Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Note: Contains spoilers, so if you’re an even slower viewer than me, move along.

Pop culture has an unfortunate history of killing off both Black characters and lesbians as plot devices. So how did Orange is the New Black manage to violently kill a Black lesbian and make it the complete opposite of gratuitous? Which is to say devastating, and a tragedy in the true Aristotelian sense.

I took some mental notes as I was watching/sobbing, and I’m writing them down because I think they’re relevant to anyone who cares about narrative and social justice, and narratives that advocate for social justice without feeling like a Very Special Episode (see: The L Word, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman).

Here’s what OITNB did right in the episodes leading up to and following the one in which Bayley, a young, gullible white guard, accidentally strangles Poussey while fighting off Suzanne, aka Crazy Eyes:
  • The show doesn’t introduce a character solely for the purpose of killing her. We got to know Poussey over the course of fifty episodes. We witnessed her hilarious and complicated friendship with Taystee, her overreliance on some nasty-looking hooch and her unexpected romance with Brook Soso. Thus Black lives matter, not just Black death.
  • The system is the bad guy, not Bayley. The lawyers that the prison brings in to sweep the crime under the rug are slick and ruthless, straight out of an episode of Nip/Tuck. But everyone else, all the way up the chain of command, is pretty human (minus that one psychopath guard…but I guess we’ll be dealing with him in Season 4). OITNB is not the first work of pop culture to effectively convey this idea, but when Caputo throws Poussey under the bus to save Bayley, it drives home the personal fallout of such a system. “White privilege” is rapidly on its way to becoming an overused phrase, although that’s largely due to the fact that it’s an overly pervasive reality—but this event is a perfect example of it, with some hetero privilege thrown in. Bayley and Poussey had different childhoods—hers global, his provincial—but they both did okay. They were both essentially nice people. Poussey’s race and sexuality made her a target, though, and Bayley’s gave him power. 

  • We have to watch Taystee and Soso mourn. In Ghettoside, Jill Leovy writes about the chronic, deep-rooted grief that pervades communities in which violence is the norm. But if the people on the news who get killed don’t look like your loved ones, it’s easy to forget that they’ve left people behind (and here queer invisibility is relevant; consider all the generations of men and women who couldn’t attend their partners’ funerals, or had to do so as a “friend” or “roommate”). Taystee’s devastation is particularly palpable. “People keep saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but she wasn’t my 80-year-old granny,” she says. (Someone give Danielle Brooks an Emmy, please.) 

  • The final episode flashes back to a magical night in which Poussey wanders New York, sharing cigarettes with drag queens and a bike ride with apparent monks, the city twinkling into infinity. It’s a beautiful visual poem, capturing how a life is created through a mix of randomness and connection. And those same factors can eventually beget death. But at least we got to send Poussey off with dignity. She’s not a martyr for a cause. She’s a person.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

planting acorns: #parklit hashtag book festival free-write

At this very minute, my innovative writer friend Bronwyn is hosting a "hashtag book festival" about parks. What does this mean? It means that if you go here, you can encounter interesting things to read about parks, and post your own thoughts, writing, pictures and recommendations, all from the comfort of your phone or computer. A genius locale for a book festival in the middle of August.

I'm taking this as a call to jot down a few of my own #ParkLit thoughts; I was inspired by a photo Bronwyn posted of Mesa Verde, the national park where she just did a writing residency. I doubt she was housed in an actual cliff dwelling, but that's how I like to picture her: sitting inside an adobe house, laptop on her knees, gazing at the valley below.

Great view. Tough commute.
My family took one kind of vacation when I was a kid: We visited state and national parks in our 1979 Dodge Four Star motor home. We always left no later than 5:30 am. My sister and I rolled out our sleeping bags in the back of the cabin while my mom heated Costco muffins the size of our heads in an oven the size of a shoe box and my dad drove.

Sometimes we went places that were only impressive to adult palettes, places with a lot of trees but nothing my sister and I considered exciting. Things we considered exciting: rivers and lakes you could swim in, deer, gift shops, ice cream. The trip--to somewhere hot, I don't remember where--on which we discovered Pudding Pops was especially magical. We found them again in the freezer section of the grocery store when we got home, but they never tasted as delicious as they did from a vendor's cart by the side of the trail.

Here is a short list of my favorite non-natural memories from parks:
  • googly-eyed neon rubber animals from the Big Sur gift store
  • The Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe, the high-end hippie gift store just outside Big Sur
  • butterscotch pudding in tin cans
  • Junior Rangers badges
  • bringing my pet rat, Rosie, who liked to eat the crumbling rust-colored motorhome curtains
Do you need a rain stick? Turquoise jewelry? A CD of flute music? The Phoenix Shop is your place.
Sometimes we went places that even my parents admitted were duds. The Loneliest Highway in America and Dead Horse State Park became the stuff of family legend. Sometimes our motor home broke down, and my dad would swear and tinker by the side of the road. Eventually he started bringing a spare alternator wherever we went. My mom did as much cooking and cleaning as she did at home, making the concept of "vacation" somewhat dubious. She naturally woke up at 5:30 am, for the apparent purpose of loudly banging pots and pans and sorting through her underwear drawer, which was just below my head on the bench where I slept.

Sometimes we went places that were so spectacular they broke through my desire to go somewhere more "normal" and kid-centric (i.e., Disneyworld). Mesa Verde was one of those places.

Traipsing through Anasazi ghost towns, I was filled with fascination and envy. There was a part where you had to crawl through a very small tunnel, and another part where you had to walk on a very narrow cliff-side trail. My parents patiently talked me through my claustrophobia and my fear of heights, and it was worth it. The part of me that loved Sunset Magazine spreads about spectacular tree houses and cool little play-nooks you could build beneath stairs fell in love with cliff dwellings. (Never mind that my dad actually built us an amazing play house, complete with a linoleum floor, a loft and running water that we almost never played in.)

These lucky kids have a dog and a tree house! I only had cats and a playhouse. #HardKnockLife
I invented an Anasazi family with two daughters, Kachina and Mazli, and wrote stories about them. Typical plot: Mazli finds an injured deer and adopts it as her pet. They weren't very good plots, and they probably weren't culturally sensitive or accurate, given that the names I gave my characters were just imagined Indian gibberish. (Kachinas are real. But I don't think they're Anasazi.)

When I started fourth grade in the fall, we studied California history and were tasked with writing about Native Americans. Most kids wrote stuff like "The Chumash rowed very far in their canoes. They ate many fish." I pounded out a Mazli-and-Kachina story and volunteered to read it before I realized what I was doing. I was the only kid who'd written fiction about something completely unrelated to the assignment. By eighth grade, I would happily write "personal essays" about a huge network of cool cousins I didn't actually have, and now I can look back on my small rebellion with pride, but in the moment I wanted to sink into the floor.

Hopi kachinas.
Here is a short list of my favorite nature-involving memories from parks:
  • the rock water slide and swimming hole at Cuyamaca State Park
  • the big red rocks somewhere in the desert that I climbed and got stuck on for a while 
  • anything climbable, really
  • the sulfur stink of Yellowstone, and the bison traffic jams
  • singing loudly and badly at the mouth of the Grand Canyon
  • rafting in Yosemite during a drought, the water so low I could pop into the river and pull our boat on foot 
  • the mountain lion my mom spotted on one of her solo morning walks, proving that there was something to do at 5:30 am other than clang pots and pans
  • the time my dad--who likes water about as much as your average house cat--waded up to his neck in Lake Havasu; it was so hot that we were actually allowed to use the air conditioning in our motor home
  • the acorns we collected and discarded in the back yard when we got home; they're huge oak trees now

Thursday, August 04, 2016

planning, not-planning and recalibrating

I’m doing a few unusual things right now.

1) I am writing (an uncommon enough occurrence in itself) in our home office. This is notable because a) we have a home office—at our old place, half of the office was Dash’s bedroom and the other half was packed too tightly to do much in—and b) I am writing in it. Long before Dash set up his crib where our file cabinets used to be, I was a coffee shop kind of writer. Home was both too quiet and too distracting. Even now, I hear the siren call of a dishwasher that needs unloading. But new house = new habits, so I’m trying to start one today. Don’t worry, I’ll still spend approximately 73 percent of my disposable income on lattes, but I am determined not to let our lovely, light-filled office become a storage room.

Right now I’m enjoying a truly idyllic view: front porch, little yard with drought-resistant greenery, quiet street, small teal house belonging to the second neighbor we met, a filmmaker named Diane, who brought us a giant bag of oranges and gave us a few tips on dealing with the first neighbor we met, a mentally challenged woman who likes to abscond with our trash cans for several days at a time.

I just posted a picture of my blog on my blog. So meta!
2) I’m taking a mental health/self care day. Dash has been going through an 18-month sleep regression for the past couple of weeks. Google “18-month sleep regression” and the first thing that comes up is an article called something like “Why the 18-month sleep regression is worse than all the others.” Oh good.

It’s not actually worse; it’s just that his sleep is effed up because he’s going through some sort of developmental leap that is yet to be revealed and he is also simultaneously being a toddler.

Earlier this week my boss gave me some constructive criticism that really stung because it was accurate, and while my long-term response needs to be to work harder/better, I guess, in the short term I felt like I just really needed a nap. So I took a long one this morning after dropping Dash off at daycare. It was glorious.

3) I made a plan.

Longtime Bread and Bread readers will know that the last time I made a Big Life Plan it was shot to hell, and in recent years, I’ve really become an advocate of not-planning, at least if you’re a person who, by disposition and upbringing, tends to believe that planning will save your life and your soul. It won’t. I learned that the hard way.

As a parent, not planning is one of my greatest triumphs and anti-strategies. I don’t mean that, if we’re going to the beach, I don’t pack sunscreen and six changes of clothes. I do. (Between you and me, going to the beach with small children isn’t the funnest.) I mean that for reasons having to do with both privilege and its jaded opposite, I don’t spend a lot of time obsessing about developmental milestones or preschools or organic food or college.

This is good sun protection right here. If the Trumpocalypse doesn't get us, we're gonna need to prevent skin cancer.
I really believe that the best thing I can give Dash is my presence in the present. If I pay attention to him and love him and protect him from large pointy objects, the rest will fall in line. And if it doesn’t we’ll cross those rickety bridges when we get to them. And if we fall into the rushing waters below those bridges, we will do our best to climb out and dry off. And if we can’t climb out and dry off….

See, it doesn’t take long for me to get to a place of catastrophizing, even in metaphor. I’m superstitious that even writing about my impressive go-with-the-flow mothering will ensure that I’ll find out tomorrow that Cheerios (54% of Dash’s diet) cause brain tumors.

All of which is to say that not-planning doesn’t come easy, but neither does planning, anymore. I highly recommend not-planning to Cheryl types. Or rather, plan your day, but not your year. And expect that you’ll have to recalibrate about ten times a day. But like actual GPS maps, I’m getting faster at doing that.

Been there, driven that.
The other day, though, I made a veeeerrrrrryyyy tentative three- to four-year plan in my head. I was thinking about the things one considers: work, family, creative life. How to make sure that I prioritize the right pieces at the right times.

The only piece of acting advice I ever got, right before going on stage in a Cal Arts production in which I played a duck, a bartender and a transwoman, was: Don’t rush things, and don’t be lazy. When it comes to planning, I always want to rush things. If I really want something (a second child, for example; although I still don’t know if/how much I want this), I must want it right now, right? Sometimes this impatience has paid off. Other times it has led to sloppiness, settling and disappointment.

This duck's all "Rub mah belly. Bring me a beer."
In the microclimate of a day, I can be lazy. I don’t want to work out. I don’t want to initiate a meeting. I don’t want to read hard things. I procrastinate by telling myself that I will be my true, amazing, over-achieving self tomorrow. A healthier and realer statement would be As a regular human, I need both rest and challenges. How about I do one challenging thing and then one resty thing? (Ugh, who wants to even hang out with a person who is so well adjusted as to have that for an interior monologue?)

Today I did a resty thing. Now I’m doing a blog thing, which is, okay, maybe not a huge challenge, but it’s helping me think through some stuff. Thank you for bearing with today’s navel-gazing.

I just wrote and deleted a paragraph about Donald Trump. I was going to say something about how the demographic he appeals to most is blamers. People who like to watch other people get fired on TV. That’s a lot of people, myself not necessarily excluded—I just also check myself before I wreck myself/the country. But then I realized that the fact of a psychopath holding up scapegoats unconvincingly is not exactly new.

I really don't understand why Hillary is the one with the "likability" problem. Because screaming Cheetos are so charming?
So I’ll spare you a predictable rant. Even my own head is a more interesting and hopeful place to be than Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Amy Poehler for VP!
Needless to say, I’m With Her—a person who has been both patient and ambitious, and who has seen her plans shit upon periodically and who has recalibrated accordingly. Beyond the fact that she has the chops, sanity and compassion for the job, it would also be pretty sweet to see her hard work pay off. That’s not to say that our political system is even remotely a meritocracy. But the part of Hillary Clinton’s personality I love most is the part Amy Poehler has played up on SNL—the hair-tearing, un-concealable ambition of the smartest girl in class. And even though I don’t believe in a world where hard work, patience, impatience and flexibility always pay off, it’s the world I want to live in.