Friday, November 29, 2013

giving thanks for stupid bullshit, and what i read in october and november

I keep thinking I should post something about gratitude—‘tis the season—but where would I even start? Almost my entire existence is a big scrap bag of other people’s kindness and the good luck of living in the time and place I do. Which is why I’m not a Republican, because it seems so thoroughly self-aggrandizing to proclaim that the self has much to do with the self. Bootstraps are a mythological creature.

It’s only because of kindness and luck that I’m alive to be grouchy that our adoption agency isn’t getting us a baby fast enough. It’s because of luck and kindness (and, okay, a certain amount of hard work—that is not a mythological creature) that there is our experience with the agency (financed by my dad), that there is an “our” (because AK has stuck it out through the hard times), that we are allowed to be parents (time and place and civil rights movements), that there is an “I” (Dr. Irina Jasper and her vigilance of my boobs, City of Hope taking it from there).

All of you with naturally made bio babies? That’s all luck and kindness too, so much of it that it’s easy to forget it wasn’t destiny or birthright. It was time and place and prenatal care. It was heterosexuality and high sperm count. It was your mom who flew out to help you, it was your friends who chipped in for the fancy stroller. I suspect there are times you feel all of this and are so grateful it brings you to your knees. I suspect there are other times when it feels like destiny and birthright, and you’re annoyed that even the fancy stroller snags on doorways and is covered in kid puke.

Looks like a spaceship, costs $850.
It’s only because I live in a time and place of abundant food that I’m here to be neurotically contemplating—possibly like you—that I should lose five pounds. Not because I’m overweight, but because the American Cancer Society’s web page said, with specific regard to breast cancer prevention, I should be “as thin as possible without being underweight.” Other cancers got a nice, middle-of-the-road “maintain a healthy body weight.” (Hold me accountable, blog readers: This holiday season, the sugarplums need to dance in my head only.)

We were so innocent back before we ate that apple!
So I’m grateful for opportunities to be angry and petty. After September 11, 2001, The Onion ran a story with the headline “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” The accompanying picture included Britney Spears with a snake on her shoulders. Sometimes I really don’t care about stupid bullshit the way I used to, pre-three-years-of-drama, and I’m grateful for that. Other times I love getting worked up about tacky people on Facebook, or the possibly-too-helmet-like look of my hair, or the fact that Starbucks still doesn’t offer almond milk.

Because it’s the little things that make life beautiful.

Here’s what I read in October and November:

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin: There's a particular kind of queer kid--and okay, maybe I was one--who knows he and/or she has something troubling to compensate for long before he/she/etc. even understands what that thing is. Max, one of a handful of narrators in this thoughtful, believable, freshly voiced YA novel, has spent the first sixteen years of his life trying to be the perfect straight-A, soccer-playing golden boy to make up for the fact that he is intersex, a condition that caused his parents much stress in the beginning. But this notion of personal deficit is a damning kind of math, as we all learn eventually (it took me till my thirties, but Max is both luckier and unluckier).

Abigail Tarttelin--glamorous and fortunate, but at least she's given a lot of thought to the arbitrary origins of glamour and good fortune.
Tarttelin juggles lots of very-special-episode issues: sexuality, gender, rape, teen pregnancy and divorce, and there are many places the novel could have gone terribly wrong. To be honest, I went in with a small chip on my shoulder simply because Tarttelin is young and glamorous-seeming, and I wondered if the book was getting overly hyped because of it. But she embodies all her characters with love and unflinching honesty, from Max's quirky little brother to the GP who is more caring than the many medical specialists Max sees. The plot unrolls tightly but not overly neatly. The issue of abortion is treated with more openness and complexity that it is in the U.S., where both sides of the debate have a death-grip on their respective narratives. For all its serious topics, the book is something of a page-turner, and never feels heavy. It is young in the best way--lithe and spirited and real.

Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin by Kathy Griffin: A while ago I read an article by a published-but-unfamous fiction writer who described herself as a "ham and eggs" writer (a baseball term, apparently; who knew these things?)--a hard worker, a solid contributor, not a genius people lose their shit over. I see myself as the same. So it was fun to read a memoir by someone who, for much of her career, was a ham and eggs comedian. Even when her other friends were getting super famous. Kathy Griffin *is* incredibly funny and talented, mostly because she's brutally honest about her own limitations, from her inability to do characters to her habit of being "always on" (for better and worse) to her kind of tragic marriage. I came away with even more respect for her. Even if this book isn't as tightly crafted as Mindy Kaling's or Tina Fey's, it's a little more human.

Shirley Wins by Todd Taylor: Given that the title tells us the ending (Shirley wins a local pumpkin-launching contest after months of trial-and-error catapult-making), it seems fair to say this isn't a plot-oriented book. Rather, it's about the process--of birthing, making, laboring, engineering your thing (whether it's art or science) into existence. Shirley is a quiet sixty-year-old with a government job and a granddaughter she's raised from birth. It's nice to see such an uncommon protagonist, and Taylor clearly has a lot of love for her, even though he drops bowling balls and cans of paint on her. He describes her work in sharp, artful detail that reminds me of Ron Carlson and makes me think Taylor has built a thing or two in his time. The book will appeal to the mechanically minded and to those mystified by those little plastic anchors that come with Ikea shelves (guess which category I fall into). The novel illuminates the simple and complex pleasures of hands-on tasks and problem-solving like few others I've read. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to other parts of Shriley's life, and could have used a few more, in addition to more conflict--I wondered if Taylor's love for Shirley also made him a bit too protective of her. But this is one of those novels whose kindness and elegant language I find staying with me well after finishing it.
Shirley's punk rock granddaughter.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson: As with her memoir The Red Parts, Nelson combines brutal personal honesty about life's darkest threads with scholarly historical research in this collection of what might be called short essays or prose poems, although "bluets" seems like the truly perfect word, and I will always think of each as a bluet. As I read, I found myself highlighting many passages and, when I'd put the book down, seeing and craving blue like never before. Blue is a metaphor for sexual desire (think of comedians who "work blue"), depression ("the blues") and one specific relationship she's mourning, as well as the color itself. Nothing is just one thing. Although I came to the end abruptly, feeling slightly unfulfilled--as if there was an arc here that petered out--maybe that's part of the point. Either way, Nelson is among those writers whose work has an indescribably meaty quality for me that's as riveting and crave-able as the color blue.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: The mystery--who caused the dancehall fire that killed twenty-some people in a small Ozarks town during Prohibition?--kept me turning pages, although the many characters, zigzagging chronology and dense language don't make for a particularly quick read, despite the book's novella length. But I mean that in a good way--this story is as rich as the meat bones heroine Alma smuggles home after her employer has discarded them. Woodrell wants us to take a second look at everything, to see that the good guys aren't as good as they seem, and the bad guys aren't as bad.

The fire that one time.
The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress by Scott Nadelson: Like me, Scott Nadelson fears he's cursed his cat with a disease that runs in his family. Like me, Scott Nadelson sometimes believes himself to be a doomed loser and sometimes believes he's a genius. He has this thought, which I have also had: "I woke to face another day and thought, with relief, It could be worse. And then I thought, with a chill rising from the very depths of my being, It could be worse."

So maybe I am the next Scott Nadelson?

I loved this memoir, a collection of connected essays about reading and loneliness and the ideas people have about themselves. (Unlike Scott Nadelson, I don't spend four hours a day reading Kafka. But I like the idea of myself as someone who might.) He's simultaneously very self-conscious and very sincere; he's ruthless in documenting his own pretensions and flights of fancy, whether trying to impress a girl in his documentary filmmaking class or imagining the impact he's made on a Ukrainian student. The connections--with women and students--do come, but never in the ways or at the times literature has taught him to expect. This is a story about getting tripped up by your own stories about yourself, and being saved by stories about others. It is exactly what I needed.

Friday, November 22, 2013


AK and I miss the days when Plum Sykes had a regular column in Vogue. She was always writing about hanging out with Gwyneth Paltrow, or what she was going to wear to some sort of semi-royal gala, or her bold decision to bob her hair, or her new discovery of the color olive. She presented everything as a charming dilemma, and I always imagined a princess standing in front of an immense closet, hands clasped perplexedly as servants scurry about.

What? Oh, just having a few friends including my bestie Gwynnie over.
Once she wrote about her chronic back pain and I was like, Oh my god, Plum Sykes has a real problem! I think she solved it with a spa treatment and an intense workout routine that enabled her to wear a fabulous backless gown to the semi-royal gala of the month.

Vogue has since replaced Plum Sykes with Elisabeth Von Thurn und Taxis, who I think is an actual princess from some Swiss-ish country. I don’t adore her as much as Plum, but her piece in the December issue, about wearing precious gems in her hair, is pretty fantastic.

A lion: the perfect accessory.
She writes about wearing hair-jewelry to various premieres and galas, naturally, and provides historical and familial context. As a child, she loved watching her mom lay out her heirloom jewels. (The Stunningly Dressed Mother And Her Mystical Beauty Rituals is a required character in any Vogue nostalgia piece. Although my mom had plenty of style, my childhood memories are of her sifting through sale racks and alternating between brands of drugstore lipstick.) Elisabeth recalls her Hungarian grandmother fleeing communism in 1951 with nothing but a few jewels tucked into her bra.

That was when I checked the byline and realized this refugee story could also be one of the wealthy fleeing a people’s revolution. I mean, I’m not saying that communism did many favors for the people of Eastern Europe, but I doubt Elisabeth Von TNT’s grandma did either, you know?

Hair jewelry, also known as A CROWN.
I’ve long accepted and embraced that Vogue is an aspirational fantasy publication, one that declares any dress under $500 a “steal” and profiles socialites as if they were truly handbag designers and not rich girls who’ve monetized the art of shopping. The editors pretend they’re writing for people who buy $100 “hostess gifts”*, and we pretend we are those people. It’s a good time.

Still, the December issue is extra, extra Let Them Eat Cake.

Besides the hair-jewelry article, there is a piece on “The Fasting Diet”—which involves not eating food—and an entire spread featuring models dressed as Dickensian street urchins. Each page includes a quote from Dickens. I don’t know which book(s) they’re from because I only read the Cliffs Notes for A Tale of Two Cities, but I do know that Dickens was trying to highlight very real social problems of his time. Does the passage of time make it inoffensive? In a hundred years, will Vogue feature a spread inspired by neglected kids in foster care or inner-city drug wars?

Wait, don’t answer that.

Don't get me wrong--I like a boyish girl in a newsie cap.


*I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a non-edible hostess gift, period. Maybe this is why I don’t get invited to more parties.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

blog as you are: kim miller

Kim Miller has frequently been the only entity standing between me and a full hypochondriac breakdown. She lives a few blocks away from us in Highland Park, but right now she's at a melanoma conference in Philadelphia, which is how the medical jet-set rolls. Here's how she spent a recent day there:*

Kim, her daughter Bea and a chicken wearing a monocle, I think.
7:00 AM: My iPhone alarm goes off, set to Digital—the sound that most captures how I feel in the morning, disoriented and robotic.  I’m at the Philadelphia Marriott, room 1244, in town for the 2013 Society for Melanoma Research Congress. I have two scientific posters on melanoma prevention in the conference, one of only 4-prevention focused posters (and the other two are from my research team).

7:50 AM: Sonia, the 4th year med student who I’m sharing my hotel room with, and I head downstairs for the pre-conference breakfast. We’re moving fast because breakfast ends at 8 AM. We manage to snag some food and coffee and sit down at a table. A sleek woman sits down next to us and introduces herself. She’s a fellow in medical oncology from New York. She asks me what I do and I realize I’m not sure exactly what to say. “I, uh, am getting my Ph.D. in Preventive Medicine, or Public Health, or Health Behavior Research.” None of them seem quite right, but all are true. We’re late for the opening panel so we don’t really talk much more than that anyway.

8:30 AM: We enter halfway through the first presentation which is about putting sunscreen and protective clothing on mice and exposing them to ultraviolet radiation. It seems protective clothing works better to prevent the mice from developing melanoma, as sunscreen offers only partial protection. His talk will be the last I understand, because after that it’s all about MAPK (ERK) inhibitors and oncogenes and whatnot. One researcher acknowledges his mice, which is nice.

But the verdict is still out on rats in hula skirts.
10:00: It’s coffee break time, but only for melanoma! I’m guessing the sign is intended to  deter risk managers, who are having their own conference down the hall from us, from stealing our coffee. But I don’t think they need to, because I am pretty sure they can afford their own coffee.

Coffee better not cause cancer. IT'S ALL I HAVE LEFT.
12:00: Lunchtime. Sonia and I grab food from the Chinese buffet and stand at a table to eat. A kind-faced German researcher joins us. He introduces himself and asks us about our work; he studies adverse reactions to immunotherapies. An older bearded American man comes over to our table and immediately engages the German, ignoring Sonia and me. He brags about the transcription pathway he named in the 1980s to impress the German, and basically turns his back on me but gesticulates near my face while I'm trying to eat. I’m like, WTF, and move closer to Sonia. The German tries to include us in the conversation but the bearded American is too dominant and the German gives up.

2:00: I’m back in the hotel room to rest and do some work. I write emails, send some texts, and work on my structural equation modeling term paper. I’m super-tired and contemplate taking a nap, but that’d be crazy, right?

3:00: I’m semi-napping and get a flurry of emails from my Principal Investigator about a new potential study he’s all enthused for us to do. I realize that conferences give him Ideas, which then gives me more Work. Not sure that's so great.

5:00: Poster time! They are having an evening poster showing reception. The presenting author is required to stand next to the poster and desperately try to engage anyone within radius in conversation.

I bet that New Kids on the Block poster you had when you were twelve couldn't prevent cancer, could it?
5:45: No one but members of my research team have spoken to me about my posters so far. Finally, a man comes over and is interested in the work we’re doing with melanoma prevention and kids. He has a 7 year old. We talk about kids…and a little about our study. I feel desperately grateful for his attention.

6:00: An actual Swedish person is interested in my poster! She reads it in depth, asks several questions, and asks for my contact information. Maybe I can go to Sweden!

6:30: I have a long talk with the health economist who has the poster next to mine. She’s sweet and we compliment each other’s work. She gives me her card and tells me that any time I need a health economist to give her a call. That actually is a lot more useful than it sounds.

This little piggy did not eat roast beef. Because eating red meat contributes to cancer.
7:00: My PI comes over and tells me to go talk to poster #115, who turns out to be my Australian doppelganger, a woman from Perth who is doing population based research on melanoma. She wears the same kind of eyeglasses I do and we have one of those animated talks full of shared references, hand waving, and brainstorming. My colleague Loraine calls her Australian Kim. Maybe I can go to Perth!

8:00: Sonia, Loraine, and our PI find a restaurant with sufficient beer choices to please our PI and proceed to drink, gossip and jibber-jabber in the way you do when you’re in a strange city with colleagues after a long day. 

11:00: Three hours more of working on my term paper and I really should go to bed. Tomorrow morning begins genomics, and more incomprehensibility for basic-science-challenged me. Sonia flies back to LA tomorrow to work a 7-7 ER rotation and I’m heading in the evening to my cousin’s in Philly to spend two days with family.  I’ll miss the liminal conference space. Apparently next year the congress is being held in Switzerland, but my PI has given me a pretty clear indication that’s not going to happen for me.

Yeah, but does Switzerland have a signature sandwich? (Swiss cheese steak?)

*Guess what? The Blog As You Are Project is an ongoing thing for as long as you good people care to send me write-ups of your day. Just email them, with a picture, to cheryl.e.klein[at]

Monday, November 18, 2013

heirs to los angeles

I was supposed to visit Tracy in Joshua Tree this past weekend, but her mom had some health stuff (shout-out to Bev Kaply!), so we postponed. I was sad not to see Tracy, but found time is always a bit of a silver lining.

Yesterday AK and I found ourselves with the kind of weekend day we used to have back before she worked an average of six and a half days a week. We slept till nine. I made blueberry walnut pancakes. We hiked Debs Park, where we watched the world’s second most energetic dog catch air and practically take flight as he chased a ball thrown by his similarly athletic person. His person had another dog, a curly mix who was content to walk the trail at a reasonable pace.

AK did that dog’s voice: “Oh, you know…I just like to read.”

I added on: “Brunch would be nice too.”

We bought DayQuil for AK, who caught my cold this past week, and antidepressants for me and anti-aging moisturizer for both of us, because it’s time to find out if that shit works, at Target. Then we went to the Natural History Museum, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t been to since it reopened. I really wanted to see the Becoming L.A. exhibit (although a part of me also mourns the old California hall, with its earth tones and wagons and dioramas of mission life; because I love how museums are museums of themselves, first and foremost).

As someone who grew up loving sepia and bonnets, I’m always extra thrilled to see old-timey photos of my own people—in this case, Angelenos. My family has lived in Southern California for four generations (with the exception of my paternal grandmother, who moved here from England as a kid). I looked for them in the photos of canneries (mom’s side) and the aviation industry (dad’s side). AK’s family has been here almost as long. She looked for her last name on the list of L.A.’s founding families, just in case.

“It would be nice to discover you were heir to some sort of unclaimed land grant,” I agreed.

Gov. Pio Pico and family. No relation to AK, alas.
I found that list, reprinted in the original Spanish and listing the gender, race and age of each family member, fascinating too. A lot of the founders were listed as “mulato” or “mulata,” but I hadn’t read anything about significant number of African Americans living in L.A. in the nineteenth century, so I had some of the same questions I had back in Puerto Rico. Obsessively, I calculated how old each woman was when she had her children. The human brain can’t help but apply narrative to even the driest census, so there I was, thinking about the woman who had three girls—probably a liability in those days—and kept trying for a boy. She had him at age thirty-seven. It must have been a big risk back then, but maybe having a son was a thing you risked your life for. Or maybe they were just really Catholic and she got pregnant because she got pregnant.

There were plenty of women who started having babies at seventeen or eighteen, but also more than a few who hadn’t had their first until their late twenties.

“I guess there’s always more variation than you hear about,” AK said.

I geeked out hard on a room-sized model of Downtown L.A. as it looked in 1940, honing in on Bunker Hill, still home to a cluster of Victorian homes that, even then, were dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. I thought of The Exiles. There were screens placed on the sides of the model, where you could peruse a digital version of the map with your fingers and zoom in on certain neighborhoods and landmarks.

Model city.
I sighed happily and told AK, “This is all I ever want, really. To fly over the city and magically be able to dip into some point in the past and just watch it on video.”

The museum closed and we visited our friends Jennifer and Joel, who are in the process of moving to Ojai and thinking about all the things in L.A. they’ll miss.

“Like potato tacos at Chano’s,” Jennifer said as we walked past it. “I know we can come back anytime and go there. But we won’t.”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2 years a mourner

“I know it’s a hard day,” Cathy said when I met her at my dad’s house for dinner Monday night. I immediately teared up. You don’t really expect your family to remember what would be your miscarried twins’ second birthday. It hadn’t been a particularly hard day, but I’d thought about them, definitely. As always, the voice of move on, move on was strong in my head.

She noticed I was wearing my pea pod necklace she gave me for my thirty-fourth birthday, the one birthday I was pregnant (although I guess no one but an elephant is pregnant for two birthdays). Twin green pearls representing the little peas in my pod.

I guess if an elephant did miscarry, she would never forget it.
“Thanks,” I said, all choked up. I was walking around our dad’s kitchen. I opened the fridge. “Hey! Pudding!”

Cathy laughed. I was still sad, but not as hard to distract as I once was.

Later AK and I held onto each other and devoted a moment to them, in bed, both of us exhausted, an old John Sayles lesbian movie called Lianna playing on my laptop in the background, me coughing and waiting for the NyQuil to kick in. I was glad for her and for my health (cold aside), and I hoped awesome things would happen this year.

On Friday we saw 12 Years a Slave at the Landmark in Westwood; I knew I’d immediately be shamed re: my own stupid problems.

It was a really good movie in all kinds of big and little ways, but my favorite moment, the one I want to write about, is when Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a musician kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in Louisiana, attends a makeshift funeral for a man who drops dead picking cotton. At this point he’s no stranger to the brutality and—almost worse—the bizarre, ever-shifting politics of plantation life. He knows what he must do to survive. During his most fortunate moments, he’s been able to play the violin for pleasure, for pay or for a diabolical slave master who loves to make his exhausted field hands dance in the middle of the night.

Changing his tune.
But the slaves are unfamiliar with his brand of music. At the funeral, they sing a spiritual a cappella, and Solomon stands silent and alone. Then something shifts on his sad, angry face, and he begins singing along with them. Roll, Jordan, roll. He is still sad and angry, but he’s no longer alone. The shift is an act of surrender, but not, this time, to a slave owner. He looks skyward. This is what people mean when they say “Let go and let God.”

To some, that phrase might mean “God’s in control. I don’t know what his plan is, but I’ll accept it.” I have a personal beef with that interpretation, because I don’t think God is that mean or that powerful. To me the phrase, and the moment in the movie, mean “I’m not in control, but all is not lost. I still have God and love.”

This is the moment Solomon becomes free. This is the moment he accepts that he is a slave—not in the sense of being owned (because no one ever can be, truly), but in the sense that he is no different from his fellow workers. Until now, he has understandably held himself apart from this group of uneducated people who’ve never contemplated freedom as more than a pipe dream. Who look the other way when one of their friends is beaten, because they have to.

But as he begins to sing with them, Solomon seems to understand that he is not better than them, and they are not worse than him. They know something that he will benefit from learning. They support each other in ways he can access only if he gets down in the river with them, in their low throaty vocals, their happy-sad swaying. Roll, Jordan, roll.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

pr travel journal, 11/1: fellow travelers

Friday, 11/1

1. san francisco, patron saint of animals, merchants and stowaways

San Juan felt like arriving back home after our vacation-within-a-vacation. Outside our hostel, Posada San Francisco, we saw the guy from our kayak tour we’d been calling “San Francisco” (for the city in California, not the street in San Juan that our hostel was on).

Posada San Francisco on Calle San Francisco.
“Are you stalking me or am I stalking you?” He had a lilting Indian accent.

We invited him to join us for dinner after we all got a chance to check in and change.

This time our room was on the sixth floor, similarly spare but to the point of having no shelves or clothing rods in the closet. As with our previous room, there was a wooden cross above the bed.

No bible in the drawer, though, because there are no drawers.
One of the nice things about traveling is that you don’t necessarily learn the most textbook things about each other first. We learned that Hakim had gone tavern-diving in the Yucatan and evaded several speeding tickets and signed up to take French in school because the teacher was pretty before we learned anything about his family or what he did for a living.

But that stuff came out too; he’d grown up in Bangalore, studied electrical engineering at Stanford and worked for startups. He liked traveling, he said, becaue he didn’t have to talk about startups with everyone he met. I knew what he meant. Sometimes the sentence “We make small grants for literary events” felt like rocks falling out of my mouth.

Hakim lived in Pacific Heights. I remembered an article I’d read in Vanity Fair about old money and tech money colliding on one specific, coveted block of mansions in Pacific Heights. In his early thirties, I guessed, Hakim was probably a smidge too young for that block, but he was contemplating taking a month or more off to travel, so his startups must have been doing okay.

He was friendly and funny and wanted to know what AK’s psychology training enabled her to guess about him. It was fun hanging out with someone new. At home I was always competing for one-on-one time with AK, the energetic extrovert, but after a week alone-together time, I welcomed the mild wild card of another person.

We wandered uphill to San Sebastian Street, a strip of Old San Juan aimed at wealthier tourists. T-shirt shops gave way to Gucci. The blue cobblestone was shiny from the afternoon rain.

The view from San Sebastian (in daylight).
We went to a bar with a beer menu as thick as a binder of karaoke songs. While we flipped through it, Hakim asked if there was anything about him that read as gay, because twice recently—including yesterday in Esperanza—guys had hit on him.

I told him it was because he dressed nicely, which he did. Trim plaid shirt, straw fedora. He’d just wondered if there were one specific thing, he said; if he was communicating something he didn’t know about himself. His guess was his intricately trimmed facial hair. We agreed that it was a likely contributing factor.

We talked about salsa dancing and who would lead, AK or me. AK explained the difference between gender expression and sexuality. She’s always maintained that our problem is we’d both want to follow. I’ve always maintained that I’m terrible at all partner dancing, and especially salsa. Give me an empty dance floor and some hip-hop or lyrical jazz. When it comes to dancing, I’m a much better fake black girl than fake Latina girl.

AK at the Nuyorican Cafe salsa, etc. club.
We were joined by Billy and Samantha, a couple we (Hakim, really) had met outside our hostel. They had an REI wholesomeness about them; it made sense that they’d flown in from Anchorage to do a surfing/rock climbing tour of the Caribbean. For months! They’d bought a one-way ticket.

2. first class envy

Who were these people who wanted to and could quit their jobs and travel for months at a time? Earlier that day, when we’d stopped for coconut rice and tostones at a strip of beachside kiosks in Luquillo, I’d remembered out loud how much I’d envied those world travelers when I was in my twenties. They’d seemed cooler, more noble, full of wisdom I wasn’t permitted to question.

There is wisdom in the coconut-rice pyramids of Luquillo.
And then I’d realized there wasn’t a discernible difference, in settled people in their mid-thirties, between those who’d globe-trotted and those who hadn’t. We had all learned and grown one way or another, in Bangkok or Valencia. I started to own my own provincialism, and my envy shriveled.

I realized that this was/is how I see people with children now: as if they have secret knowledge I must submit to. Cancer gave me a bit of a trump card, if a depressing one. I’d learned all those lessons about ceding control and seizing the day too, and maybe moms would be forced into an (un-envying) awe of me, dammit.

A difference between the mysterious wisdom of travel and the mysterious wisdom of parenthood is, of course, that I never tried to travel. I could have joined the Peace Corps or taught English in Tokyo or bartended on a beach in Puerto Rico, and I chose not to. Now I’m doing the parenting equivalent of trying to board a flight that constantly gets delayed. Two and a half years ago I got on the plane and taxied around the runway for a while, and then was shuffled back to the gate while I watched line after line of my peers take flight, all seemingly in first class. (I know the reality is probably that they’re in economy, trying to cram their bags in the overhead bin and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups.)

I sit in this metaphorical airport knowing that their destinations are no more and no less fraught with heartache and wisdom, Starbucks and locals of all stripes, than LAX. But I still don’t want to live at LAX; I’m still not ready to give up and go home.

Monday, November 11, 2013

pr travel journal, 10/31: for a small fee in america

10/31, Thursday

1. life of oh my

The last part of our day in Esperanza was a kayak tour of Mosquito Bay (not to be confused with Mosquito Pier), a shallow lagoon inhabited by microorganisms—three hundred thousand per gallon—that glowed when anything touched them. After a bumpy van ride to the water, our guides,  Carlitos and Joshua, led seven kayaks of tourists—mostly Californians—into the dark bay.

We all had blue lights clipped to the front of our boats, and Carlitos had a green light in his springy pontyail (guys with would-be Afros can rock the ponytail look so much better than guys with thin, silky hair). When we dipped our paddles in the bathtub-warm water, they made bluish white trails, like glow-in-the-dark bubbles. The kayaks across from ours had thin glowing lines at the spot where yellow plastic touched water, like Hondas bound for a late-night racetrack. Zigzagging fish became bolts of lightning. When we cupped our hands, we cradled stars.

I decided Ang Lee must have visited this place before directing Life of Pi.

Like this, but with less tigers.
I lay back in our kayak and stretched out my-crunched up back. The stars looked like the bay. We paddled close to trees whose roots arched into the water and made shelters for fish. We paddled back out, where Joshua had turned his kayak into a stand-up paddle board. He played eighties songs from his phone, changing the lyrics to “I hope that Carlitos will get my message in a boootle….”

“That song’s old, yeah?” he said.

“It’s a classic,” AK said.

“From the eighties,” Joshua agreed. “I was born in the eighties.”

Earlier he and Carlitos had told us they were hundreds of years old, but tha the water in this fountain of youth kept them young.

2. message unbottled

The California kayakers included Kelly and Danny, white kids from Oakland. Kelly had a long braid and was a lawyer. Danny was kind of genderqueer, biologically male with short blond hair, Capri pants, strappy flip flops and big gold hoop earrings. He worked as a community organizer. They’d been in San Juan for an annual Lawyer’s Guild conference, the theme of which was Puerto Rican independence, especially as it pertained to some recent university protests. Danny was friendly and passionate and a little hard to follow, throwing out anti-colonial buzzwords as if we were all planning a protest together.

“Do they pay y’all good?” he called to Carlitos from his kayak.

“Yes, they do,” Carlitos assured him. It was probably a good gig by Vieques standards, and a fun one, but would he really have said so if it wasn’t? Did it occur to anti-colonial Danny that a colonial, tourist economy came with a need to present oneself as happy, laidback, taking genuine joy in pouring you a glass of rum punch or whatever?

I mean, maybe it did occur to Danny, but I found myself thinking about how young people sometimes have more community spirit and older people have more empathy. Sometimes.

We crowded in the back seat of the van and Danny talked more about the Puerto Rican independence movement, which he admitted was small.

The movement is at least big enough to fill a page of Google image search results.
“It seems like it would be challenging to gain support for,” I said, feeling conspicuously right wing, “when there are so many advantages to being an American citizen—”

“But they aren’t citizens,” Danny interrupted. “They can’t vote, but they can still get drafted. Puerto Rico is literally a colony, but we can’t call it that because colonies are illegal under international law.”

Agreed, it’s thoroughly fucked up that PR and Guam and American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands have no representation in congress. The remnants of colonialism are everywhere, and they’re not just remnants—the Spanish fort at the top of the hill, the poverty below it.

Fort in background. But if you tried to ride these horses into battle, they'd be like, "Um, take your colonial ass elsewhere."
But Danny reminded me of the people who, in 2000, claimed George W. Bush was exactly the same as Al Gore. There’s a luxury in dismissing or equating everything that’s not radical. Sometimes radicalism comes from people who are so oppressed they have nothing to lose, and sometimes from people who are so privileged they have nothing at stake.

I suspect Daniela’s family would love to be “non-citizens” of the Puerto Rican variety. Then they could go to school, get jobs without a fake social security number, visit Mexico again. I suspect the majority of Puerto Ricans would take opportunity over independence. Maybe that’s a problem. Maybe that’s how you get China. I genuinely don’t know. Freedom without stability and stability without freedom both kind of suck.

Danny talked about America’s secret political prisoners. I suggested Craig Santos Perez’s poetry to him and thought about how Craig would make a much more convincing case for Puerto Rican independence if he were here, and how I’m such a snob—wrap any idea up in a bow of complexity and intelligence and I’m in. Approach it ham-fistedly and I’ll take you down in a blog entry weeks after the fact. (Take that!)

Danny said something about forced sterilizations in Puerto Rico at some unnamed point in history.

“That happens so many places,” I said, thinking about the poor whites Matt Wray wrote about. And, always, my own little ovaries, how I’d signed them away, how I had no one to be angry at but myself and the genetic lottery.

I know it’s fucked up to say this—I know better than to think I even mean it, really—but every now and then I long for something so simple as oppressor.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

pr travel journal, 10/30: snorkeling for bluets

10/30/13, Wednesday

We asked a cab driver to take us to Mosquito Pier, the snorkeling spot recommended by the guy at Blackbeard, where we rented our snorkel gear (everyone had an opinion about which beach was best, but we gave his a little more weight). She dropped us off in the middle of a long needle of land with waves on one side and still water on the other. 

I didn't have my camera with me that day, but luckily there is the internet, to remind you your experiences are not unique.
We saw a sandy spot, but how to get to it without hacking our way through the jungle? Then a small road appeared out of nowhere, and there was the beach. Snorkeling, it turned out, was easy and fun. You could swim and breathe at the same time! And look at things! The breathing had always been the hardest part of swimming for me to figure out.

We finned along a wall of rocks, taking in the tiny tropical worlds inches below the surface. Layers of coral and gray-green grass and dark plum-colored plants like underwater kale. Suddenly I knew what all the tanks in the fish aisle at Petco were trying to approximate. And there were the fish themselves: striped, polka-dotted, electric blue (I just finished Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, not to mention a half dozen fashion magazines, and have been craving blues accordingly). Pinky-sized fish, flat angel fish, palm-sized fish, one torpedo-shaped fish, Dory fish and a whole swarm of nearly invisible little guys who looked like sperm do under a microscope. (Yes, looking at sperm under a microscope is just one of the joys of fertility treatment.) 

This is pretty much what it looked like underwater.
I touched a couple of fat yellow sea stars with red bumps, and dark blue marbles that clung to the rocks. Eggs? Turtle eggs?

“I want to see just one baby turtle born,” I told AK.

Our cab driver took us to Esperanza on the other side of the island, which was the one-strip beach town I’d expected Isabel Segunda to be. We ate lunch at Lazy Jack’s, a salmon-colored burger shack and hostel where two dogs made big eyes at us and a little boy tested how far he could spit water from his cup. His grandma only chided him when he almost spit on the café owner.

We walked to Sun Bay, where the tide was so mellow it was almost comatose. AK rested and waded while I collected sea glass in a plastic cup. I went all OCD on my task, falling deep into it like a little kid. Lately, whenever I felt like a kid, it meant I was insecure or powerless or playing out attachment issues I’d had with my mom. It was nice, instead, to pluck smooth pebbles of white, green, brown and—occasionally—aqua glass from the sand, to want to run and show them to AK. Look at this curved one, look at this one with bumps, this polished ring of bottle top.

Sea glass is like nature's Pinterest board.
Now I’m sitting on the brick path called the Malecón, refreshed after a nap on a  wooden bench belonging to a hibernating outdoor bar. Like a true beach bum. It was maybe among the top five naps of my life.

The water is denim-blue and clean. Two small lush islands sprout off the coast—islands off an island off an island, the world ever smaller, more remote, infinite.

Friday, November 08, 2013

pr travel journal, 10/29: chasing waterfalls

10/29/13, Tuesday

1. welcome to the rainforest

After a morning of thwarted laundry, we set out for El Yunque, the rainforest and national park in the center-east of the island. As soon as we saw a sign that said Welcome to the Rainforest, something in me shifted—a tension I wasn’t even aware of released, and I started to cry. So I know, now, that hypnotherapy is working, because the rainforest is my mental safe place. Don’t laugh.

Que pasó, El Yunque?
We explored a visitor’s center built like a tree house and sat impatiently as a bossy, faux-friendly guide narrated a map that only had one road.

Then we took off up that road toward the mountainous cloud forest in the heart of El Yunque. I tried not to be the asshole who constantly talked about one rainforest expedition while on another. But: El Yunque was quite American with its well marked roads and trails, whereas Bako was wild and tricky to navigate. I remembered B staying behind at the cabin, fuming that Ryan had sprung a camping trip on her, as Ryan and I roamed red and white streams in the rain.

“Were you nervous when you got lost?” AK asked.

“A little. But I turned things over to Ryan more than I should have.”

“He wasn’t lost?”

“No, he was totally lost, but he was well traveled enough that it didn’t make him worry.”

Now I wasn’t so quick to cede control to another person, or to hang onto it in other situations. Now I was with someone who sought out active, exercise-y stuff for us to do on vacation. Now the forest was green instead of rainbow-hued, with the exception of some bushes with skinny red blooms and giant leaves with white undersides, spread out on the forest floor like exhausted ghosts.

Ghost leaf.

Note handrail behind us. The trail was practically wheelchair accessible.
We hiked a paved trail to La Mina Falls, which looked a lot like the waterfall in Eaton Canyon in terms of size and crowdedness. For a second we were all, “Meh.” Then AK decided to swim in her shorts and sports bra (so, it was warmer than Eaton Canyon at the very least). I had no swimsuit on, no sports bra or regular bra, no shoes that would take less than an hour or ten to dry and no real desire to swim.

But it was fun to watch AK swim, and I took a million pictures, like a proud parent.

Look, esposa, no hands!

2. little vieques ykleinra?

We headed back to PR-3, toward the ferry town of Fajardo, the launching point for trips to Culebra and Viques and their legendary beaches. We fought about our different takes on a New Yorker article and missed a turn.

Friends again, we pulled up to the Moonlight Bay Hostel, a low peach building on a small residential street. It had a barred porch, a big-pawed brown puppy running around, and a blaring TV. It had functional WiFi, and I checked my email for the first time in three days. Of course we’d gotten a friendly adoption contact two days ago, from a twenty-two-year-old white girl named Maddy, living in Georgia. I replied, apologized, sent her my phone number. It’s been fourteen hours and we haven’t heard anything.* Now we’re on a ferry boat to Vieques and I keep thinking what a great name that would be for a kid, boy or girl.

3. closed on tuesdays

The $2 ferry dropped us off midmorning. We made our way uphill through warm rain, and it was hard to know whether the drops on my skin were rain or sweat. Isabel Segunda was a country town, an island town. Old cars, bright houses like the ones we’d seen in Corozal, but more worn by weather and poverty. The phrase “jungle rot” came to mind.

Rush hour in Isabel Segunda.

The Seagate Hotel was at the top of a hill, across from the last fort of the Spanish Empire, built between 1845 and 1855. Now it housed an art gallery and a community radio station, as all forts should. The Seagate is white and stops just short of sprawling; it’s charming and rustic. Our room has a quilt, a fan, eclectic local art, a toilet paper holder made out of a twig, an aggressively friendly gray-and-peach cat who made herself at home on the bed. We named her Carla.

AK reads a National Geographic from 1993.
We chatted with owner Penny and her niece, who ran the hotel and the small herd of horses at the back of the property, then strolled into town. The power had gone out just before we got in; it came back on minutes after we checked in, but a good two thirds of the town stayed closed. Siesta culture—enviable but inconvenient. It also seemed that nothing was open on Tuesdays, as if this one day were an exception to all the town’s rules. We bought a few things at the health food store, which stocked Lara Bars and gluten-free cereal, but not a single fresh fruit or vegetable. At the “super”market, there were big gaps like missing teeth on the produce shelves. Lots of frying oil, though.

Anyone want a fruit salad made with pineapple and oranges and nothing else?
We ate lunch at Bieke’s Bistro, where I played with a wooden puzzle for an inordinately long time. We wandered and sweated, sweated and wandered through the nearly empty town. As it turned out, the beaches in Isabel Segunda weren’t very lounging-friendly. The only one with any significant sand was occupied by a homeless-ish man who’d built a hut from a bamboo mat and was doing something in the water with a giant rock.

Lord of the mosquitoes.
We landed at Al’s Mar Azul, a divey open-air bar plastered with old license plates and comic placards. It seemed to be the hangout for English-speaking locals of the beer-at-11-a.m. variety. They were a sun-damaged bunch. There was a shelf of equally weathered books, and I started reading a nineties mystery romance called Sugar Baby. I felt like each page made me a worse writer.

The younger of the ex-pats are behind me. The older ones are inside, using laptops and recovering from dental work.
I checked our adoption email on AK’s phone. Nothing. AK and I argued briefly about my adoption-related anxiety, which I thought was very much in check. She thought otherwise. I turned back to my beer and my bad book. We came together again after maybe fifteen minutes. She wanted a baby, she said, she just resented the stress of this process.

“Whereas I chase after it like a puppy and blame myself when things go wrong,” I said.

We made up. AK was a little drunk on rum punch. We finished with an early dinner at the nearly deserted Mr. Sushi and came home and hung out with Carla.

Carla knows how to relax.

*Yeah, I don’t think this one is happening either. Come on, serious birthmoms! We will be such rockin’ parents to your baby. And by “rockin’,” I mean “gently, in a chair.”

Thursday, November 07, 2013

pr travel journal, 10/27: swimming with reluctant horses, walking with history

We interrupt the Blog As You Are Project to bring you the Way Too Many Details From My Puerto Rico Trip Project! I feel very old-school, posting excerpts from my travel journal almost a week after returning. A proper modern traveler would upload pics as she went and not use much text at all. But one of the best parts of the trip was the internet detox component, which I’m doing my best to maintain now that I’m home. So far this has translated into checking Facebook five times a day instead of fifteen. It’s an uphill battle.

10/27/13, Sunday

1. just like ricky martin

After a long travel day and a logistical morning, we made it out to Corozal, a hilly inland town where we had a date with Rafael to ride horses. AK found him through a confederacy of tourist activities called PR For Less. Dos Hermanos ranch was a small, square, flat-roofed house painted light green. Behind it, a stable with rusting, corrugated tin walls.

Dos Hermanos, un camino.
A handful of scruffy, friendly dogs ran around. One, a pit with a big scab on her head, had shown up a few weeks ago, Rafael said, and had proceeded to nurse a tabby kitten, who still weaved between her legs. She quickly became my hero. So did Princesa, a short-legged mutt who followed us for the entire ride, gamely swimming across streams when necessary.

Mama and foster baby.
Rafael was a jokey guy in his forties, who called his horses his “babies” and waxed philosophical about animals being nobler than humans. He reinforced his own point by hitting the trifecta of jokes—sexist, racist, homophobic—in the first five minutes. He said that for ladies, riding a horse was like visiting the gynecologist—just relax, follow instructions and keep your legs open!

The other people on the tour, Wanda and Damal, were a black couple from the Bronx. Rafael told Damal that if he mastered riding he could be like the black Lone Ranger. Rafael noted that they’d remade one of his favorite eighties movies, Can’t Buy Me Love, with an all-black cast. He called Damal “homes” and “brother” throughout the trip.

When he was putting Wanda on a horse named Luigi, he told Damal not to get jealous—all his horses were gay. He also promised Damal that he, Rafael, wasn’t getting off on lifting Wanda onto the horse: “For this, I’m just like Ricky Martin.” He did a brief, limp-wristed impression of Ricky. Or rather, of a generic gay man.

(Side note: Didn’t so many closeted gay men rise to fame partly because they did excellent impressions of hyper-masculine straight men?)

AK was assigned a dark brown mare named Chocolate (pronounced the Spanish way, choco-latte). I was silently grateful she didn’t have the name of some African-American celebrity. I got a spotted stallion named Pepe. We rode Paso Fino style, a smooth, fast-footed ride in which the horses’ hooves never came more than six inches off the ground.

Pepe's like, "Look, I'm not gay, but I like EQUINE ladies."
Recent rains had made the trails muddy, so we kept to the road, riding through what seemed to be a middle-class neighborhood. Some of the houses—flat-roofed, brightly colored, somehow very un-continental in their architecture, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on—were rundown, others were kept up. Most of the cars in the driveways were newer than mine. But they all had bars on the windows and porches, and stray dogs and semi-stray dogs ran in the streets.

It felt good to be outside after a morning in the car, a day on the plane, and a year at work, in bed and too often in a doctor’s office. The air was warm and humid. Ivy and vines covered green trees in more green. Rafael pointed out the occasional burst of orange-red—African tulips—amid the trees. We came back by way of a river that had been bursting at its seams a few days before. Now we just got splashed as the horses pranced knee-deep.

Rafael made jokes about stopping to swim, and soon we saw he was serious. We stopped at a deep part of the river, and he unsaddled the horses. Wanda said no thank you, she didn’t swim, and Damal said he’d stay with Wanda so she wouldn’t get lonely.

Soon AK and Chocolate and Pepe and I were up to our chests (and the horses’ necks) in slightly-too-cool water. Rafael urged us deeper, assured us that the horses could swim. Chocolate made some horsey grunts that clearly translated to “This is bullshit.”

I guess the water one foot to my right was a lot deeper?
The horses did due diligence, then climbed back to land. Next time I hear someone talking about swimming with dolphins, I’m going to say, “Yeah, but have you ever swum with reluctant horses?”

They raced home, and I started to love going fast. The rhythm and speed, leaning forward in the saddle.

2. the first of many detailed descriptions of what i ate

Back in San Juan, we changed out of our wet clothes and found dinner at one of the overpriced (but not the most overpriced) restaurants on Fortaleza Street. Fish called chillo and tostones—plantain slices pounded into little pancakes and fried—for AK, asopao de mariscos and mofongo for me. I cut little pie-shaped slices of the mofongo and dunked it in the red soup, which swam with muscles and soft rice. Our guidebooks said restaurants in Puerto Rico were nothing to write home about, best to stick to cheap street food, but I suspected I would love what I ate here, and I was right.

Asopao de YES.
We had a second drink—rum punch—at Café Puerto Rico nearby and chatted with our waiter, a young, cosmopolitan guy with Buddy Holly glasses. He told us that there were so many Puerto Ricans in NYC because the U.S. had a shortage of cheap immigrant labor during the Depression and imported reluctant Puerto Ricans. (I can only imagine what kind of job no American-American wanted in the Depression.) He said now California attracted educated Puerto Ricans to San Diego, for the military, and SF, for gay culture.

We finished the night with a good salsa band at the Nuyorican Café. The scene around town was generally mellow. Even the folks at Señor Frog’s seemed subdued.

3. puerta de la tierra

This morning we planned to bike to a couple of museums, but the sky poured sheets of warm rain. We decided walking would be less slippery. After rice and beans and plantains and coffee and a mallorca sandwich at Cafeteria Mallorca, a diner-style establishment with a trumpet player and a window full of pastries, we set out along the marina in what would turn out to be the wrong direction.

Cafeteria Mallorca. I loved these girls' stack of fedoras.
But that took us through Puerta de la Tierra, a strip of abandoned and not-abandoned housing projects thick with beautiful graffiti and vines that felt very “world after us.” We stopped at a McDonald’s to consult our maps and AK’s phone. It was like any McDonald’s in L.A. A cluster of people in bright pink shirts had just completed some kind of breast cancer—cancer de seno—walk. We had a moment of grouchiness and blame, then took off in the correct direction, deciding we’d gotten good exercise and the opportunity to see an area our guidebook warned us against.

Puerta de la Tierra will swallow you whole.

Prayer for Puerta de la Tierra.

Blue Man Group.
In the last centuries, it had been an area outside the city walls, where free blacks and other poor people lived. It ended with the word “beware.”

4. spaniards were the original pirates of the caribbean

We hiked to the Atlantic side of the city, where colorful rooftops looked out at a large flat blue. All the museums were closed except for the Museo de las Americas. There was an unimpressive gallery of paintings (sort of all one painting, actually) “exploring female sexuality” and a sweet collection called Balcones by a local painter of country streetscapes.

Next year for Halloween, I'm going as Sexy Che Guevara.

Felix Cordero's rain-slick streets.
The most interesting gallery was devoted to African influence on Puerto Rico. It answered my most ignorant and burning questions: Why are Haitians and Dominicans mostly black, while Puerto Ricans mostly look like my internal picture of “Latinos”? Are black people native to the Caribbean or not? The (no doubt simplistic) answer is that black people were brought to all the islands as slaves, but the slave trade in Puerto Rico wasn’t as intense. Spaniards had enslaved the indigenous Taínos too, but intermarriage (or, you know, rape) seemed to have swallowed up both races. African blood is probably why you find more curly haired Puerto Ricans than Mexicans.

This woman is giving this slaver some serious side-eye.

The exhibit was a little weird. Although each block of text reminded us, in English and Spanish, that slavery was “immoral” and “unjust,” it also seemed a little racist. The first section seemed devoted to random handicrafts from Africa, none of them labeled with a year. It was like, Hey, here’s some stuff from Africa! To show us what slavery was like, there was a clip of Amistad running on a loop, next to a set of wrist chains you could slip your hands into.

Now we’re watching the sunset over one of several old forts that protected the island from pirates.