Saturday, August 29, 2015

the demons of exhaustion: kate gale and white sloppiness

1. first, a bit about MEEEE

I’m starting this post a little after 5 am; I’ve already been up for an hour with Dash, who is teething or mildly hungry or maybe just needs to pontificate. His new thing is closing his eyes and waving his arms while shouting, “Ah blah blah wah!” I think he may be doing an impression of me.

My point is I know a thing or two about being a tired white person. The past week included mind-numbingly boring yet crazy-making home repairs that resulted in me doing three solid hours of dusting; lots of emotional work stress on AK’s end; and an all-clear cancer check (woo!) that was front-loaded with a ton of anxiety and a margarita and a Klonopin and an emergency mini session with one of Homeboy’s therapists. (“I think I need a quick dose of some of that trauma-informed therapy I’m always writing grants about,” I emailed Theresa.)

By yesterday afternoon I felt like I could happily sleep six hours, wake up, eat cereal and go back to sleep—and repeat this cycle for a week.

2. kate gale is us

By now, those of you who are more in the literary loop than I am have read Kate Gale’s post “AWP Is Us,” which started as a riff on her blog and then ran in the Huffington Post (which really needs to stop passing off blog riffs and press releases as journalistic essays…but that’s another post). To summarize: Kate’s point—I think—was that people are always complaining that AWP is misrepresenting or under-representing them, and they act as if AWP is The Man rather than a membership organization made up of writers, including those doing much of the complaining.

Kate in a great necklace.
I do think that academics have a habit of critiquing their own ivory towers so intensely that they fail to do more than glance at the brambles and villages around the towers.

But Kate’s point was quickly lost by the odd and sloppy satire-type riff that followed, in which she adopted the stance of one of the complainers, using her own identity (half Jewish, “30% gay”) as an example. It was weird. It didn’t make much sense. It touched down in touchy territory and then flitted away. It read like a part of a dialogue I’m only on the margins of, and I think that’s part of the problem. It’s inside-baseball in a world where there are only like six people on the field and a zillion in the dugout and the stands.*

Meh, I'm like 87% gay.
She’s since deleted the post and apologized, and the literary internet has blown up, and writers of color have posted outraged and thoughtful and outraged-and-thoughtful replies. Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s blog post on the subject is especially personal and honest, while illuminating the larger issues at play (hint: Kate’s awkward humor is the least of our problems).

3. cheese & crackers

No one really needs me to weigh in on this, but hey, isn’t that what we do as white people? Add our own ah blah blah wah! to the conversation? So here goes.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine started hosting Cheese & Crackers nights for white people (crackers, get it?) to discuss racial issues. At first I was skeptical—yes, the world desperately needs to talk about and act upon racial injustice. But how could a handful of liberal white queer women talking over wine and snacks possible help anything? Wasn’t the idea just kind of…embarrassing? Cautiously intrigued, I left my Mexican esposa (who likes to be invited to the party, both literally and figuratively) at home with my Mexican baby and went to the first official whites-only event I’d ever been to.**

The cracker blues.
When I asked my friend why she decided not to include people of color in her get-together, she said: “I know myself, and if there were people of color in the room, some small part of me would be trying to show how down I am. I want to be liked. So I want to make a space where that’s not my prevailing intention, and I don’t think any person of color should have to ‘represent’ their race while I sit here trying to work my shit out.”

Good point, I conceded.

The topic of the night was white fragility, another concept I was a little vague on, but when it was reframed as wanting-to-be-down-and-liked, it made all too much sense to me.

I think Kate Gale wants to be down and liked.***

4. having it all

I’ve known Kate for about a dozen years, and I count her as a casual friend. Ironically or not, Red Hen Press (which she co-founded and runs with her husband Mark Cull) probably has one of the more diverse rosters of authors out there. I’ve always been inspired by how much she does: In addition to running a press, she teaches, travels, raises kids (now grown), sits on panels, runs marathons, and writes and writes. She blogs almost every day. Or maybe every single day. I don’t know because I don’t even read as much as she writes.

I’ve also always been a little suspicious of the breadth of her endeavors. Maybe this is my envy talking, but for once I don’t think so. Can you really do all of that without a lot of cutting corners and/or semi-invisible help? Like so many arts organizations and nonprofits in general, Red Hen is largely powered by unpaid interns. And I think Kate would be the first to admit that she often writes her blog on planes or while watching movies in hotel rooms. I.e., she writes off-the-cuff and when she’s exhausted.

The blog’s raw, clever, loving-my-full-crazy-life tone is part of what I’ve always enjoyed about it; it’s what I like about her poetry too, although her poetry is much more distilled and thought-out. Poetry is the opposite of blog. As such, that particular blog post was a window into how many white people act when they let their guard down. They admit—just-between-us-white-folks-and-the-internet?—that they’re tired of the tiredness of people of color. Even if they don’t think they are.

Of course, when a white person gets tired and sloppy and slips up, the cost is hurt feelings and some internet yelling. When a person of color gets tired and sloppy and slips up, the cost is occasionally but too often life.

Spend five minutes around Kate and you will know that her daughter is gay and kinda militant about it; I think she’s been out since she was a young teenager. Kate shares this information like any proud mama, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with how quickly she volunteers it. Was she trying to ingratiate herself by showing how un-homophobic she was? She always gave off a bi vibe herself (30%!); was she flirting? No, that wasn’t it either. I think she just wanted to be part of an us, while also perhaps enjoying the perks of other identities.

She once told me a story about traveling to South America to bring home her nanny’s relatives, who were in some kind of danger. Kate Gale has always struck me as the kind of person who has a nanny, feels a little weird about having a nanny and will genuinely put her neck on the line for said nanny, but will then make sure you know about it.

What she isn’t: a textbook racist, uncaring, all talk.

What she also isn’t: someone who can be content doing just one or two things, a good listener.

5. the only bravery

How we act when we’re tired and stressed says a lot. Once, in the midst of a tearful phone call with my friend Amy—when she was pregnant with her twins and I had just been the subject of another birthmom disappearing act—I confessed, “I’m a really good winner. I can be so kind and generous when I don’t feel threatened. But right now I’m not the winner.”

In this moment, I feel like a winner. I have my family and my health; I’ve fought incredibly hard for both, but I also know that a huge, humbling part of my current good life is out of my control.

This past Tuesday night, I didn’t feel like a winner. I felt a little like I imagine Xochitl felt when she thought, upon realizing that the press that had accepted her work wasn’t going to serve her or her community well, I can’t have nice things. Because I had one nice thing (family), I was superstitious that I couldn’t have another (health).

This is what comes up when you Google-image-search "family health." I love it when we all watch Dad and Sis play pat-a-cake for hours!
I pulled into Dash’s daycare after work with teary red eyes. My Babadook was so fucking huge, just a terrible tank I was drowning in. I stepped into the heat and walked a hallway of waist-high cubbies with names written on cards: Ixchelle, Micah, Mia, Juliette, a half dozen Owens.

It hit me—all over again and also sort of for the first time—that I was trying to raise a baby and have a mental health crisis at the same time. Who the fuck did I think I was? I knew I had to choose my baby, and yet I also desperately wanted to be a baby, to just curl up in a fetal position and not have to witness other people living their nice lives while I proceeded to die of cancer.

Fr. Greg says kindness is the only bravery there is.

On Tuesday night that meant chatting with Dash’s daycare teachers and hugging him and feeding him and getting the both of us to Villa Sombrero and handing him and the keys to AK before my margarita-and-half-a-Klonopin cocktail kicked in. It was the only way I could be kind to both of us. It meant joining AK for a margarita rather than hounding her to parrot reassuring cancer statistics back at me.

I won’t pathologize Kate too much, but I know she has her demons, and I suspect they fuel her best actions—the true and good work she does to make sure that queer writers, writers of color and otherwise outsider writers are heard. She probably knows what it’s like not to be heard. But I bet those same demons mix dangerously with her privilege at times, and she gets too busy trying to have it all to recognize that the kinder, braver thing to do would be to pause and listen.

Xochitl in a great dress.
By walking away from Red Hen’s offer to publish her book, Xochitl is being brave by being kind to herself and to her community. It might not feel like an act of self-care in the moment, but every time a writer refuses to say “how high” when a publisher says “jump,” it serves us all.

*What? I don’t know how many people are on a baseball field. DON’T MAKE ME UNDERSTAND SPORTS.

**I say “first official” because, well, I did spend the first eighteen years of my life in Manhattan Beach.

***Isn’t that part of why I’m posting this post? To think things through, yes, but also because I want to distance myself from Kate on some level and therefore ingratiate myself to the writers of color I know and respect. Because it’s all about me, right?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

these boots were made for walkin’

In my ongoing, desperate attempt to find writing time in the midst of work and family time, I joined a parent-writers group online. This week one of the members, Hannah Shanks, offered this prompt:

Tell us about one of your “little things”—a personal talisman, your daisy-print office supplies, your worry beads, your prayer shawl, your favorite mug, whatever grounds you to yourself and the wider world. Tell us about one of your touchstone items. How did it get to you? Why do you love it? How does it help you get through the day? Who gave it to you? What stories would it tell, if it could talk?

One year my friend Meehan set a resolution to wear her favorite clothes more. She had a habit I recognized all too well, of wearing her meh clothes and “saving” her special stuff for special occasions. Inevitably, by the time a worthy occasion rolled around, the clothes she’d once loved too much to wear would be out of style.

I love reading the Nostalgia column in Vogue because the writers fetishize single items of clothing so beautifully. A cream-colored cashmere sweater, a classic trench, a filmy scarf purchased on holiday in St. Tropez. These items are made from the finest materials by nameable designers. They are associated with summer romances, internships with famous photographers, mothers who died young and never let their children see them without lipstick.

"Anjelica Huston remembers the Richard Avedon photograph that launched her career." (Don't we all?)
This is not my relationship to clothing. (And thank god that wasn’t my mother’s relationship to me.) I love clothes in the way I love cooking; I’m not very good at either—although I’m better at clothes—but I enjoy being creative in a quick, daily, low-stakes way.

The other night I went to a party wearing skinny jeans from Target, a patterned tube top from Forever 21 (or maybe it was H&M) and a blue collared shirt with a bird embroidered on the shoulder, which I found at a thrift store. I thought about wearing heels, but we were bringing Dash to a house with a lot of uneven stone steps, so I stuck with Kelsi Dagger olive-green army boots. That’s the kind of dresser I am.

Army boots for wars fought on the mean streets of Paris.
Clothes come to me temporarily, ill-fittingly, with an attitude of “sure, why not?” I like that I experiment and embrace secondhand stuff. I don’t like the fact that, on some level, I’d rather have six not-quite-right dresses than one perfect dress. I want to be a one-perfect-dress kind of girl.

That’s why I love my motorcycle boots. I bought them, oh, seven or eight years ago from Zappos. The brand is Gabriella Rocha, a shoemaker I don’t have any particular affinity for. They are black leather, stopping just below my knees. A seam runs vertically from the tip of a rounded toe to the top of the shaft. There are a couple of non-functional-but-sassy buckles and a low wedge heel (so no, they’re not for the riding of actual motorcycles).

Mine weren't lace-up, but you get the idea.
That Christmas, I had let it be known to those interested in buying me gifts that I was in the market for a pair of black boots—leather or not, style flexible. My dad’s girlfriend gave me a pair of shiny faux leather boots with chunky heels. They were nice boots, but I realized upon getting the not-quite-right thing that I had a specific thing in mind. In life, in America, I think we often need to learn to make peace with the not-quite-right thing, or get creative in adapting it. I.e., I’m not sure that every expensive purchase a woman makes is some empowering feminist act. But for me in that moment, it was good to learn that I actually wanted something a little more durable and kick-ass, and to then go and get it.

Because of the durable part, these boots are one of the rare really-nice clothing items I wear all the time. For years now. The soles are getting worn down and I keep meaning to take them to a shoe repair shop, but even with a lot of wear and tear, they look great.

They don’t have sentimental value beyond what I’ve imbued them with in my years of traipsing streets (Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Positano). But that’s part of it; when I wear them I don’t owe anyone anything. They’re great for making a cocktail dress funkier or jeans (slightly) dressier. They’re like armor when I have to face someone I don’t like.

Since Dash was born, we’ve been the recipients of three amazing handmade quilts, each sewn with love and extraordinary craftsmanship. Having read Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” back in college, I wouldn’t dare consider hanging them on the wall, and yet here I’m choosing to write about my boots instead, maybe because their special-ness is defined almost entirely by their use, by their thing-ness. These boots are made for walkin’, and walkin’ made these boots.

Friday, August 14, 2015

straight outta scotland

1. brave hearts

Earlier this week, Homeboy Industries hosted its second annual Global Homeboy Network, a gathering of like-minded organizations and Fr. Greg’s answer to those who say “Homeboy is amazing! Will you start one in our city?” (“We’re not the McDonalds of social justice organizations,” he always replies.)

I.e., it would be presumptuous (not to mention financially unfeasible) to think that what works in L.A.—and, honestly, largely in East L.A.—would work everywhere.

During our Morning Meetings, whenever the schedule is announced, Marvin from Tattoo Removal says that the machines will be going “all damn day.”

Everyone choruses: “All damn day!”

Except last year one of our machines broke and we had to cut back on hours, so sometimes Marvin would say “nine to one.”

A muddled chorus of “nine to one!” and “half damn day” followed.

Can you imagine an employee handbook for Homeboy Chicago (or wherever) explaining when and how to reply “all damn day”? (I imagine there is a handbook with such systematized quirk at 826…but that’s just a hunch.)

Pedro and Fr. Greg at the gathering.
Nevertheless, certain things are pretty much guaranteed to work for most people in most communities. Namely: giving people a shitload of love and resources and a meaningful task to do. That’s Homeboy in a nutshell. It’s not complicated; it’s just also not quick or inexpensive.

Cut to a few years ago in Glasgow, Scotland. If you’re like me, you think of the UK as a place of jolly bobbies solving capers involving missing cheese (I watched some Wallace & Gromit in my day). But Glasgow had the highest homicide rate in the western hemisphere.

Iain Murray (left) with former Homeboy trainee James Horton (second from left).
When Iain Murray shared this statistic in his thick, charming accent at the conference on Tuesday, I could tell that some of the people in the room only half believed him.

“But did you have a gang problem?” they asked. I imagined they were thinking of cheese wheels gone missing too.

“Yes, a terrible gang problem,” Murray said. “Our gangs are a bit different in that it’s not hard to get out when you decide you don’t want that life. But they’re quite violent.”

As part of the Violence Reduction Unit, he was tasked with doing something about this. So, imagine if Fr. Greg were not a cuddly American priest but an angular cop with a leathery tan, light eyes and a sharp purple tie (so, basically the movie version of Fr. Greg). But my point is: cop. A cop started the Scottish version of Homeboy Industries, a place where Angry Young Men (and women) can find mentorship and jobs working as teamsters at one of Scotland’s festivals.

The program is small but growing. They have some challenges that L.A. doesn’t—L.A. has deep pockets, even if it doesn’t always seem that way from a grant writer’s perspective, while Glasgow doesn’t have many private foundations. On the other hand, they have socialized healthcare, so all their trainees physical and mental-health needs are taken care of.

A year after the police shot Mike Brown in Ferguson—a year marked by more shootings by police and others, a year of the same conversations and seemingly little progress—it seems important to point toward something that works. If the Homeboy ethos is about dismantling notions of “us and them,” cops working side by side with ex-cons seems like the ultimate dismantling.

The Glasgow organization is called Braveheart Industries; I imagine that at least some of the folks who’ve come through the Scottish program are McDonalds.

2. holy water

AK and I finally finished watching Season 3 of Orange is the New Black. The season had a spiritual arc, as silent former cult wife Norma gained her own group of followers and Black Cindy found her true calling as a Jew. Mike Birbiglia, as a friendly corporate pawn, more or less plays the Devil.

Now I’m going to give away the ending, but not the part involving Alex, don’t worry.

The banks of Freedom Lake.
In the final scenes, the women notice that workers have accidentally left an opening in the prison yard fence. So they make a break for it, to Freedom Lake, where they baptize themselves literally and figuratively. They know they’re not really getting away with anything—they’ll be rounded up and probably punished by the time the credits roll. And even as they frolic, the prison is replacing their beds with…bunk beds. Meaning that the population and the tension in the prison is about to double.

Still, the women have won in the only way anyone can ever really win. Once I heard a young widow-turned-wise-old-chaplain on the radio, saying, “If we define being blessed as defeating death, we all lose sooner or later. But if we define it as experiencing love, that’s available to everyone.”

It was a huge comfort to me during a time when I wasn’t sure what I would get to stick around for (meaning still and always). That’s the gist of the end of Never Let Me Go, and why I loved that movie so much. The greedy, broken part of me always wants to win at un-winnable games. Right now I love my life. I have most of what I want, but I still don’t have guarantees about the future, since no one does. Some days, I have the luxury of denial. Some days I don’t.

I don’t want to surrender my hope for the future in exchange for the heavenly present. Like I said, I’m greedy. I don’t think God will hold that wanting against me, because I don’t think God’s M.O. is to hold things against people. The opposite, actually.

Fr. Greg has said, “Heaven is not around the corner. Heaven is the corner.”

AK has said, “I think God lives in time. Kind of like Interstellar; I think that’s what the afterlife is.”

Heaven with big scary waves.
I believe in parallel universes, a place where physics and metaphysics collide; if you talk to some of the most open-minded, deepest-thinking scientists and clergy, I think you’ll hear versions of this. The notion of science and religion as separate and opposing forces is the stuff of politics and troll-y internet threads.

I won’t leave my little slice of earthly universe without kicking and screaming, but I can at least promise to try to keep my eye on the place where God lives, in the cool muck at the bottom of Freedom Lake.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

the not-writing life

1. the trap

I took a couple of weeks off from writing because life demanded it. That’s okay; I once thought having a kid might mean taking years off, and I was prepared to do it if I had to. But it wasn’t long before I was sad and irritable and making martyr-y, under-my-breath comments to AK.

I try not to fetishize writing too much because it gets in the way of actually writing. I’m not one for fancy pens and pretty bookmarks, and I don’t go on about how much I love books in a general sense, because you wouldn’t talk about air that way, and writing is a little bit like air in my life. Or I want it to be. Or, when it goes away for a while, I feel like I can’t breathe.

That sounds so dumb. I know for a fact that the world would be just fine if I never wrote another word, and the part of me that wants to put good things into the world questions whether my time wouldn’t be better spent ladling soup for the homeless. (There is a generic soup kitchen in my mind, where I imagine volunteering if I get too depressed to think and do my job properly but still want to be of some use to the world. The truth is that volunteer gigs where you get to interact with clients are usually overbooked, and if I was really that down-and-out I’d probably be a client at said soup kitchen myself.)

Soup served with love.
But I am wary of the Mom Trap, which is also the Woman Trap, which is also the Person Who Is Aware Of Their Role In Relation To Others Trap—the fallacy that you are doing anyone any favors by squelching your own desire. If you’re a grouchy, unfulfilled asshole, people aren’t going to line up to thank you for your service.

I had four hours of Cheryl Time on Saturday, and I used three of them to clean the house.

I love a clean house, so it wasn’t a completely selfless act, but it also wasn’t a pedicure or a haircut, both of which I need.

2. jigsaw middle age

I spent the fourth hour preparing for the first reading I’ve done in quite a while, with Tiffany Scandal, Suzy Mae and Sabrina (who has a punk pen name I can’t recall at the moment) at Book Show, a tiny but well curated shop in my ‘hood. Sabrina read about a dysfunctional relationship with a fellow sex-and-love addict*. Suzy Mae read a short story about Metallica songs predicting the apocalypse. And Tiffany read from her novel Jigsaw Youth, a fresh-voiced story about female friendships.

A giant cat tries to eat us at Book Show.
They were all young and rad and made me want to sit down to write. I felt a little bit old, and even though the piece I read—a memoir excerpt about hypochondria—got a lot of laughs when I read it at Sirenland, I’m not sure the crowd at Book Show knew it was supposed to be at least kind of funny. Also I accidentally called Florence and the Machine “Frances and the Machine.”

Maybe the Sirenland crowd was just really friendly and drunk.

Still, I had fun at Book Show and felt honored to be included with the cool kids.

With the remainder of my weekend, I went to our friend Andrea’s birthday (yay for having a babysitter!) and visited Kidspace in Pasadena with some of our friends from up north. I spent some time being crabby and exhausted and not writing.

Today I spent some time being all triggered and jumpy and sad about cancer and other sad things. Sometimes being sad is sort of its own trigger; it’s like my body knows that when it feels like this, I’m usually thinking about cancer, and so I start thinking about cancer. But there was coffee and my hypochondria sponsor Kim and reading about how shitty medicine was back in the day.

I’m okay, I think. I’m writing. Sort of. I’m inspired and flattened, tired and grateful.

*I believe that love addiction is a thing, in that there are people who are addicted to being in a relationship and can’t define themselves outside of one, but I wish it were called something besides love addiction, because shouldn’t we all be love addicts?