Thursday, December 31, 2015

my six favorite books of 2015, and all the movies i saw

AK took the kid to the park so I could blog, meaning I only have as long as it takes for Dash to get his pants filthy, crawl after a half dozen big kids and lick several pieces of playground equipment. Poignant reflections on 2015 will have to wait. Instead I’m going to post my annual list of favorite books and movies I’ve read/seen this year.

The catch is that I only read twelve books and saw seven movies in the theater. I’m actually pretty impressed I got even that much culture in. And they were mostly good ones—the theme this year is quality over quantity, I suppose. Can you choose six top books when you only read twelve? Can you just list all the movies you saw? Yes, you can, because this is a blogocracy.

Top six books I read in 2015:

1. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: Maggie Nelson says exactly what I didn't even know I was thinking, but better and smarter. I would resent her for it if I didn't feel so grateful. Here, she takes on the subjects of parenthood, step-parenthood, queer parenthood, love and happiness...but as someone who sees and knows darkness, who distrusts narrative. My Kindle version of this book is basically one big highlighted block.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: You know that thing where you're reading four books at once and then one of them takes the lead and you put all the others aside? This is that book. Karen Joy Fowler is a masterful storyteller, playing with time and memory to tell this story of a family torn apart by a sister's disappearance. She layers mysteries like a chef would layer pastry; the result is elegant and buttery, and you would never know how much work probably went into it. I don't want to give away too much (there are several twists, but even the semi-obvious one took me by surprise), so I'll just say that it's hard to write about animals and their rights (or lack thereof) without getting maudlin, cutesy or dogmatic. This book is none of those things.

3. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle: For most of the time I spent reading this book, I thought of it as a novel about imagination. As the narrator, a recluse disfigured by an unnamed "accident" as a teen, reckons with the real-world fallout of a role-playing game he invented, he (and we) contemplates the nature of imagination. Darnielle depicts a childhood both haunted and saved by an active imagination (I related, as I suspect most artists would, and maybe most people). He engages with the sublime without trying to explain it; it's a book against explaining, in a way.

But as the book meanders backward to the aforementioned accident, I started to read it as a story about choices (paralleling the many paths in the narrator's invented game) and how each choice is comprised of a million mini choices and influences.

The novel is strange and ambitious, sometimes existing almost too much in the realm of dream but pulled forward by a pretty damn compelling plot. I think the plot is a bit of a red herring; I think the book is a treatise about how plot is always a red herring, yet also the only thing that tethers us to the world.

4. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: Some things I have in common with Lena Dunham: hypochondria, envy, a tendency to binge eat and journal about it, a certain eager-puppy hard-worker quality, a desire to say fuck you to those who deserve it, awareness of my own privilege. Things I do not have in common with Lena Dunham: a boho Soho childhood, an HBO show. But I won't hold the latter against her (despite my envious nature); actually, I think Lena Dunham is one of those rare hyped wunderkinds who lives up to her reputation. Or defies it, if you are on Team Backlash. Perhaps more importantly, she's a person committed to lifelong learning, and she learns by creating, and she's not afraid to fall down or hold herself up for ridicule along the way. Those are qualities that will get anyone far in life, and they also make for very funny, wise essays, peppered with perfectly chosen details.

5. Devotion by Dani Shapiro: Sometimes the exact book that you need to read finds you. I have questions about death and God and trying not to live in fear after you've narrowly dodged a bullet. So does Dani Shapiro. They may not be answerable questions, but she writes about them beautifully and honestly, threading together stories about her parents, her son, the religion Orthodox Judaism of her youth, and the yoga and meditation of her adulthood.

Some of my favorite quotes:

"I come from a long line of religious people who aren't so sure the sun will rise in the east and set in the west--much less that their own lives will unfold predictably. I was born and bred to fear the worst. And I know that the worst either happens or it doesn't. Worry isn't a form of protection. So who's the fool?"

"As I looked around any given dingy church basement, it would occur to me that perhaps this *was* God.... In the eloquence of rising out of despair, the laughter out of darkness. The nodding heads, the clasping hands. The kindness extended to strangers. The sense--each and every time--of *Me too, I've been there too.*"

"Their stories stirred up the old terror, the latent fear--and yet what I felt beneath all that was the simple beauty of human connection.... It wasn't everything, but it was something--wasn't it? The reaching out--needing to believe that a hand would be there?"

"Where else was a sensible person to live, but on the edge of sorrow?"

In an era of big dresses and wood-burning stoves, Dr. Mutter had plenty of business.

6. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz: I started Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's biography of Thomas Dent Mutter because I have a thing for the macabre, and I knew that the museum bearing his name was full of horned skulls and giants' skeletons. What I didn't know is that Dr. Mutter was a hero and a trailblazer: Medicine in the first half of the 19th century was a bloody, screaming, disrespectful mess until Dr. Mutter came along with the radical ideas that 1) doctors should be kind to their patients and explain procedures, 2) doctors should wash their hands and tools (hygiene was for pussies as far as many of his contemporaries were concerned) and 3) patients should receive medical care after surgery. Aptowicz's book is intriguing, engaging and makes a solid case for Mutter as someone to whom any 21st century patient should be eternally grateful.
You call it captivity, I call it co-sleeping.

All the movies I saw in the theater in 2015, in descending order of how much I liked them, but I liked them all a lot. Hell yes, even Fast & Furious.

Inside Out
Straight Outta Compton
Fast & Furious 7

Monday, December 21, 2015

a well behaved woman does a small right thing

My friend Sierra and I decided to borrow some writing prompts from Cheryl Strayed. The first one was: Write about a time you did the right thing. Here goes.

First, let me say this: I’m a goody-two-shoes. Or I was. I was so good that my sister and I used to sigh when we saw bumper stickers that said Well behaved women rarely make history. There went our chance for fame.

Arguably, I have a ton of Doing The Right Thing examples to choose from. Except I haven’t done the right thing so much as I’ve not done the wrong thing. I’ve never dropped out, blacked out, abandoned, cheated, or stolen. But, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, Nice is different than good.

Doing the right thing, to me, means taking a risk or going against the grain. It means behaving badly at times. For it to count (or at least for it to make for good reading), something has to be at stake.

So here’s what I’ve come up with: I took a year off between undergrad and grad school.

I know.

Both my parents had master’s degrees, and so did at least one of their parents. If I have any cultural heritage, it is that I come from a long line of nerds. My mom went to library school in part because she didn’t date a lot. My dad got a physics degree partly because he’s somewhere On The Spectrum, I suspect.

We have humble educations—state schools, all of us—but we read and think and geek out hard. Back before the internet, one of my parents was always jumping up from the dinner table to look up something in our musty encyclopedia. My dad and sister have never put birthday candles on a cake that didn’t require some kind of mathematical code to uncrack. The wax melts into the frosting as they ponder whether the blue candles each count for ten and the pink candles count for one, or whatever.

It was a given that I would go to college. Every year my high school published a map showing where people were going to school. Being a public high school in an upper middle class city in California, there were a lot of UC’s, a lot of Cal States, a peppering of private schools and a long list of people heading off to community college. There was also a short list of people entering the military or the “workforce.” The latter struck us college-bound kids as utterly alien and snicker-worthy. It might as well have said “joining a cult.”

Midway through my run at UCLA, I figured I’d go to grad school, too. I was thinking I’d study journalism, since I worked for the Daily Bruin. Then I read a Rolling Stone cover story about how journalism schools were increasingly merging with media and communication schools, i.e. PR. Purists that we were at the Bruin, we considered publicists to be the devil. I had seen Rent too many times to be a sellout, dammit!

So I turned to MFA creative writing programs. I wanted to go to Columbia or NYU and live la vie boheme but without the AIDS part. I also applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop because it was at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s list. I applied to San Francisco State and Cal Arts because they were in California, and I liked the idea of going to an arts school.

Viva la vie boheme!
My research was shitty and my motives were dubious. I got four rejection letters in a row, while one of my best friends got a full ride to Stanford’s journalism school. I stewed in envy.

Then I got one acceptance letter, in a large envelope with an orange-striped border. CalArts—a relatively new and therefore less competitive program—wanted me.

During the application process, I’d talked to my creative writing professors about getting an MFA. They agreed to write me letters of recommendation, but despite having MFA’s themselves, they’d been lukewarm in their encouragement. (No one hates the world to which they belong more than MFA writing professors, except for maybe hipsters.) Why pay thousands of dollars to learn what I could learn just by living? Do the old-timey thing: Be poor, read books, go to poetry readings, read more books, have love affairs, travel, read more books.

They had a point.

Plus, imagine what they saw: A chubby blue-eyed 21-year-old who dressed like a cross between a rave kid and 1972, who wrote precociously but didn’t have much to write about beyond her own privilege-guilt. (E.g., in my 1999 journal, you’ll find a long poem about the time some cholos rubbed up on me at a Downtown club. You would have thought giving them the brush-off on the dance floor was tantamount to Cortes destroying the Aztec empire.) It wasn’t that I didn’t have “a story”—my own shit, my own trauma, my passions—but I hadn’t discovered it yet.

My race guilt and my internalized gender oppression did a pas de deux on the dance floor at the Mayan.
I knew this and I didn’t. The future and what I might or might not have to write about was full of unknown unknowns. I was worried about finding a job, about completely supporting myself financially for the first time, about dating, about my unresolved sexuality, and how was I going to afford to see every new musical that came to the Ahmanson on an $8-an-hour job?

School would have been a comfortable refuge, even if I had to pay for it myself. But perhaps because the same parents who’d always taught me to be good had also taught me to endure a certain amount of drudgery and discomfort in the name of getting what you wanted, I knew that sliding directly into grad school would have been too easy.

One afternoon I wrote an emotional letter to CalArts, telling them I really and truly appreciated their offer, but I needed to go live my life. I’d like to defer, I told them, although I imagined such a thing wasn’t allowed. I put it in an envelope and sobbed in a heap on the floor of the apartment I shared with three other girls.

(Three out of four of us were virgins. This feels like relevant information. Also possibly relevant: the night I wrung my hands over the fact that I’d learned Prop. 13 was bad for California, but I knew for a fact my parents wouldn’t have had a second child if it hadn’t passed, thereby lifting their tax burden, and I loved my sister! My roommate Stephanie told me to calm down; her parents were Chinese, and she wouldn’t have been born if the U.S. hadn’t bombed Japan and ended its occupation of China, but that didn’t mean she was pro-nuclear-bomb.)

The bomb will bring us together?
As it turned out, CalArts was fine with my deferral, which makes this story a little anti-climactic. But in that moment of sealing the letter, I sensed I was doing something noble and brave.

I took my year. I interviewed for a bunch of dot-com jobs at companies with names like Lemon Pop, who wanted to know if I could write content about vampires. After a slow summer interning at Entertainment Weekly—during which I mostly watched the fax machine, ordered lunch and read L.A. Weekly in an office bigger than my current one—I began writing profiles of WB stars (or “stars”) for

I occasionally worked weekends at Book Soup, a delightfully crammed bookstore on Sunset, full of drunk and queer and homeless customers. I nursed a crush on a wannabe TV writer named Nancy.

I nursed a waning crush on my roommate in the Miracle Mile, a gay guy named Tommy who made Vietnamese spring rolls and said we should class up our apartment by getting rid of our inflatable furniture.

I went dancing with my friends from Zap2it. I dated a guy named Alex who liked attending weird Christian events ironically. I more or less lost my virginity. I super-briefly dated a guy named Michael who was 31 and wanted to buy a house, and even though he turned me on to some good music, I could not have been more turned off by the idea of dating someone with such a boring name and such Republican ambitions as property ownership.

I earned $31,000 a year at Zap2it, and even though I still hoarded used paper clips, it felt like a fortune. It was, in a way. Rent was cheap (though we’d be priced out of the area two years later) and I had no debt. I bought CD’s and second hand clothes from the dollar pile at Jet Rag on La Brea. I bought a lot of caramel frappuccinos and sugary drinks at clubs. When my 1987 Toyota Tercel broke down, my dad could usually fix it.

You can get four items of clothing for the price of one frappuccino.
It wasn’t exactly a year in the Peace Corps, but it was the right decision. It was a small leap away from the world I knew, but it paved the way for bigger ones. That was the year I finally decided to date women. That was the year my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I could walk those roads with a little bit of bravery because I’d had practice—which is what resiliency is, as they speak about it in clinical terms. A baby falls on his diapered butt so, someday, he can withstand his first heartbreak. Or lose a job. Or lose a war.

I laugh at my 21-year-old self, but I laugh with affection. I don’t see her as privileged and despicable anymore. My youthful naivete walked alongside my youthful wisdom. I was just a dumb kid, but I was no dummy.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

the world is full of terrible things and i’m thinking about growing my hair out

1. rooms and wings

On Thanksgiving night, AK, her sister and I went to see Room in a nearly empty theater in Irvine while AK’s mom rocked Dash and put him to bed in his pack-n-play. I read and loved the book years ago, and for the most part, the movie delivered a similar mix of beauty, suspense and underlying terror.

If you don’t know the story, it’s this: Five-year-old Jack lives with his mother in Room, which (we learn by reading between the lines of his narration) is actually a homemade bunker built by the man who kidnapped, raped and impregnated his mom. Employing a miraculous mix of creativity and fierce determination, she’s protected him from the ugliness of their situation and created a fairly normal childhood for him. They exercise and take vitamins. They do crafts and watch TV. She tells him stories—one is the story of Samson, whose strength resides in his hair.* Jack’s has never been cut.

Egg Snake: the fun craft that is also a tally of how long you've been imprisoned!
I’m kind of proud to say that Room the movie didn’t hit me much differently from Room the book, despite the fact that I became a mother in between. I’m proud because I hated and hate the notion that only parents truly understand the human condition—that parenthood, and especially motherhood, is this magical, exclusive club.

Okay, so maybe during the scary parts AK had to lean over and whisper, “It’s okay—Dashaboo is home cuddling with his Nana.” But love and empathy are accessible to all humans.

Emma Donaghue wrote the screenplay as well as the novel, and she makes all the right choices, saving Jack from being cloying and his mother from being a Law & Order: SVU-type victim. The story functions as a metaphor for parenting in general—you protect your child from the horror of the world in order to prepare him to face it.** It’s also a portrait of the “good enough” mother. Jack’s mom is arguably the best mother in the world, but she has “gone days” when she curls up in bed and succumbs to the hopelessness of their situation. Jack entertains himself and is okay.

Later she says, “I wasn’t a good enough mother.”

He says, “It’s okay. You’re Ma.”

When she needs strength, he lends her his hair.

2. give me down-to-there hair

There’s plenty of real-life awfulness happening today. Some people shot up a holiday party at a center that helps people with developmental disabilities; why not just kill Santa and Jesus while you’re at it?

I was already in a jumpy mood because I have a cancer check-up coming up. Just writing about it beforehand makes me superstitious—I’d much rather talk about my anxiety in relieved hindsight than in real time. But I’m trying to be brave, for whatever it’s worth. Quite possibly nothing.

In very important news, I’ve been thinking of growing my hair out. When I asked my friend Kenny to cut it just before I started chemo, I was surprised how much I liked it. Keeping it short since then has been a stylistic choice and also my way of saying, “I have short hair because I want to, not because cancer is keeping me from long hair.”

My current awkward 'do. Dash is growing out his hair too, but somehow it looks cuter on him.
Behind that statement, though, is this whispered, opposite one: “Why grow my hair out if I’m going to lose it again anyway?” Why wear your hope right there on your head for everyone to see?

But maybe the brave thing, now, is to be vulnerable. To love (my hair) knowing that it’s better to love and lose (my hair) than never to love at all.

Also, I’m really fucking lazy about getting haircuts.

I was debating my hair choices out loud and Kendra said, “Growing it out could be a good fuck-you to cancer.”

It feels like the opposite—an admission that cancer didn’t just change me in good, wisdom-y ways, that I am scared, that I miss what I lost—but now I think maybe it’s this third thing, and in my experience, the third thing is always where it’s at. Maybe it can be my strength and my weakness at the same time.

*See Susan Straight’s A Million Nightingales for another amazing story of parenting in captivity and the possible magical qualities of hair.

**I didn’t make up that theory. But here’s one I did (theory includes spoilers, but none that aren’t also in the trailer): Room is a little bit of an adoption story (in the book Jack’s mom was adopted by her parents, which she mentions in passing), or at least a love-makes-a-family story. When a reporter asks Ma what she’ll do when Jack asks about his father, she growls, “He is not his father. A father is someone who cares for his child.” And it’s Jack’s step-grandpa who plays the most grandfatherly role in his life.