Wednesday, December 31, 2014

the cheryl awards: best books, best movies and best cheryl of 2014

Roll out the cat-clawed carpet and put on your fanciest pajamas: It’s time for the annual Cheryl Awards (which I will not call the Cheries, because I only went by Cherie for one year, in third grade, when I was determined to have a nickname—but in fourth grade, Sheri-Lynn Bellflower came to town and quickly established herself as the main Sheri).

According to Goodreads, I read twenty-six books this year. Not bad for a year in which I started a new job, but choosing a top ten seems a little much. So, as in years past, I’m choosing the books and movies that, to me, form their own tier. I’m also—new feature!—including a quick “why you should read/see it” blurb. I recently stumbled across the (dormant-ish?) blog of writer Jefferson Beavers and was charmed by his end-of-2013 post, which he titled “10 Good Things That Happened to Me.” It’s such a simple way to express gratitude and give yourself a little love, rather than skipping straight to resolutions. In reading through his ten things, it became clear that these were actually, mostly, accomplishments, not things that just “happened to him.” But that made me like his approach even more, because it acknowledged that there’s a degree of luck in every accomplishment. So if you’re reading this, Jefferson, I hope you’ll blog more in 2015!

Homeboy Prose & Poetry Showcase: a top moment of 2014, hands down.
Some good things that happened to me in 2014:
  • I fell head over heels for Homeboy (thank you, loyal readers, for enduring the irritating voice of the newly infatuated). 
  • I spent an amazing week in New Zealand with amazing people (hi, AK and Emily!). 
  • I navigated two close brushes with adoption and months of no brushes with adoption without completely losing my shit or destroying my relationship. 
  • I navigated four cancer check-ups, which is kind of the ultimate mix of accomplishment and luck. Luck that none of them revealed any cancer, knockonwood, accomplishment because I would rather run through Union Station than wait for test results, but I did it because I had to.
  • I revised my YA novel; I wrote more of my so-called memoir. 
  • I published a story I’m really proud of in Blunderbuss Magazine
  • I discovered AfroFunk
I also spent a lot of time making fashion collages on Polyvore, let my good health habits slide some, drove AK crazy, gave my sister advice when I shouldn’t have, spent too much time on Facebook, compared myself to other people, bought too many shoes and cried a lot. But who’s counting?

Without further ado:

2014 had a Down Under theme.
Top six books I read in 2014:
  1. Wake by Elizabeth Knox Why you should read it: Parallel dimensions, flightless parrots and the human condition—the best character-driven sci fi you’ll find. 
  2. The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp Why you should read it: Are you dreading a doctor’s appointment? Wondering if you have value despite being disabled? Wondering about the meaning of life? Do you like to read? Do you need a good cry, emphasis on the good? Are you a person? 
  3. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann Why you should read it: The best September 11 book you’ll find, despite the fact that it takes place in the 1970s. 
  4. G-Dog and the Homeboys by Celeste Fremon Why you should read it: Local history as told by an unabashedly un-impartial journalist. More than Father Greg’s Tattoos on the Heart—which is great, but more interested in God-is-love parables than socioeconomic context—this is a must-read for any Angeleno who wants to truly understand his or her city.
  5. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn Why you should read it: All the best qualities of Gone Girl—the suspense, social commentary and abandoned places—with fewer of the frustrations and a delightfully downwardly mobile protagonist. 
  6. My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta Why you should read it: An obsessive, innovative, screamingly honest and often funny look at identity. My favorite piece: a conversation about Elissa’s rape written as an episode of Law & Order: SVU
Honorable mention: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, The Beach by Alex Garland, Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter.

You have to let it in before you can work it out.
Top six movies I saw in 2014: 
  1. The Babadook Why you should see it: A horror movie about why you have to go in the basement. 
  2. The One I Love Why you should see it: A surreal and incredibly relatable film for everyone who has seen the best and worst of the person they’re with.  
  3. Nightcrawler Why you should see it: Local news is perfect for psychopaths. Dark comedy at its darkest and funniest. 
  4. Wild Why you should see it: There are many reasons, but one is that I want to live in a world where a movie about a woman in dirty clothes going for a long walk and missing her mom is a blockbuster. 
  5. The Imitation Game Why you should see it: Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked Germany’s code and basically won WWII, was a gay nerd born a few decades too soon. But thank god he was. Otherwise the golden age of gay and nerd (a.k.a. now) might never have come about. 
  6. The Skeleton Twins Why you should see it: We are all just so fucked up. Also, Bill Hader is fantastic and subtle, plus the best eighties lip synch scene you’ll find anywhere. 
Honorable mention: Mockingjay Part I, Into the Woods (great casting, and my favorite musical ever, but not as moving as it might have been, for reasons I can’t quite figure out), Boyhood, Gone Girl.

Friday, December 26, 2014

a tale of two neighborhoods

1. boyle heights

During one of our roughly eighteen trips to Orange County in the past week, Waze rerouted us to side streets to avoid a bottleneck on the 5. The freeway spit us out in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood I’m always excited to discover more of, because it’s Homeboy’s original home and the site of a still unfolding story about immigration, violence, community and “gentefication.”

But what greeted us at the bottom of the exit on Christmas Eve was a giant square billboard encouraging us to take out a CareCredit account for a loved one’s funeral.

“Welcome to Boyle Heights, time to plan a funeral you can’t afford,” I muttered.

The assistant/map reader is right to be skeptical.
“Where’s my next turn?” AK said, perhaps a bit bark-ily. (We saw Nightcrawler recently, which is a dark, brilliant and extremely funny movie. The scenes in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s psychopathic, ambulance-chasing “journalist” character lays into his assistant about proper navigation technique hit a little too close to home.)

I’m familiar with CareCredit; I took out an account to pay some vet bills once, and it’s only due to the grace of the cats’ generous grandpa that I haven’t had to keep it open. I’m also familiar with how expensive, sudden and sucky funeral debt is. In the year I’ve been at Homeboy, I’ve contributed between $5 and $40 for at least a half dozen funerals of trainees’ loved ones (none for trainees, thank goodness). A couple of the loved ones died violently. A few died naturally and old. One was a baby who died of SIDS. Most were “in between” deaths; when a woman in her fifties dies of cervical cancer, you imagine that avoiding violence and starvation were more on her radar than regular PAP smears. 

In G-Dog and the Homeboys, Celeste Fremon writes about how the Boyle Heights community she witnesses comes together like no other, in good times and bad. It sounds clichéd when I write it, like some kind of terrible slumming when in fact I mean the opposite—that I am elevated—but I really do feel like homie culture has taught me to celebrate and to rally around both the living and the dead.

2. manhattan beach

Flash forward to Christmas Day. AK and I were out for a run/walk in the bright, windy morning in Manhattan Beach, having spent the night at my dad’s house. We ran along the wood chip path that bisects Valley and Ardmore in Manhattan and Hermosa. Two summers ago I ran it almost every morning while staying with my dad when AK and I needed some time apart. I was in better physical shape (except for the part where I had cancer and didn’t know it) and terrible mental shape then. I hoped AK would come around. I thought about how much she’d like running this path, and the thought of not doing these simple things with her ever again was nearly unbearable.

Watch out for friendly, free-roaming packs of volleyball zombies.
“You’re going to see what I had to grow up with,” I said yesterday morning, warning her about the packs of blonde volleyball players and yuppies with babies that we would encounter on the wood chips.

But almost none of them were out yesterday. Just a handful of mostly middle-aged dog walkers, because dog poop does not wait for Christmas.

For the first time, I noticed that most of the benches along the trail had dedication plaques. To friends and teachers and parents, with simple and earnest dedications. Someone had placed a small wreath on one of the benches.

Maybe Manhattan Beach knew how to celebrate the living and the dead too, I thought. I felt so lucky to be here with AK, to be here at all. I told her about my 2012 runs, which would end at the end of the Hermosa Beach pier. I would look at the big moody-blue ocean and feel small and something adjacent to okay.

There were also a couple of unobtrusive dog memorials too. To Barney, who loved this place so. My best friend. He has gone on the long walk. Godspeed. ~Fred.

The long walk.
Manhattan Beach is a place where (most) people die old and can afford buy headstones for their dogs. But the guilt and resentment I’ve so often felt toward my hometown don’t hold up to moments of true universality. The trick is to let these commonalities fuel the fight for justice, not lull me into a belief that if we’re all fundamentally the same, the world must be okay as is.

Today I’m enjoying that post-Christmas, washed-clean feeling. Time to put away the gifts, clean the house, stop packing my body with food in that fucked-up way that begins as indulgence and becomes, somewhere around the fifteenth chocolate-pecan pretzel, about punishment. I want 2015 to be a year of kindness and mindfulness, in a way that still allows for tumult and raucousness—the calm ocean and the choppy one. All of which is sort of code for Now I really need to lose ten pounds, I mean it this time, I want to prevent cancer and look like a pro volleyball player. After all, I grew up in Manhattan Beach.

Monday, December 15, 2014

cheryls on the trail

1. strayed

A long time ago I interviewed the poet Eileen Myles, and she said something about how traditional narrative is structured like the male orgasm, where it’s all about building to a climax. I know that theory is probably a little cringe-inducing to some postmodern feminists, but is it inaccurate?

I don’t know if Wildthe movie (I haven’t read the book! I know!)—is structured like a female orgasm, but it manages to take a long, weighty, satisfying journey without really having a climax. Or maybe it has a series of small climaxes. I would say that it is structured like the long hike that provides its frame.

It was weird to see a '90s period piece, though. Weren't the '90s like five years ago?
As Cheryl (yay for more Cheryl representation! I feel like, in pop culture, Cheryls are always someone’s off-screen bitch ex-girlfriend) embarks, largely unprepared, on the hike that will take her from the Mojave Desert to Ashland, Oregon along a multi-terrained mountain ridge called the Pacific Crest Trail, she reflects on the things that brought her here. Namely, her mother’s death, the end of her marriage to a good man she cheated on and a lot of wild, unsafe acting out via sex and drugs.

Not the PCT.
We see these things in short flashes at first. A woman’s nipple, a horse’s eye. Then we get the longer stories. Her memories are like memories: unbidden, meandering, sweet, painful. Her hike is like hiking: mundane, meandering, difficult, full of beauty too powerful for even the most cynical city kid to ignore. Jean-Marc Vallée directs with a light hand, seemingly understanding that in life and in hiking, there are more small moments than big ones. But the small ones add up.

AK and I saw the movie with my friend/coworker Sierra and the Meetup women’s hiking group she leads. It was kind of like getting a big group of girlfriends together to see Sex and the City, and kind of the complete opposite. Sierra is a tough cookie (she’s climbing a hundred peaks this year, for one thing), but her eyes were puffy at the end. As were AK’s. As were mine (but you can never measure a thing by whether it makes me cry—if it’s not so bad it actively pisses me off, I’ll probably shed a tear or five).

The scene that got me? Cheryl’s mom has a horse she loves, and after she dies, Cheryl has to figure out what to do with the horse when it too gets sick. I don’t think I’m giving away any true spoilers here—it’s not that kind of movie—but turn away if you’re really hung up on plot. Anyway, there is a gunshot. She imagines she has shot her mother.

In the only recurring dream I’ve had since I was a kid, I discover that a long-dead pet in fact hasn’t died, but has just been neglected—by me—for years. Imagine dirty rat cages and bird cages, animals ridden with tumors and skinny with malnutrition. After my mom died, she started playing roughly the same role in my dreams. She would reappear, back from the dead, only for me to realize with a sinking feeling that I’d moved on. My dad had a new girlfriend. What were we supposed to do about that? Or: I knew she’d been resurrected only to die again, soon. Or: I knew that one of us was going to live and one of us was going to die and I was rooting for myself and felt like shit about it.

So killing one’s pets and mother is a thing that unfolds in my subconscious, oh, once every couple of weeks. It was shocking and cathartic to see it on screen.

Selfie with dog and crazy hair.
2. klein

I have no ambitions to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but on Saturday I did venture with Tara and crew on a fire road up to the Hollywood sign. I’d had an anxious week (which is bleeding into this week), and it was good to get out of my own head and hang out with people and a couple of dogs I didn’t know all that well. They were a likeable group, and it was a clear day washed clean by rain.

Last week in L.A. there was a huge structure fire, a storm, flooding and a murder-suicide. We all needed a clear day.

Hike leader Tara (right) and Franny, the trusty dog she co-parents.
Tara made caprese sandwiches and little squares of pumpkin pie for everyone, and told us stories about the history of the area. Who built the sign. Who jumped off it—an aspiring actress who, had she lived, would have learned she was about to be cast in the story of a suicidal woman. I took that as a cautionary tale never to give up, although arguably she was convincing in that audition because she was already super depressed.

Better to keep trudging ahead, even when you can’t see the trail, even when your feet hurt and you know you’re supposed to be thankful you have fucking feet, but you don’t feel full of gratitude and you have no real idea what you’re doing with your life anyway. One foot in front of the other. It’ll get you…somewhere.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

viva la resolution

The other day I bought the January issue of O, The Oprah Magazine because AK wasn’t feeling well and the cover featured Oprah posing in an emerald green dress next to a lion, and I thought it would make her laugh.

It's all about me-ow.
It’s fun to make fun of O because Oprah is powerful and ubiquitous and prone to let-them-eat-cake moments; because, like every other women’s magazine, it’s obsessed with self-improvement; and because, well, see lion cover above.

But of all the magazines you can impulse-buy at the checkout counter, it’s one of the best. It takes books seriously. It features women of color regularly. And even though Oprah’s always on us to be our best selves, it turns out that the resolution-oriented articles in the January issue are pretty sensible.

I have a complicated relationship with self-improvement. I think our (American? female?) obsession breaks us down and gets us to buy shit more often than it lifts us up. On my blog and in my life, I want to be the voice of You’re good enough. Life is crazy. Have a cookie and a good cry. Yet there’s something charming and innocent about seeing every new day as an opportunity for self-actualization. I just don’t think that Scandinavians think that way, you know?

Bread and bread. And bread.
And, of course, I am always trying to self-improve. I’ve wanted to be perfect since fourth grade, at least. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to hint that while I ate flautas and three pieces of double cinnamon bread (so, sextuple cinnamon) yesterday, starting today I’m going to be a picture of clean and noble living. I’m going to eat only squash and spend my free time reading smart literary magazines. Because I have a new strategy! Because I have Oprah!

One of the magazine’s tips: Start a resolution on a Wednesday when you’re not overwhelmed by the Monday-ness of Monday. So here goes [ed. note: I wrote this post last night].

I mean, I’m not really making a resolution right now. I’m making a meta-resolution, which is not to get derailed by my own perfectionism.

The perfectionist in me wants better punctuation in my screw-it message.
Rule 4 in O’s resolution-making guide is “Your Slip-ups Are Only Detours.” It includes a zigzaggy line depicting the arc of a slipup, whether it’s financial, nutritional, whatever. “Don’t let yourself get sucked into screw-it syndrome—the idea that once you overindulge, you’ve ruined the day, so anything goes. Instead, say to yourself, Yes, I got off track, but I don’t need to make it worse. It’s easier to dig out from a 300-calorie or $30 mistake than a 3,000-calorie or $300 one.”

That’s just basic common sense, and yet I read it with a kind of wonder. Other people have screw-it syndrome too? My sister has long accused me of beating myself up for having basic human emotions. I always think that I am worse than everyone else and that I should be better. Neither is true. I’m just not that special.

During the Thought of the Day at Homeboy this morning, Fr. Greg talked about cherishing the moment. The root of the word cherish, he said, means “to hold.” We should hold good moments and bad ones, simply turn them over and look at them.

A thing I would like to hold.
To suffer from screw-it syndrome is to declare that a certain day doesn’t count. In a way, it would be awesome if we could make some days disappear and only cherish the perfect ones. But life is really fucking short, and it all counts, so you might as well cherish, which is the opposite of screw-it.

So I guess that’s my overly abstract, not-quite-the-new-year resolution (Oprah and company also recommend warming up to a new habit): more cherishing, less saying of screw it. I’ve made similar resolutions before, and even as I type this, I know that what I really want is to trick myself into being perfect by accepting my imperfection. Like some kind of secret back door to perfection.

I’ve been working on an essay or a memoir chapter or something about perfectionism, and I keep circling it, not quite sure how to describe a problem I’m still in the middle of. But I’m not a perfectionist about the essay itself, because I’m much more well adjusted in my writing life than in the rest of my life.   

Friday, December 05, 2014

the babadook, and what i read in october and november

Over Thanksgiving weekend, AK and I saw an Australian horror movie called The Babadook, about a woman whose husband died in a car crash as he drove her to the hospital while she was in labor. Six years later, she’s a single mom struggling to raise a son who sees invisible monsters. She’s frazzled. She wishes he would just go the fuck to sleep.

The movie has a great Tim Burton-ish aesthetic, but with more restraint.
One day a spooky children’s book about a monster called the Babadook shows up in their house. The book promises a terrible fate for any who ignore it and, the text cautions, the monster never goes away. At first, only her son sees the Babadook in their house, and he seems like one of those classic creepy horror movie kids, crazed and possessed.

Nothing like an old-timey rocking horse to make a kid seem creepy.
Then the mother begins to see it. Her son promises to protect his mom, even as she swallows the amorphous monster like so much black ink, becoming angry and cruel, and admitting she wishes her son had died instead of her husband.

This is a mother’s worst fear: becoming the evil mother of horror movies and fairy tales. At this point, the film’s POV flips. She’s the monster, and her son is sweet and brave (which takes some serious acting chops on both parts).

The Babadook, we know by now (“we” meaning not the film-nerd douche bags in back of us, who were excited to compare the movie to others but totally missed its unsubtle metaphors), is nothing more and nothing less than grief, embodied. The film’s simple but cautionary message is: don’t ignore it, or it will come after you and eat you and your loved ones alive.

Reading is terrifying.
So she faces it down in a scene that had me clutching AK’s arm and bawling. Yes yes yes—this is what the ball of grief and fear inside me feels like. I know I’m not alone in having a personal Babadook, and yet the nature of the Babadook is to convince you that you are utterly alone.

After the woman battles the Babadook, effectively choosing her son and the present over the seductive past, they develop a happily ordinary mother-son relationship. He gets to goof around and do magic tricks instead of parenting his mother. In the final scene, he hands her a bowl of dirt and worms he’s dug from the garden. She goes into their heavily barricaded basement and feeds it to the still-lurking, but much smaller, monster.

“How was it?” her son asks.

“It was small today,” she says.

Take note, movies and self: children are impacted by your pain (“Careful the things you say, children will listen,” sings the witch in Into the Woods). But also: they can heal. They can help you heal. It’s okay. The monsters will come and go, and to see them is not to be ruined.

Here are some books I read these past months:

This book is about neither beads nor a woman named Bailey. Discuss.
Bailey's Beads by Terry Wolverton: This girlfriend-in-a-coma story is an interesting examination of how we create our identities, and especially those of our loved ones, through story. The novel plays with form in a way that feels ahead of its time (the original pub date was the early '90s, I believe), and the questions it asks are still relevant. It's also a good read for anyone who's ever dealt with a difficult in-law. :-)

Man on wire.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann:  I'm probably not the first one to suggest that Colum McCann has written a 9/11 novel that takes place twenty-five years before 9/11. His connected short stories spin around a single, improbable event involving the World Trade Center. But instead of a tragedy, the event in question is one of beauty, artistry and comedy: a high-wire walker's stolen stroll between the twin towers in the mid-1970s. I think McCann is asking us to see the world's chaos as an opportunity; without being maudlin, each of the characters whose lives bump and crash together rise to become their best selves. Case in point: Claire and Gloria, a wealthy uptown white woman and a poor, though educated, black woman living in the Bronx. They initially become friends in a support group for mothers who've lost sons in Vietnam. Racial dynamics and sorrow dovetail in a painfully awkward moment that threatens their friendship. But they keep moving and work through it.

I can see why this novel won the National Book Award. It finds the good in Americans without denying our ugliness--slavery and poverty, Vietnam and drug addiction. Like a black-and-white photo of a person boldly displaying a scar, this is a portrait that can win even a cynic's heart.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters: This is the first Sarah Waters I've read, and her writing lives up to its reputation as "literary historical fiction" (it's always weird when genre gets legitimized with the literary tag...and yet on some level it's useful shorthand). Like Richard Yates, Michael Cunningham and so many of my favorite writers, she describes the intricacies of human emotion perfectly. She also provides a cinematic dose of well integrated historical detail, to the point that I feel like I know what WWII-era pajamas look like. And by making queer characters visible in these scenes, she commits a needed and quietly radical service.

Yet, while plenty of things happen in this book, and secrets are slowly revealed, I came away feeling like there was no real story. Or maybe that the story was too mechanical compared to the telling of it. The four young people whose lives unfold against the backdrop of WWII London are interesting and likeable, but I never know quite *why* I'm getting this glimpse into their lives. It's like Sarah Waters is such a documentarian that she never fully seizes thematic poetic license.