Tuesday, September 23, 2014

reaping for karma types

It’s the first day of fall, following the hottest August on record. I’m feeling good—flipping my schedule helped. Last night I took a dance class called AfroFunk at a little studio on the corner of 5th Street and Los Angeles downtown. Outside the studio there is still a lot of funk, as in guys who say, Hey, sweetheart, I just want a beer, when you get out of your car, and inside there’s a pale wood floor and boxed water for sale.

My name is Cheryl, and I am (kind of) funky.
Two of my coworkers have danced there and recommended it. The class, taught by a woman named Tanita with a half-shaved, half-dreadlocked head, combines different African dance styles—West African, Zulu, some others I’ve already forgotten—and a little bit of hip-hop and jazz, sprinkled with some nature-based philosophy. That combination could have gone horribly wrong, the worst sort of hybrid cliché, but in Tanita’s hands it went fantastically right.

I thought, My body was born to do this! (I’ve always maintained that, in the dance realm, I am a better fake black girl than fake Latina. I can’t salsa to save my life, but I’m good with my shoulders.) The moves weren’t too complicated, the cardio was intense and when I looked in the mirror, I was surprised that I didn’t look out of shape. I’ve been exercising consistently for a long time, but not as rigorously as I’d like, and not as much/hard as AK, who’s a cross-training fiend.

But here I was on my own, with nice shoulders and a body feeling the drums right down to my bones.

Tanita talked about the change of seasons, about sowing and reaping. She showed us a move that was like picking cassavas. I felt a little self-conscious about how not one thing I do in my life remotely resembles picking cassavas.

Grant-writing is easier work, but also less funky.
“We, uh, karma types do a lot of sowing,” she said.

I felt like “karma types” might be code for Westside white women, even though this was Downtown, and she was black and the girls next to me were Asian and Latina.

“We are very comfortable giving. We sow and sow, give and give. Now it’s time to reap. We’re not always comfortable reaping. When someone gives us a compliment, do we even say thank you? Or do we immediately start tearing ourselves down?”

I say thank you. I’ve done a lot of reaping these past couple of years. I’m probably living on credit now. I probably have Dust Bowl levels of debt, if we’re continuing the farm metaphor.

What if this is my farm?
At the same time, as a non-karma-type, I felt suspicious of what she was saying. In the baby realm, I’ve sowed and sowed. I’ve corresponded with so many birthmothers, the latest of whom drifted away for good, it seems, last week. I want to think that it’s toward some kind of harvest, that there’s a kid in our near future. At the same time, I don’t—because then, if we don’t get a kid, doesn’t that mean my sowing wasn’t good enough? The wrong seeds, the wrong soil, the wrong ghost ovaries.

Reaping is probably a more spiritual thing. Sow love, reap love. The tangible stuff may or may not happen. It’s a beautiful thought, and disappointing.

It was good to live in my body like that for an hour, even if—as I flung my arms and feet about—my first thought was, I’ll be so sad when this leaves too, as if that’s what falling in love is, the first step in loss. And isn’t it? But I’m going back to that class. I’m going to keep shaking my ass.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

lather, rinse, repeat: writing process blog tour 2014

I met Cynthia Romanowski a few years ago when I interviewed her for Poets & Writers’ coveted fellowship program. As with any paying gig in the literary world, we got a ton of applications from absurdly over-qualified, bright-eyed young people (for a funny, book-length rant on this topic, see Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members). P&W tries harder than most orgs to be kind and fair to its employees, and yet the gist of our call was: Get an advanced degree from an impressive institution, possibly accrue a lifetime of debt, have publications up the wazoo and come do data entry for roughly what is deemed a living wage in L.A. County (but not really, because it’s only part-time and there will be no health benefits).

A lot of people called this the Friends cover. So no one told you life was gonna be this waaaay....
Most of the applicants were way more impressive than I was at twenty-five, when I’d started working at P&W (full-time, with health insurance…albeit for $25,000 a year, which would probably be $29,000 a year in today’s dollars). But I’d slipped in when the economy was better; the director happened to share my sarcastic sense of humor and be tired of interviewing people. It was a right-place, right-time deal, and it changed my life in wonderful ways. I should remember this when I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or with the wrong genetic predisposition.

But I digress.

Cynthia didn’t get the P&W gig, because only one over-qualified person could. But I’ve run into her a few times since, and she seems to be doing just fine without P&W. She seems to be working her ass off, writing interesting things and making her way in the literary world. I’m inspired to watch her trajectory. And I was flattered when she asked me to be part of the Writing Process Blog Tour, which gave me an opportunity to check out her own really well written blog.

What are you working on?

Too many things:

1) a young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old who finds herself running an adoption scam
2) a memoir about the clusterfuck that has been the last four-ish years of my life (infertility/miscarriage/relationship shit/cancer); I want to add an asterisk in which I explain that I’m full of shame about writing a tragedy memoir, and that this one will also maybe be kind of funny, and that I’m not sure what format it will take (which is true, but also a cop-out).
3) a very short story about a gun
4) an article about indie comedy in Northeast L.A. for Razorcake

Not to mention the two finished-ish but unpublished novels that I should be sending places.

But for the purposes of this blog, I will write about #1, because it’s what I should be working on, because I promised the agent who tried very hard to sell one of the finished-ish novels that I’d give her a draft months ago.

How does your work differ from other works in the same area/genre?

I’ve always had respect for middle grade and young adult novels (waaay before Harry Potter and Twilight, just to be a hipster about it) because my mom was a children’s librarian and read them voraciously. When I was a kid, I made up stories, but—without necessarily imagining myself ever being an author—I also made up the teaser lines (What is the ghost cat trying to tell Katie?) that would go on the cover and the blurbs for the back. That was the pattern that the big publishers, Dell Yearling and Apple Books, would follow.

All of which is to say, this is a genre I’ve had my eye on always, but didn’t necessarily plan to work in. In terms of voice and territory—realism, no vampires; ironically this may be the first book I’ve written that didn’t include a ghost in the early drafts—I plant myself alongside Andrea Seigel and Cynthia Kadohata. They both write about regular kids who are smart, irreverent and brutally honest in the way they observe the world around them (without being overly precocious or precious, which is a pet peeve of mine). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that both have written for adults too.

I guess a difference would be the worlds we write about. Andrea Seigel’s characters are upper-middle-class Orange County kids, sometimes secular Jews. Kadohata’s are mostly Japanese-American and working class. These differences matter and don’t matter.

My character, Tilly, was raised by a young single mother in a small desert town. When her mom decides to go to UCLA, Tilly lands in Westwood, a neighborhood of wealthy kids and Iranian immigrants. Although this is just the backdrop for what is ultimately a mother-daughter story, backdrop matters. Tilly has to make her way in this new world without her overworked mom’s help.

In the psychotherapy world, there’s this concept of the “good enough” mother, the mother who will be there for her child but also give her child space to develop healthy coping mechanisms. Regular Bread and Bread readers might imagine what a useful concept this is for me. Tilly’s story is the story of learning to live with her own good-enough mother. This feels very quietly radical in a genre that is still rife with perfect dead mothers (see this article, which I found fascinating and embarrassingly triggering because in my fucked-up little mind I am the dead mother, the bad stepmother, the father with womb envy AND the orphan).

The saddest movie in the world. At least she got to live a little while before they offed her.

Why do you write about what you do?

My current projects are shamelessly autobiographical. My partner and I started trying to adopt a baby through open adoption a few years ago; I think there’s a reality show about open adoption, and it’s no wonder.* The process is rife with drama. You’re basically sending a woman in crisis on a blind date with a person/couple/family whose hearts have already been broken in one way or another. Writing about this process (hopefully with a bit more insight than the average reality show—although some reality shows are better than anything I could come up with) was a no-brainer.

I assumed I would write from the point of view of a pregnant teenager or an adopted child. (One of my early ideas involved a kid with five moms—birthmom, two adoptive moms who had split up, two stepmoms. Maybe I’ll still write that at some point.) The open adoption world is also full of scams, from really obvious money-grubbing ones to mysterious “emotional” scams. Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that the more interesting and unusual story would examine why someone would do something like that.

Having an adoption scammer as my protagonist has been interesting. It’s the first time I’ve written about a character who’s done something so undeniably and (somewhat) intentionally bad. What’s the saying about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own unique way? I think the same is true for emotional adoption scammers. There is probably a through-line of wanting attention, but there are a million reasons someone might be desperate for attention.

Also, it’s the first book I’ve written where the plot has been at the forefront. Usually I start with a mood or a theme or an idea, and the plot follows. That said, there are still all kinds of ideas I’m working through with this project:
  • The Good Enough Mother, like I said
  • Why/how pregnancy is such fucking currency in our culture
  • High school being about more than high school, especially when your home life is in upheaval
  • Mentors, role models and idealized figures (which can be different sides of the same coin)
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Popular kids who aren’t assholes, weirdoes who aren’t saints (but also some popular kids who are assholes) 

How does your writing process work?

Well, sometimes it doesn’t. See this post about how I just flipped my schedule on its head to deal with the fact that I suck at writing in the evenings. I don’t have kids—have I mentioned we’re trying to adopt?—but I am married to a person who likes us to have a social life (I do too) and I have a pretty demanding job, so time management is a constant, unglamorous juggle.

And by “time management” I mean “trying to create a day that doesn’t leave me so exhausted that I waste all my time on fashion websites and trolling Facebook making myself feel worse, when I really want to devote only like an hour to those activities.”

On a good day—and today is a good day because of the aforementioned schedule-flipping—my writing process looks something like this:
  • Go to a coffee shop (home is both too quiet and too full of things that need cleaning; plus by this point I have a Pavlovian response to the smell of coffee, where it makes me want to write)
  • Read something inspiring while drinking coffee and possibly snacking on carbohydrates
  • When the words and caffeine kick in, start writing
  • Keep writing till I have to go to work/etc./etc.
Lather, rinse, repeat until I have a book.

The larger process-arc of every project is a little different, but I’ve discovered that I tend to write straight through until I have a draft, outlining as a necessary evil as I go. My first drafts have unusually clean sentences (thank you, college journalism!) and predictably messy plots.

I’m going to tag two writers I adore, as writers and people, who may or may not have time to play this game: Noel Alumit and Myriam Gurba.

*Do you have a spare baby? I mean, like, seriously? Or maybe your teenage daughter or next door neighbor is knocked up and thinking she’d like to keep in touch with the kid but not actually do diaper duty? Check out our adoption page and then email me.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

honest living, without jessica alba

Like every Angeleno without air conditioning, I’ve been slammed by the heat these past couple of days. But it took me a while to notice. I’m the kind of person who will wear shoes a size too small and wonder why she couldn’t walk five miles. I.e., overly cerebral, self-blaming, not very mindful. By the end of the night last night—despite having a really fun time at Lori’s birthday party—I was kind of a mess. Crabby, over-heated, under-caffeinated, mad at myself for not doing more that day and every day, and especially mad at myself for eating two vegan donuts* and a piece of birthday cake on top of the cupcake my writer friend Sandra bought me earlier in the day.

At Lori’s house, I flipped through a lifestyle book about “honest living” by Jessica Alba. It was surprisingly sane and encouraged readers to give themselves one day a week to eat whatever they wanted. But I don’t think that works for people with addictive personalities and a history of eating disorders and cancer that feeds off fat cells.**

I hope that somewhere in the book is a really “honest” paragraph in which Jessica Alba credits her ghostwriter and the makeup artist who made her and her family look so gorgeous in all the illustrations. Another pro tip for healthy, honest living: be filthy rich. It’s not everything, but it helps.

Have a cup of green tea. Do not have four desserts.
I believe in honest living and honest writing, which is not to say strictly factual, but I want to put my energy into getting at something real, not ignoring what’s scary, not repeating old habits or lazy linguistic tropes just because I want them to work.

AK and I have been doing a lot of processing (which is to say arguing but in a constructive way) lately, and she thinks it’s good. I think it’s good that she thinks it’s good. Today she made potato tacos for her work party this afternoon, and I sat on the kitchen steps, sweating and lamenting my exhaustion.

“Why don’t you go somewhere cool?” she said. “Not just as a short little reward for spending the first part of the day working and sweating, but, like, for a long period of time.”

What I heard her saying, applied more broadly, was: Don’t try to force change; create a kind and healthy space for yourself, and change will happen.

Oh, MacDowell. Those were the days.
The composer who inhabited the cottage down the meadow from me at MacDowell talked a lot about how he had to trick himself into working on the hard parts of his composition. He’d give himself an easy or fun task and ease into the tricky bits.

If I want to have more energy and better eating habits, and not be such a bitch to AK, telling myself to just try harder is probably not the best approach. Instead, I want to check in with myself—am I hot? Tired? Hungry? Not hungry? I’ve been getting better at doing that emotionally, now that I don’t view anxiety as so terrifying it must be stomped back into place the minute it rears up. My fears are just my fears. A day I feel all grouchy and wrong might be just the heat, and not proof of my failure and not a reason to eat four desserts. Thinking you control the world with your mind, even when it manifests as a lot of seemingly humble hand-wringing, is the biggest ego trip ever.

Dogs are all about honest living.
Second to mindfulness, I’m going to experiment with changing my surroundings—not in the sense of place, but time. This is going to be really boring, so feel free to skip ahead to the part where I talk about movies, but if you’re like me and kind of fascinated with other people’s day-to-day, minute-to-minute lives, here’s my plan: Instead of waking up, drinking coffee, working, then drinking more coffee so that I have the energy to write or work out, I’m going to try flipping my day.
  •      Wake up really early, read on the train, drink coffee and write at Philippe’s or somewhere else that’s open early. Or work out.
  •      Work; stay a little later and stack the stuff that takes less energy at the end of the day, when I will not be drinking coffee.
  •      Walk home on non-workout days.
  •      Spend a little time each evening cleaning, so the house doesn’t feel like such a daunting, failure-inducing time-suck every weekend.
  •      Remember that this is just an experiment. If it doesn’t work, or if it takes time to work, c’est la vie.

One of the better movie posters I've seen in a while, too.
On Friday, AK and I saw The One I Love, a flawed by really interesting movie about a couple (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) who are trying to put their marriage back together after an affair. I won’t give away the twist (although it comes early), but by injecting some magic into the plot, writer Justin Lader makes a story about a long-term relationship tested in ordinary ways feel high-stakes and exciting and true. Not enough movies even try to do that. The story gets messy and confusing, and I had trouble figuring out the film’s ideology, but their core problem as a couple seems to be that he wants to move on without processing, and she wants to fixate without moving on.

The movie also pits their real selves against their idealized selves—and perhaps romantics against idealists, although I couldn’t quite make that read work. Their best selves dress well, do sit-ups and are prone to heartfelt monologues. Their real selves wear sweats, eat bacon and fail to thank each other for the sacrifices the other has made for the relationship. Except for the bacon, that sounds about right. Here’s to trying to be better, but keeping it real.

*At first I just wrote “donuts,” but then I added “vegan” to make it sound healthier. But sugar and oil are completely vegan foods.

**The type of cancer I had eats estrogen, which lives in fat cells. So I have more of a stake than most people in not having more fat cells than necessary. The fact that this didn’t stop me from a carb binge terrifies me a little. Also, at first I wrote “the type of cancer I have,” and now I’m feeling really superstitious that it was a Freudian typo. What do my fingers know about my health status?? (Probably nothing, but they may know plenty about my fears.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

route 66 and other kicks: plus what i read in july and august

Last week was seriously culture-packed. It made me happy to live in L.A., grateful to know so many artists and arts lovers, and a little tired.

On Thursday Bronwyn and I ate the only non-meat items Phillippe’s serves, then walked across the street to Traxx, the dinky bar at Union Station that Chiwan Choi has turned into a pop-up literary hub this month. One of my favorite writers, Myriam Gurba, read a moving essay about her schizophrenic uncle and showed slides of her face Photoshopped onto famous pictures and famous people. Myriam as ET, Myriam as Kim Kardashian. Her work lives at the intersection of funny, intense, weird and joyful.

Mari Naomi presented a graphic personal essay—meaning a personal essay in graphic form, like with drawings, not an essay with a bunch of severed heads in it—about a troubled guy she’d dated. Then a real-life troubled guy wandered into the bar and started standing super close to her and kind of harassing her. (Must be a Union Station thing.) One of the show organizers very gently and very heroically led him away, as all of us stood there watching it like the world’s most uncomfortable TV show. It was a strange life-imitating-art-or-something moment, but it could have been a lot worse.

Friday AK and I got a rare opportunity to see Ben Folds and Elvis Costello from box seats at the Bowl. We would have happily watched grass grow from box seats, but I love Ben Folds and loved him more after he played the piano with his whole body and gave a sweet speech about supporting your local symphony. I think Elvis Costello might be one of those artists who is culturally adjacent to everything I love, but whom I don’t quite love. I dunno. I like his songwriting, but his voice is a little too talky/crooner-y for me. But still: really good company and did I mention box seats?

Ben Folds, can I be one of your five?
Saturday we celebrated my dad’s birthday by taking him to the Autry to see the Route 66 exhibit. My dad is obsessed with Route 66—he’s traveled every remaining mile of it, even when that means bumping down a crumbling road in his RV when the newly paved highway is one mile away (much to his girlfriend’s chagrin). You wouldn’t think there would be much he hadn’t seen at a one-gallery exhibit, but he easily killed two hours there and tried to talk the security guard into letting him take pictures of previously unseen artifacts (i.e., a rusty highway sign).

Ed Ruscha en Route.
I joke, but I dug it too, as well as the exhibit of modern Native American floral beading next door. Really, I should go the Autry all the time. I love the West. I love that the exhibits get so specific. Not just Native American beadwork, but floral beadwork from the nineteenth century onward. Like me, the exhibit is interested in the weird intersections of cultures.

I Tweeted something about how the Autry had free parking—it really is the Wild West—and saw later that the museum had re-tweeted it, and then my family thought I was one of those obsessed social media types.

I didn’t read that much these past couple of months. I’m in the middle of a lot of books. My palette is persnickety lately.

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: I love Michael Cunningham endlessly for asking the big questions--about life and death and art and God and chance--and doing so in a beautiful way. The story's protagonist, a middle-aged gay dilettante (or a Renaissance man who doesn't need to prove himself to the corporate Man, depending how you look at it), also asks these questions after he sees an ethereal, sentient light in the sky one night. Shouldn't it mean something? If he *applies* the meaning, is it still real? Is it responsible for saving his sister-in-law's life? Will it notice his and his brother's selfish, petty wishes and punish them accordingly? I'm always trying to parse God Is Love/Meaning vs. Everything Happens For A Reason (which I don't buy). So I appreciate Barrett's endeavors. Nevertheless, the novel feels slight. I like it more if I think of it as a novella, but even then, a lot of what we're told about the characters--like that the sickly sister-in-law is a stand-in for their mother--seems to happen offstage, or it gets lost between the big lovely descriptions and ideas. But even a three-star Michael Cunningham book is a four-star anyone-else book.

Amalee by Dar Williams: Like a lot of the over-ten crowd who read this book, I picked it up because I'm a fan of Dar Williams' songwriting, which is always clever and gentle and tells a story. Amalee is and does these things too, but in a slightly less awe-inspiring format. This is a novel about an eleven-year-old's relationships to adults in general, and to her father's gaggle of hippie-ish friends in particular. I enjoyed it, but I also kind of understand why so many YA books dispense with the adults at the outset. About two thirds of the way through, Williams added subtle touches of magical realism to illustrate the power of love in caring for a sick person. That was fun.

Girl, interrupted, but with a tasty lunch.
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp: Upon learning that her son has a rare, degenerative, fatal illness, Emily Rapp's first instinct is to call everyone she knows who has lost someone close to them and say, "I know your heart." The beauty of this book is that Rapp's impossibly frustrating, heartbreaking journey is one that opens her to other people's hearts and to her own--through books, spiritual practices, friends and of course sweet baby Ronan himself. As such, I want to hand a copy of this book to everyone I know and say, "She knows our hearts."

Rapp wrestles unflinchingly with topics no one wants to take on, but which most people must, to varying degrees: grief, luck, God or lack thereof, the impossibility of true empathy (although she seems quite empathetoc, never suggesting that her own staggering sadness is worse than other people's, despite her periodic thoughts along those lines).

I hate self-help books as much as Rapp hates sympathy cards with birds on them. They seem striving and mean, and indeed, one of the topics Rapp takes on is our culture's obsession with planning and achievement. Is it really more tragic when a child with "so much potential" is murdered than when a child with severe disabilities is murdered? What do we mean by the words that fall carelessly from our mouths?

Without being remotely prescriptive, this is the kind of book that actually *can* help the self. By trying to live in the world and experience her son for as long as he is in it, Rapp acknowledges her human struggles, big ones and petty ones, then sets them aside for the more important stuff. When people and institutions and thought systems crumble in their inadequacy, she'll simply say something like "(Rage.)" The book is rigorous and philosophical, poetic and kind. At its heart, though, it is a bit like the baby she describes: simple and true.

Monday, September 01, 2014

the egg and the pigeon

1. all my omelets become scrambles

I’m lying here in bed, full of eggs and fresh tomatoes. Yesterday Nicole and I saw The Hundred-Foot Journey, a movie that will make you want to cook an omelet. It takes place in the present day—as evidenced by the presence of molecular gastronomy, racism that disguises itself as nationalism and a fleeting glimpse of a cell phone—but you would not know it from all the bicycles, cobblestone and charmingly eroding cottages, all shot in the same buttery light as the food that the main character cooks.

Eat, drink, homme, femme.
The movie is about a snooty French restaurant that competes with a new Indian restaurant across the street. It’s a nostalgic, fanciful and predictable movie, but also one that treats its characters with love and respect. It is middle-of-the-road—the characters literally kiss in the middle of the road that cuts between the restaurants—but in the best way. A movie you would take your mom to, but which would remind you that previous generations have plenty to teach us.

It’s been so nice to have a three-day weekend and to stretch out in my own imagined buttery light, to remember the things that center me while reminding myself that it’s fall (all but technically and weather-wise) and time to buckle down, train for that 5K I registered for and read serious books. I mean, I make these resolutions every few days, but they seem more doable when accompanied by an external change of seasons.

2. battle coo of the pigeon mom

Speaking of inspiration, I’ve been admiring the extinct animal plates my other friend Nicole is selling on Etsy. “There is an extinct totem animal in each of us,” her page claims, so I immediately started considering mine. (AK recently pointed out, with minimal judgement, how every story becomes a story about me. Other friends have observed this over the years in kind and unkind ways. SIGH. I should call this blog Bread and Bread and My Own Fucking Bellybutton. But it’s my blog and I will navel-gaze if I want to.)

Spirit of a survivor, bones of the massacred.
I chose the Passenger Pigeon. In my new favorite book The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp describes herself as a Dragon Mom; she sees this club of mothers of dying children as fierce, fire-breathing and mythic (after all, in a society with a low child mortality rate, you don’t encounter dragons every day). And of course we’ve all heard of Tiger Moms, who make their kids practice violin nine hours a day for their own good.

If I’m fortunate enough to become a mom, I will be a Pigeon Mom. Pigeon Moms have taken the world’s shit. They are greasy and most often missing toes. They don’t seem mighty on the surface—speak too loudly and they’ll flutter off. But they’ll return almost immediately. They will get those donut crumbs you dropped. They will feed their little squabs, the one baby animal that lacks an online following.

Some ugly ducklings grow up to be very stately looking pigeons, thank you very much.
They are scrappy, persistent, imperfect, un-admired and numerous. Maybe you’re one yourself. On one hand, they’re survivors, making the best of things in any eave not covered in nails or netting. They do what is necessary. On the other hand, consider their extinct ancestors—who were also considered pests, who were wiped out because no one can survive everything. Pigeon Moms are breakable. Pigeon Moms (and of course I mean Pigeon People, who may or may not be parents or female) bounce back, almost—but not quite—infinitely.

My friend Jamie had a bird-rescuer friend. Once she made a comment in his presence about pigeons being rats with wings (which, again, I would consider a compliment; what’s cuter and smarter than a flying rat?). The bird rescuer, who had really looked closely at pigeons, said: “But they’re beautiful flyers.”

What’s your extinct totem animal?