Monday, October 27, 2014

nerds in hipster-nerds’ clothing and other refreshing representations

Like college students themselves, Dear White People is a little awkward, sometimes confusing and sometimes didactic, but full of fresh ideas and completely endearing. The setting is very specific: a fictional Ivy League campus where “talented tenth” African-American students try to carve a niche for themselves among the school’s (white) traditions.

Winchester University looks suspiciously like UCLA.
Each student is assigned to a different house, meaning dorm, but also something bigger than a dorm. From what I remember of my tour of UC Santa Cruz, it had a similar system, where each residence hall was kind of a college-within-a-college, and each had its own vibe and evoked passionate responses among the students. Kind of like the “houses” in Paris is Burning, except Winchester University is nothing like UC Santa Cruz or a drag ball.

I dunno. I went to a big public university that technically had “theme floors,” but the only way you’d know that the seventh floor of Dykstra Hall was the “international” floor was if you accidentally wandered into the study hall on the night they showed Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.

Two colors: Coco and the president's daughter.
The politics of housing assignments is one of the slightly confusing elements of Dear White People, but just go with it. While the world of the film stays wisely specific, the movie sometimes trips over itself trying to capture all the views on race that exist within this small container. There’s Sam, the biracial radical; Troy, the alpha striver who is dating the school president’s white daughter; Coco, the girl trying to conceal her South-Side-of-Chicago roots beneath a straight Indian weave; and Lionel, a gay geek who doesn’t feel like he fits anywhere.

And of course there are the white students—the president’s asshole son who all but dons a pointy hood, and the sensitive film student who encourages Sam to embrace all aspects of herself, especially the part of herself that enjoys sleeping with him. The two white newspaper students who recruit Lionel to write an exposé on campus race relations would be liberal heroes in most movies (which are often made by former-journalism-student types), but here they’re not above putting their hands in the Afro Lionel hides beneath and offhandedly telling him he’s only “technically” black.

Lionel gives good side eye. Even though the movie sorta implies that white people need to stop saying side eye.
I didn’t always get Coco’s M.O., as she plotted some kind of double-agent thing with a reality TV producer. I cringed when the evil school president literally said “Racism is over.” (Dear People of Color: Most white people know better than to say things like that, even if they think it. Instead they ascribe racism to the margins, meaning groups of people that don’t include them. Klan members, Republicans, rogue cops, etc. Then they can be anti-racist without having to work on themselves. Uh, ourselves.) During a cafeteria scene in which different tables of students represent different stances on race, I wasn’t sure whether I was watching an innovative stylization or we were supposed to think this was an actual conversation actual students were having across a crowded room.

Coco is not totally sure why she's putting on a blonde wig.
Some of this is the product of newbie filmmaking—I think this is writer/director Justin Simien’s first feature. But some of it is appropriately indicative of the complications of racial identity itself. Coco doesn’t always know exactly what Coco’s doing either.

As the movie rolls on, the four main characters begin to reject their roles as mouthpieces and slide toward more individualized identities—while still acknowledging the need for a powerful, loud cultural voice. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in a movie or in life.

There aren’t many movies about race. There aren’t many movies aimed at mainstream audiences featuring more than two black characters (meaning that we rarely understand that there might be more than one or two opinions in “the black community”). The title Dear White People is genius. White people can subconsciously think, Oh, cool, it’s about me, just like everything else is.

Black Student Union (the Asian girl is there for the snacks).
Also genius: Tyler James Williams’ performance as Lionel. I’m just realizing—now that I click on his IMDb page—that he’s the kid from Everybody Hates Chris, which I always liked. I guess he was part of the reason. Lionel spends a lot of time looking at his computer while eavesdropping on conversations, and Williams manages to convey an entire character with just his facial expressions (which I guess is what film actors do, but a lot of times it’s lost on me). He is discouraged and downtrodden, but also smarter than most of the people who exclude him. Nevertheless, he’s not a classic stuffed-in-a-locker nerd. He dresses hipster-nerd-chic to conceal his actual alienation. He resents his invisibility but also relishes it and uses it. He’s funny and ironic, and when provoked, he can rally his people.

On our way out of the parking structure, AK and I ranked our favorite characters. Lionel was definitely first, followed by Coco, then Sam, with boring Troy a distant fourth. We were both charmed by Lionel, but AK was almost buoyantly charmed.

“I related to him so much,” she said. “The queer kid of color who doesn’t really fit in anywhere but can kind of pull it together in a pinch? I mean, I’m not into Star Trek, but—”

“You were more of an F. Scott Fitzgerald nerd,” I said.

Salinger side eye.
As a middle school kid, AK subscribed to the New Yorker and devoured J.D. Salinger. I was suddenly doubly happy for Lionel’s existence on screen. Anyone who’s ever felt invisible—for reasons cultural and/or personal—needs to see themselves reflected in the world. I remember how grateful I felt when Take Shelter so accurately conveyed what it’s like to be sane and crazy at the same time. It’s why we need art, especially art that reflects the multiplicity of human experience. So I’m grateful to Justin Siemen and the Indiegogo funders who put a little extra spring in my girl’s step as we left the theater.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

the sum of our parts

1. never never land

Yesterday was not an awesome day. Work fell from the sky in fat droplets and splatted at my feet, and I felt caught without an umbrella. I started coming down with a cold. And…another friend got pregnant—one who’s been trying hard, who gets it, whom I want this for—and I felt alone on my little island of nevernevernever.

Why do I feel like this island in Dubai might be the world's loneliest?
We’ve been at this trying-to-obtain-a-kid thing so long that not only have all the fertile people gotten pregnant, but so have the infertile ones. Single people have gotten married and popped out kids. Hopeful adoptive parents (as they are called in adoption lingo) are now just adoptive parents, meaning parents. It’s no longer just the glib and lucky who have kids. It’s everyone. There’s no one left to be mad at, because I have abandoned my obnoxious friends (or they’ve abandoned me, in some cases) and schooled the remaining ones on the careful art of sharing their good news.

I know it’s not everyone. I know I should join a support group or something. But I feel like everyone in it would just have a kid and leave.

Yesterday, Fr. Greg talked about how a lot of people seek out Homeboy because they want to “give back.” “I think it’s better to receive than to give,” he said. He went on to talk about how generosity is a good impulse, but kinship is a more effective one. When our only goal is to sit with someone in their brokenness—to receive them as they are—we experience our own brokenness and connect. That connection is the gift both parties receive.

Morning Meeting at Homeboy: a place to receive, and also learn what the soup of the day is.
I think that’s what God is—when two broken things add up to something whole. And when you feel like one broken thing, it gets lonely.

I’ve always felt most whole around people who are a little bit broken. I’ve always liked poor neighborhoods better than posh ones, sad and anxious people better than confident over-achievers. And even as I type this, I feel a little self-conscious about it, like, Well, of course some hipster writer would say that. What, do you think you’re Kerouac or something? I worry about grief porn, poverty porn, about a possible need to feel superior. At other times, I feel like I work at Homeboy so its collective spirit can save me, and that makes me feel like some kind of drain on the system, some kind of reverse welfare queen who steals from the poor to give to myself.

Kerouac in kinship with a gato!
But they way Fr. Greg framed it made me feel less like my—what would you call it, social orientation?—is pathological or posturing. It’s kinship. Because I’m not so well-off, and maybe the most useful thing I can do in the world is to stop trying to be so fucking useful.

2. killing it, crawling lit

Last night was the second annual Lit Crawl L.A. in North Hollywood. This year it was bigger and better. Two Homeboy alum knocked it out of the park sharing their life stories at a store selling overpriced sorta-skater clothes, and I got to meet one of the writers who coached them, Jeanne Darst, whose memoir I loved. She was totally friendly and real, and she had great yoga arms, and I want to be her.

Then I ran down the street in my fantastic but unwieldy heels for my reading with Wendy Oleson, Bronwyn Mauldin, Pat Alderete and Olga Garcia at the Laemmle. I pride myself on being scrappy and punk rock when it comes to the literary life, but it would have been nice if they’d given us a whole hallway to read in rather than a roped-off sliver of hallway. On the upside, the good-sized crowd just went with it, sitting cross-legged on the casino carpeting, and the place smelled like fresh popcorn.

At least there was art in the hallway.

In addition to Jeanne Darst's arms, I want Olga's dimples.
I don’t remember exactly how it started, but we decided we would all read pieces about guns. None of us are fans of guns, so we thought it might be a challenge to be eclectic and not didactic. It wasn’t. Just to brag for a minute: I think we killed it. Metaphorically, of course. We called the reading “Exploded Guns” after a book Bronwyn found that displayed the organized parts of dissected guns.

We were greater than the sum of our parts. Wendy read an eerie, Aimee Bender-esque story about a girl made of glass and her brother the gun. Bronwyn read a stunning and funny poem comprised entirely of the names of gun models. Pat read “authentic fiction” about the aftermath of a gang shooting in 1970s East L.A. I read a Homeboy-inspired piece about how a scared little kid turns into a scared teenage shooter. And Olga closed out the night with a big, beautiful, Howl-esque elegy for Brisenia Flores, a seven-year-old bordertown girl shot by Minutemen.

No te olvidaremos.
3. we haven’t always been this way

After the reading, I chatted with my dad and my coworker Lauren, and my dad encouraged me to read my story at Homeboy. I squirmed at the idea of telling people’s stories back to them, even though god bless my dad, because he was the one person who turned out just to see me, drove all the way from Manhattan Beach, sat on a patch of carpet in a way that must have killed his back and didn’t take it personally when I turned down his offer of frozen yogurt afterward.

“You’ve always been this way,” he said. I cringed, imagining how he might explain “this way”—“fighting for the underdog?” “caring about minorities”? Part of me worried my dad was going to call me an N-word-lover in some thinly veiled, not unkind but still ignorant way, in public. And I wanted to explain that 1) “They” are fine without me and 2) “They” are not a “they.” I’m the N in this story, trying to love myself, unabashedly serving myself.

Still squirming, I said, “I guess I’ve always had some kind of empathy.” (Although there are times when my empathy has been incredibly clouded by my own shit.) Fiction writing is the practice of putting empathy on paper.

Lauren, luckily, did not seem put off by my dad’s praise and not-quite-PC phraseology. My dad is one of the most stubborn people I know, but also one of the most open-minded, meaning he will make his case relentlessly and is slow to change, but he will never stop listening. He’s also kind of on-the-spectrum in terms of reading other people’s emotions, and yet more sensitive to human and animal suffering than a lot of people. I think that part stems from his attunement, as a kid, to his mom, who was a loving and somewhat emotionally volatile widow struggling to raise two boys on her own.

The world of my dad's youth, or the idealized version of it.
I suspect he tried to fix things for her, just as he tried to for my loving but hyper-sensitive mom and his loving but hyper-sensitive girlfriend of ten years. He thinks this is how women are. He’s somewhat baffled that he raised a woman who says what she means and reminds him—intentionally and not—of his powerlessness to fix the world.

All I need is a national talk show, and the Duesenberg is mine.
In some ways, I think that’s why he’s a Republican: He just can’t stand to imagine that people are suffering as much as they are, even/especially the ones who do terrible things. He wants simple solutions. It’s a kind of denial that seems to be eroding and evolving as he grows older and more open-minded, and it hurts me to see how it hurts him. I want him to be liberal and Zen, but I also want to protect him. I want to give him the world he wants, just as he wants to give me the things I want. I want to buy him his dream car: a Duesenberg, a long-nosed, expensive German roadster manufactured during the Great Depression.

Friday, October 17, 2014

in support of emotional support animals

Have u seen the inflammatory New Yorker piece by Patricia Marx in which she mocks emotional support animals? my friend texted earlier this week. It is poorly argued!

My friend, whom I’ll call Aileen in case her landlord is reading this, has an emotional support dog. (Not a turtle, snake, turkey, alpaca or any of the other species Patricia Marx tries to pass off as pseudo-service animals in her piece.) Aileen has a real letter, from her  actual psychiatrist, that allows Houdini to live with her in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Aileen has an actual anxiety disorder, and it’s no lie that dogs have brought her a lot of comfort throughout her life.

Alpaca side-eye.
That said, it’s not like Aileen would have a panic attack in CVS if she didn’t bring Houdini with her, so his ESA status is in the gray zone. Aileen is a people pleaser and would really rather not bring Houdini to places he might not be welcome. Last week we left a restaurant before ordering when Houdini’s curly gray legs kept edging past the technical border of the patio and an inch into the open-walled sort-of-indoors part of the restaurant. (I’m sure it’s a border deeply respected by insects and all other potential health code violators.)

Ironically, the anxiety disorder that’s causing Aileen the most distress right now is Houdini’s. Unlike the animals Marx writes about, Houdini is small, quiet and well behaved. (And very, very cute, although so is Marx’s alpaca.) Unless he’s left alone, in which case he freaks out and barks a lot. So Aileen has essentially become his Emotional Support Human—as it more or less should be in reciprocal relationships. Like Aileen, Houdini had a difficult childhood and sometimes shit comes up (not literally—Houdini is more anal retentive than anal explosive). Either she will need to get bolder about owning his ESA status, or Houdini will need to learn to stay alone for short periods of time, because just never getting groceries is not really a sustainable solution. But they’re working on it.

This airplane passenger found Houdini quite comforting.
As I type, Ferdinand is resting his cheek on my wrist for emotional and physical support. He is purring in a way that reassures me.

I admit that I had a glimmer of a fantasy of you taking on the article in one of your blog posts! Aileen texted. Mostly, I want to see what you think.

I can’t resist a commission(!), so here is what I think.

1. The article is essentially stunt writing, in the vein of those “beauty dare” pieces in which a woman wears a blonde wig or a fake mustache around New York and documents people’s reaction. Such writing makes vague, and vaguely troubling, allusions to the scientific method, and there’s a longer piece in me somewhere about the fake science-ification of our culture. Don’t get me started on those “I Fucking Love Science!” pictures that get reposted all over Facebook. Half the time it’s just a picture of a weird fish. That’s not science—science is a process. A weird fish, however awesome it is, is nature. The New Yorker is usually above this kind of writing.

This reminds me, I need to make a dentist appointment.

2. Marx makes a couple of valid points: It’s too easy to get pets ESA credentials—it takes about the same amount of effort as becoming a licensed pastor who can marry people by the power vested in them by the First Church of the Internet, or whatever it’s called. Also, untrained ESA pets threaten the status and sometimes the presence of real service animals. Fair enough: Cheating sucks, and no one wants to witness a seeing-eye dog mauled by Ivana Trump’s purse dog.

3. Marx is inventing a problem where one barely exists. Using hyperbole to make a point is a respectable literary tradition, but the truth is that most people feel okay about the presence of animals. Service personnel sometimes get nervous about getting in trouble, but Marx’s fellow passengers and shoppers are mostly amused by and curious about her turkey, pig, etc. As I would be!

Once in Mexico I saw a tiger in the back of a truck at a gas station, and it was amazing! Although I worried a little bit for the tiger.

Sad tiger is sad. Or maybe washing his face.
Cats (the small ones) and dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. They are domesticated animals. If they can watch TV with us at home, they can probably sit at our feet on a restaurant patio. No one but Patricia Marx is trying to bring a turkey anywhere.

Much of the humor in Marx’s piece stems from people trying to be accommodating. But making fun of people’s kindness toward humans and animals seems kind of cheap. That’s what they get for being nice to her?

4. Marx devotes one paragraph to Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, who makes the point that going everywhere with humans may not be good for animals (see tiger, above). “Animals can get as depressed as people do,” he says. I too am for letting animals be animals. Let’s not dress them up and make them do tricks, unless they’ve been bred to do tricks like herd sheep, in which case let’s get them some sheep to herd so they don’t become neurotic and depressed about their uselessness, the way humans do.

But one thing domestic animals like to do is hang out with humans. So why not?

Reading the piece, I felt a little bit like the person in the room not laughing at the rape joke, before the tide shifted and it became not-okay to make rape jokes. As far as socially acceptable scrutiny and mockery go, the animal rights movement is in the territory of the size-acceptance movement. “As far as animals go, I like them,” Marx writes. “Medium rare.” Bah-dum-bum!

G-Dog and the Homeboys includes the oral history of a homie who describes a childhood pockmarked with just about every kind of abuse and neglect you can imagine. At one point, he’s sent to live with relatives he barely knows in rural Texas. There, he meets a dog who quickly becomes his best friend. They go everywhere together. This is a kid who’s seen nothing but the worst of humanity, and done some pretty awful shit himself, but with a dog, he discovers all the things he thought were off limits to him: love, peace, kindness, fun.

I work with a woman whose cats performed a similar therapeutic function in her life. Although some people from violent upbringings are cruel to animals, just as often—more often, probably—they gravitate toward them. Every time a puppy or kitten is found in a Chinatown alleyway, it’s snatched up and smothered with love by a team of homies. You don’t have to be skilled in the art of metaphor to see that they know what it’s like to be small and helpless and abandoned. Ollie, our youngest cat, came into my life when I was feeling hopeless, as if no good new thing would ever happen to me. With his relentless sweetness and adaptability, he’s a constant reminder that positive change is possible, and that it can take time. (Sorry, this is starting to sound like a grant application. Hazard of the trade.)

Ollie's like, "Don't make me into your symbol of hope. Feed me."
Kendra and I often joke about starting a Homeboy animal therapy program; it’s a joke because Father Greg—lover of all humanity—is kind of meh on animals.

In my opinion, Fr. Greg has the rare ability to see people the way most people see animals: He sees us as beautiful, innocent and capable of learning new tricks. AK and I once theorized that God thinks people are totally cute. The non-saints among us need a little help making the leap. So let us have our dogs and cats. Let us honor them and hang out with them in the ways that they and we deserve. Throw us a bone, okay?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

the plazas of chinatown

1. where you were, where you are

When I got my first car in college, my favorite thing was to drive around Hollywood and take pictures of the weird little nooks and crannies, the places layered with history and dirt, both of which were lacking in my hometown. I fell in love with my own loneliness, and with every L.A. writer who wrote about history, dirt and loneliness.

A decade and a half later, I haven’t gotten tired of exploring L.A. Yesterday my co-worker Louis took me to his favorite Boyle Heights fish taco joint. On the way over we ended up having the where-were-you-on-September-11 conversation.

Twin Tacos.
In grad school, I said, feeling itchy in my privilege, but doing my best to own it. I was a T.A. and had to talk to all these 18- and 19-year-olds. We didn’t really know what to say. We kind of skipped over the human part and went straight to all this academic stuff, like, How is the media covering this?

I was in jail, Louis said, a little sheepishly, but owning it. We heard from the guards that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers, and we were confused, because Men’s Central Jail is the Twin Towers too. I had family in New York, and I got permission to call them. And, honestly, just the place I was in then—not really being very conscious—I mostly used it as an excuse to make as many phone calls as I could.

I thought about how we all had our little defense mechanisms to get away from the reality of loss. Super brainy, lingo-laden meta-conversation or sneaking in a couple extra phone calls. It’s not so different.

Louis is probably one of the most conscious people I know now, a jolly hugger type with big ears and smiling eyes. He just lost a bunch of weight on a juice diet and gave up smoking at the same time because, he said, he likes extremes. The non-practicing addict in me totally gets it.

He’s eating food now, and the shrimp tacos were savory and crunchy. When I ate the fish out of my fish taco, he thought I was doing some kind of low-carb thing. Then I rolled up the tortilla part and ate it too. We drove back past the projects, terra cotta-red in the sun, past the old Sears building.

The other Sears Tower.
2. the real chinatown

Lately I’ve been exploring Chinatown on some of my lunch breaks. It took me a while to realize that Chinatown is a honeycomb of plazas that look like strip malls with a few pagoda flourishes at first glance, but which actually house whole worlds. You know how houses on sitcoms are always bigger on the inside than on the outside? The plazas of Chinatown are kind of like that.

Some kind of taxonomy.
I thought it might be interesting to explore each one, learn their history, come up with some kind of taxonomy. But I’m lazy, and I kind of want them to remain mysterious. I want this to be a stumbling, Situationist type of exploration.

There’s the one you enter from Spring street, just a set of steps and some racks of flammable clothing in a long yellow block of the same.* Then the opening opens up into a kind of swap meet full of $3 tank tops, Hello Kitty cell phone cases, shoes made of a fabric that is four degrees removed from leather, two banh mi sandwich shops (only one of which offers sardine banh mi) and some harem pants I’m trying to figure out if I can pull off. It’s shady in there, and unclear whether you’re inside or outside, like in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Because of all the clothes and fabric, it’s strangely quiet.

Life is just a chair of bowlies.
All the plazas have names pulled from the Wheel O’ Generic Chinese Names. Bamboo Plaza. Dragon Plaza. Far East Plaza. Central Plaza is the central one, with the most pagoda-y entrances and the wishing well and statue of a president of Taiwan, because it’s not like there are a lot of Chairman Mao fans here. There’s a statue of Bruce Lee around the corner.

A plaza of Monterey Park.

A bear of Monterey Park. You could probably buy him cheaper in Chinatow
Some of my Chinese-American friends, as well as people who like to show off how knowledgeable they are, like to point out that “Monterey Park is the real Chinatown.” And yes, I’d rather get a bowl of noodles in Monterey Park. There are more young people there. But for a place that is “not real,” whatever that even means, Chinatown has a lot of Chinese people. Many of them are old, and poor, which are categories that frequently get filed under Not Real.

The colors.
West Plaza probably has the most art galleries. I can see why artists would love Chinatown; it’s such an interesting shape. There are so many bright colors. I also know how these things go. I think Chinatown and Boyle Heights will be the site of L.A.’s next major gentrification growth spurt, and I wonder what this means for the homies and the old Chinese people. And me, of course, because I always wonder what things mean for me. I want my eyeballs to record Chinatown while in all its quiet, sun-washed afternoons, with all its businesses I don’t understand, like the convenience store with the big stuffed moose head.

The other day I was walking to lunch and heard someone call my name. My old Book Soup buddy Dan was across the street. “Chinatown is so crazy, with all its plazas,” I told him.”

“I know!” he said. “There’s a place I thought was a garage, but it turned out to be a supermarket.”

Then he and his friend were off to buy some mystery fungus.

Far East Plaza, where most of these pictures are from, because I only had my shit sufficiently together to bring a camera with me on one lunch hour, is the home of Chego, Roy Choi’s restaurant that sells a lot of sauce-y (and saucy) items. The menu is in Spanish and Korean only. I’m sure that was strategic, to make hipsters who, like me, are fluent in Spanglish, feel super down for understanding what they’re ordering.

Plaza diners.
There’s also a storefront that houses all the Chinese New Year banners going back to 2005, and a giant store called China Products, which describes it perfectly. There you can buy a dragon head, mystery fungus, faux silk purses, lavender flavored milk powder, pretty dishes and nine thousand kinds of tea.

A dragon head will run you about $70. Worth it!
Far East Plaza is tiled bright orange and red, which reminds me of the Del Amo Mall of my childhood. It was so big it had different neighborhoods—the fancy neighborhood with Banana Republic, and the Burlington Coat Factory ghetto.

A quick plaza fix is a nice break from Homeboy, where it’s air conditioned and fun and noisy and busy. You lose time and space. Then it spits you out blinking in the sun, on another street from the one you started on.

The author of this blog is the one with the (slightly) smaller belly.

*I mean all the storefronts on the block are painted yellow, you racist.