So did I.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: A guy at a party full of therapists told me that he appreciated how Franzen "writes about the psychodynamic relationships that play out in people's lives." I thought, Oh, so *that's* what this book is about? As much of a psychology groupie as I am, at times the novel seemed like just a bunch of middle-aged people behaving badly, bouncing off each other like atoms and setting off a chain reaction of more bad behavior in their children and coworkers. The consequences of their best and worse impulses extend to politics and the environment as well. Then again, I guess that's what psychology is.

All of which is to say, I liked this book, but I didn't always see the point of it. I appreciated Franzen's deftness in showing how a seemingly unlikeable character--like a grouchy neighborhood busybody--might become that way, and then become someone kind and openhearted again. The bookends of the book--the relationship of a couple named Patty and Walter to two different neighborhoods, about a decade apart--are especially artful. But as domestic epics go, I'm not sure I totally see what all the Franzen fuss is about, although I'm not sure I'd sign on to any serious backlash either.

Friday, September 27, 2013

forever twenty-one

I love my org’s interns. They’ve ranged from nineteen to thirty-one-ish, from literary prodigies who can’t stop talking about their favorite professors to waitresses ready for a career change (who are now nonprofit development directors; hi, Lenise). They used to seem more like peers and less like charming teenagers. But they radiate curiosity and give me the feeling that something new and interesting might be just around the corner for me, too. They’re the difference between “ugh, I wish it was lunchtime already” and “maybe I will look up that word I don’t know!”

I have never asked an intern to get me coffee with even one of her eight arms.
One of them, Sanam, is a grad student at CSUN now, and the president of the school’s Northridge Creative Writing Circle. She invited Jamie and me to read our fiction and talk about our org last night. It was like they’d read the Guide To Presenting Readings And Workshops on our website that no one ever downloads. One of the club members greeted us right on time and walked us to the hospital-like building where the event was happening. They gave us flowers.

Sanam read the most thoughtful introduction I’ve ever gotten, like a tiny dissertation that made me blush. She and the other board members all wore dresses and heels. They all had curly hair tied back. They were all—and I feel like this is relevant—the hardworking children of immigrants, and wanted to write about cultural hybridity and feminism and art, but also to do right by their families.

One of their professors, Martin Pousson, brought out what Jamie described as a diaper bag for grownups. Inside were crystal glasses and fancy libations whose names I’m too uncultured to remember. I only had one drink, but, well, it was the most…relaxed reading I’ve ever given. Martin was intensely fabulous, with a stand-up pompadour and an amazing necklace. He was the professor who was game to go to Chili’s with his students and talk about his thoughts on the most recent round of MacArthur grants over novelty margaritas.

This is a thing you can order at Chili's.
I talked a lot to a student named Stephanie, who was thinking about an MFA but also about studying communicative disorders and helping kids with autism. She remembered every brilliant thing Douglas Kearney had said when he’d come to campus.

One of the many good questions the Creative Writing Circle students asked us was what inspired us to keep writing in the face of writer’s block. I gave a not entirely creative answer about writing routines. But an equally true—if trite—answer would have been them. I wanted to live the week ahead asking myself, What would a CSUN student do? College students have an effect matched only by caffeine, strong liquor and a handful of my favorite writers. And unlike strong liquor, you don’t have to quit engaging with them a good hour before driving home.

If you’d like to meet Martin Pousson, and get inspired yourself, join me Sunday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, where I’ll be moderating the 2:15 panel on Fiction and Identity at the LGBT Lounge. Also featuring Eduardo Santiago and Abigail Tarttelin!

Friday, September 20, 2013

i’m a simple fish tongue with big adoption dreams

Last week we got an email from an expectant mother looking for some nice lesbians to adopt her baby. Let me just say that, if the situation were leading somewhere, I wouldn’t be telling you about it right now. I would be talking to a few friends and family members, glowing quietly and secretly making baby-clothes collages on Polyvore. Because I would respect the delicate nature of this time.

But, yeah, spoiler alert.

The expectant mom—I’ll call her New Zealand—was sixteen, African-American, expecting a boy in February. AK and I had some conversations about the challenges of raising a black male in a country that sometimes thinks black males are going to mug them. We decided we’d be honored to give it a try, and we’d seek out help when necessary.

We let ourselves daydream a little. Something surged up in me that I’ve been pushing down hard for a long time. I imagined our little guy in playgroups with our friends’ kids, getting spoiled by our parents. I imagined telling him about his birthmom, who’d found a good home for him so she could go to college. I imagined not buying any stupid sports-themed baby clothes, but happily accepting any hand-me-down sports-themed baby clothes, as my idealism (already eroded by the past three years) crumbled with the reality of parenthood.

But I can totally get behind dressing our future child like an adorable elephant.
I texted with New Zealand, and talked to her for a half hour on the phone. She was sweet and polite, athletic and church-going. But over the next few days, she faded out, and so did our hopes that she was The One.

I’ve learned to grieve very efficiently. Sometimes I think this is a useful skill. Sometimes—while I’m in the throes of self-pity—I feel like a creature who exists solely to lose things, like one of those animals who has evolved for one very specific purpose. Like that insect that eats fishes’ tongues and then wedges its body into their mouths to act as the new tongue. But hopefully less disgusting.

Actual nature: somewhat less cute than a baby dressed as an elephant.
Then I realize things could be worse in a thousand ways, and I try not to let my life grind to a halt. I remember calling in sick to work once when I found out I wasn’t pregnant and was really sad. That’s the act of someone who doesn’t expect to have many bad days. Now I try to multitask while I pout.

The good part is that AK and I were pretty much on the same page throughout our little New Zealand trip, and we shared some giddiness, hopefully not for the last time. We felt readier than we’d ever been before. But while learning experiences are nice, babies are even nicer. So if you know anyone who has an extra one on the way, you know where to find us.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

the continual decoding of cheryl klein

As soon as I saw Cathy step out of her car in a short aqua dress and tall gold heels, I remembered that this was the premiere, not just a screening, of Decoding Annie Parker. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, utterly fried after four non-stop days that included a twenty-four hour trip to San Francisco. But Cathy was really excited about this, and about introducing me to some of her buddies from FORCE, the support group for BRCA-1 and -2 ladies, which was presenting the movie about the search for the breast cancer gene.

(And the Band Played On for cancer, was how I thought of it—except when I’d seen that movie, AIDS and disease of any kind seemed incredibly romantic and distant to my immortal high school self.)
AIDS movie!
Cancer movie!
My stance on FORCE was: Awesome that it exists, but it’s not my thing. First, because it’s Cathy’s thing. I wasn’t very supportive of her struggle with her fucked-up but undetonated genes, because I was busy picking shrapnel out of my own exploded body. The least I could do—as I shoved her out of my sicky spotlight—was leave her a spotlight of her own.

Second, because the subtext I read in FORCE’s celebration of “previvors” was, It’s too late for you, person who already had cancer. You’re fucked. Your best hope is to take solace in the next generation.

I want to be one of those people who takes solace in the next generation, who says, If I can save just one woman from going through what I went through, it will all be worthwhile. I specifically don’t want to be like those right-wing assholes who hate welfare because they pulled themselves up their bootstraps and think everyone else should too. In general, I think the world needs less suffering, not more.

And yet, when the pre-movie ads from various cancer organizations and corporations rolled, an old, embattled feeling reared up in me. Touching music played behind black-and-white footage of women talking about cancer. Eventually their voices merged into a sort of word collage, employing the kind of Radio Lab editing that drives me crazy. “MRI.” “Chemo.” “Fear.” “Stage 4.”

Usually I felt grateful for developments in cancer treatment and not overly concerned with the corporate infrastructure that may have begotten them. But now the movie’s sponsors looked all creepy and Big Pharma to me.

You already have my body parts. I’m not giving you money too, I thought bitterly. As if my ovaries had been turned into gold and donated to Pfizer.
What would Andy Warhol do?
I walked out of the theater and cried in the bathroom for a while. Cathy texted me: Was this a bad idea?

I came back when the movie started. It opened with a shot of two little girls watching their chemo-sick mom shuffle around the house. The voiceover said something like, My older sister Joanie was always there for me.

“Joanie’s going to die, isn’t she?” I whispered to Cathy. It wasn’t the first time the role of Cancerous Older Sister had seemed similar to that of Black Best Friend. Just a device for the real person of the movie to learn from and emote about and avenge.

They did kill off the cancerous older sister, but because the movie took place before the days of genetic testing, the younger sister wasn’t spared by cancer either. Annie, played by Samantha Morton, got both breast and ovarian cancer over the course of the movie. Morton played her as funny and quirky, but not overly upbeat. Her Annie was terrified of dying long before any diagnosis, and obsessed about the origins of her disease to the point of neglecting all else. She moaned and groaned when chemo made her sick.

Another stylish wig alternative.
And then she got better. It was only then that I realized the arc of most cancer patients in most movies: They’re Full Of Life until they’re struck down. Then they’re Incredibly Brave except for the one scene in which they admit they’re Really Scared. Then the Real Person of the movie comforts them, and then they die.

(Again, you can substitute AIDS Patient or Black Best Friend or Developmentally Disabled Person in most instances.)

I firmly believe that people who die are people too. That dying doesn’t make you more or less of a hero than living does. But it was surprisingly refreshing to see a cancer patient who lived. Who was also the Real Person character. Not to mention the refreshing-ness of an arc that mirrored real life in larger ways—ups followed by downs followed by ups followed by downs, etc.

Perhaps because of that, the movie was also very montage-y, the way biopics so often are, and the science parts of the movie were kind of contrived and confusing. Helen Hunt played Mary-Claire King, a determined researcher who spent a lot of her time dealing with male co-workers and funders who had lines like, “Silly lady doctor. Mark my words: No genetic component to breast cancer will ever be discovered, ever.”

Luckily, there's a sexy-nerdy assistant on hand to explain what DNA is.
I didn’t cry during the movie, but I did when the real Annie Parker took the stage afterward. In real life, she’d survived cancer a third time. She looked great in her tight red dress, hardly old enough to have first been diagnosed in the early seventies. She spoke like the unassuming Canadian girl she was, more casual than overly humble, and she said that the main things that had fueled her work were fear and rage.

I was so grateful to someone for saying that, not only were those emotions “understandable, considering,” but that they were useful. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

first/third world problems

1. i had to look up the spelling of rosh hashana

My boss sent me an email wishing me a happy Jewish New Year. I told her that my dad’s dad converted and became a priest and I wasn’t technically Jewish, but that I liked fresh starts of all kinds, so I’d accept her good wishes. And today was my first day back at work after surgery, and wearing something other than glorified pajamas did feel kind of first-day-of-school-ish.

(And, like many actual first days of school in SoCal, it was absurdly hot. How many times did I trek to my public high school sweating in plaids and sweaters that evoked some East Coast prep school fantasy?)

Orange is the new school year.
My convalescence was a nice balance between serious rest and writing/reading, meaning I felt like I didn’t do quite enough of either. Today I began my new life as post-cancer patient for reals. Meaning I get to spend a lot of time making sure my meds don’t give me osteoporosis (another tally mark in the Prematurely Old column) and hoping that I don’t get funky scar tissue in my radiated right boob that would require another surgery.

My college history prof liked to remind us that post-modernism was by definition linked to modernism. I would say the same of post-cancerism.

But hey, it’s all better than cancer, right? (My weary but true mantra. Also a mantra that is sometimes stated—subtly or unsubtly—to me by doctors and friends. I want to say, Yes, absolutely, I am thoroughly and genuinely grateful to be alive and have good health and health care…but when you complained about that guy who boxed you into your parking spot, did I shame you for disliking something other than cancer? Part of the glory of being alive is complaining about life!*)

2. real lives happen somewhere else

I spent a lot of my week off reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and watching a documentary called The Farmer’s Wife. The former is an epic novel about two immigrants who leave Nigeria for better educational and job opportunities. One comes to the U.S. legally and is relatively privileged—she gets a degree and has nice boyfriends and starts a blog—though her life isn’t without struggle. The other, her college sweetheart, lands in England illegally and cleans toilets and feels depressed and anxious and (spoiler alert -->) gets deported.

It’s a wonderful book for many reasons that I’ll post on Goodreads when I finish, but one thing I love is how it’s about survival. I suppose all good books are on some level, but this one breaks it down penny by penny, visa by visa.

And yet it’s also about spiritual survival. As Obinze observes: “The [British party] guests…understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave.”

Real lives happen here.
I’ve mentioned before how the idea of “first world problems” is problematic, and this novel breaks down the barrier between the first and third worlds while being more explicit about cultural/racial/economic differences than almost any other book I’ve read. If wealthy Brits and academic Americans think they’re the only ones who care about intellectual fulfillment and how their hair looks, that’s just another delusion of their caste.

The Nebraska farm family at the center of The Farmer’s Wife is less educated than Obinze and Ifemelu, although they have access to government programs and other amenities that would be off limits to Americanah’s Obinze and Ifemelu. Filmed for three years in the mid-nineties, Darrel and Juanita work from before sunup until the wee hours of the morning to maintain their small farm while earning money by working in a factory and cleaning houses, respectively.

All-American family that has been fucked by America.
It, too, is a penny-by-penny story, but it’s also the story of artistic passion and marital struggle. It’s easy to side with Juanita, who despite having only a high school education, quickly learns the business skills necessary to save them from financial ruin. All while caring for three little girls, slopping the hogs and sharing her knowledge with other local farmers. Darrel, who can be a bit of a jerk, resents her leadership and feels like less of a man. But when he talks about how much he loves planting seeds in the dirt in the moonlight, you know you’re listening to an artist. As much as farming may seem like the ultimate survival-oriented “third world” activity (why do you think so many gentlemen use their trust funds to do it?), it’s as spiritual and elevated as any poem. (And in our fucked-up factory-farm economy, it’s also a luxury.)

So, is anything that feeds you—literally—third world? And is anything that feeds your soul first world? What if something does both? What if it does neither?** If you die in a first-world way—if you get a brain tumor because you’ve had a cell phone pressed to your ear since the early nineties—are you less admirable than if you die of malaria? If you are rendered invisible by the facts of your race and immigration status, are your thoughts and emotions less nuanced than those of a tenured professor?

I have a tendency to take everything to heart, so maybe I am getting worked up about a claim no one is actually making. Adichie would say this is a very American trait, this obsession with honesty regardless of context. But, well, these are the things I think about when I’m not busy preventing osteoporosis.

*In this way maybe I am a little bit Jewish?
**I guess that would be Facebook.

Monday, September 02, 2013

review of all but four minutes of pacific rim in ten text messages

It turns out that if you have surgery during the hottest week in August, and you don’t have air conditioning, you will spend a lot of time searching for ways to keep cool without moving around a lot. And you may end up seeing a midday showing of Pacific Rim at the two-dollar theater in Pasadena,* along with every other Angeleno who has two bucks and no air conditioning.

The ticket taker warned everyone in line: “There’s a four-minute gap in the middle of the movie.” We soldiered forward anyway, not unlike fighting-machine pilots facing an apocalypse at the hands of deep-sea alien monsters.

AK was already feeling iffy about the experience—she was disappointed that World War Z was sold out, and that this theater was not the ArcLight, and that I was sending her subtle judgy vibes for being too good for the second-run theater. When we couldn’t find seats together, she said she’d meet me in two hours.

So I live-texted the movie, which I’m posting for your enjoyment here, since she wasn’t all that entertained.

You should never have flushed him down the toilet when he was little.
1. Some kid walked thru the row looking for his retainer, which is why I feel fine about txting.

2. There are the requisite nerds on hand to do the exposition. Which nerd’s strategy is better—the crippled nerd with the Hitler haircut? Or the nerd with the monster tattoos and skinny jeans?

3. Everything screams “made for the international market”—bits of Japanese, Hong Kong army base, hot Japanese love interest. & for some reason Gwen Stefani is hanging around with a sleazy Russian guy not doing anything.

4. Gwen Stefani has a Russian accent & her mecha suit has tits.

I realize that, technically, this is the suit she wears to go inside the mecha suit, which may or may not be gendered.
5. To kill the last, fiercest monster, they’re using…a giant sword.

6. Oh wait, that wasn’t the last monster, because it was pregnant! Because clearly alien clone dinosaurs give birth to live young.

7. Movie also stars a gratuitous adorable bulldog. It has more screen time than Gwen Stefani.

8. Nerds: “The monsters are totally different than we thought & here’s what we have to do instead!” Army dude: “I don’t understand your fancy nerd talk! Let’s proceed with our plan to blow shit up until we discover you’re right one minute from now!”

9. But there’s a touching father/daughter story that made me cry a little.

Her adoptive dad would die to protect her. I knew that was what my dad was saying when he kept trying to buy me an air conditioner this weekend.
10. Brave hero sacrificed himself to save world/hot Asian chick. Vaguely Freudian in relation to father/daughter story? But wait, he’s gonna live! Dog barks joyously.

*I’m explaining this to the Insurance/Time Off Police, in case I’m being tracked like one of those people who wears a neck brace to his court date, then posts pics of himself riding roller coasters.