Sunday, December 31, 2017

tops of 2017

In keeping with last year’s pseudo-resolution to focus on my strengths rather than my deficits, I’m making a list of…well, “accomplishments” isn’t the right word, because I’m always trying to be more process-oriented and to just be period (while also trying desperately to accomplish all of the things). Most of the items on the list below are just milestones in ongoing challenges. Of all the generic inspirational quotes I might want to paint on a chalkboard in a curly font for 2018, Progress Not Perfection would be the winner.


With that caveat, here are my favorite things—about myself and in the arts—of 2017.

Six things I’m proud of:

1. Joining 826LA/knowing when it was time to grow: I was happy at Homeboy Industries. Or so I told myself. I’d gotten the hang of grant writing and I liked my coworkers. So what if there was a low hum of sexism and an organizational culture that didn’t cater to quiet worker bees like myself? I’d built a little box for myself and I was comfortable there. It took an encouraging boss and an opening at an org I’d admired for more than a decade to help me see that I wanted more. Changing jobs is a major life event—something I remind myself when I wonder why I’m so tired—and the past three months haven’t been easy on me, AK or Dash. I still have a lot to learn about development and leadership, not to mention doubts galore, but 826 is a delightfully functional organization, where I feel surrounded by my people (word nerds who care about social justice). I feel like I’m in the right place, and I hope they agree.

2. Raising a nut: Dash likes to streak through parties naked, sing mash-ups of “Jingle Bells” and “Wheels on the Bus,” yell for us to chase and tickle him, tell jokes (in his toddler way), pretend to cry, and pretend the spices in my dad’s cupboard are trash cans and that he’s a garbage truck collecting them. His imagination if in full bloom right now, and his energy level is painfully high. This makes him a pretty typical three-year-old, although I think he might be a little extra on the goofiness front. He loves to laugh and make other people laugh. I was always a well behaved kid, and while my parents never stifled me, they were serious types who either didn’t know how to cut loose or didn’t value it. When Dash is a little out of control in public, I get a vicarious thrill. I get to be the relaxed parent who has defied my own upbringing and I get to be a crazy preschooler whose brain is always asking What would happen if I threw this….

What would happen if I put my shoe in the water while driveway surfing?

3. Joining Weight Watchers/kicking my perfectionism: I’ve lost weight, but more importantly, I now have a handy little app and an encouraging support group to remind me that one cookie won’t kill me or, as used to be the case, make me feel good at first, then bad, which led to punishing myself by eating ten cookies and half a loaf of bread, which led to feeling even worse emotionally and physically, which led to declaring that tomorrow I would be perfect, and so on.

Until WW, I don’t think I realized quite how much I still equated food with moral purity. If I only ate carrots, I felt superior to the mere mortals around me; if I fell to their level, I would convince myself I was much worse than all of them and be overcome with shame. So WW is just one more stop on a lifelong journey of accepting my own humanity. I’m a fallible but lovely mortal who is capable of eating a smoothie for breakfast and a rosemary shortbread cookie after lunch (just finished one of those) and returning to vegetables at dinner.

"Encase it in gelatin" is the "put a bird on it" of vintage Weight Watchers recipes.

4. Continuing to think critically and speak respectfully, even (especially?) on the internet: We live in a time of extremes, where you’re either punching Nazis or one of them. I really value writers and thinkers who look for a third thing—something outside the standard narrative and the counter-narrative. Myriam Gurba is one, and I’m glad to see her getting buzz (even though I’m so envious because she’s a peer and that’s how I am wired; but if you’d asked me a year ago what kind of voices should be elevated and celebrated, hers would have been at the top of my list, so I’ll handle my envy in therapy). It wouldn’t be 2017 if I hadn’t blocked a couple of right wingers in my feed, but I try to call in rather than out, own my flaws and avoid easy virtue-signaling shit. Sometimes that means I just post pictures of snakes in sweaters, which I am not sure is the answer. But isn’t it, kind of?

Yet another stick-thin model promoting unrealistic body images.

5. Giving good text/being a friend when time is tight: I don’t see my friends as much as I’d like to, and I’ve never been much of a phone person (who knew I was such a Millennial?). In person I’m prone to interrupting and talking about myself, a habit I’ve been trying to break since college, but texting sort of forces me to pause and provide a thoughtful, if brief-because-text, reply. My sister and my friends Holly, Nicole and Sierra often text me down from my anxiety, and I like to think I do the same.

6. Still writing: It’s hard. It doesn’t happen enough. When it comes to my memoir-in-slow-progress, I swing between wondering why I’m dwelling on such an unpleasant chunk of my life (because I just want to force a silver lining on it?), and thinking it’s the most important thing I’ve written. But I’m writing. I am especially proud of this piece in Blunderbuss.

Twelve cultural things (books, movies, TV shows and podcasts) I loved:

1. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: an immigration tale that is simultaneously hopeful, realistic and surreal.
2. Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon: a deep journalistic look at parenting kids who are different from the people who are raising them; this book will stay with me for years.
3. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond: Is capitalism (in the sense of land ownership) even more destructive than we thought? Is racism worse than we thought? Does eviction itself essentially push drowning people under the water repeatedly? Yes, yes, yes. Despite the depressing truths revealed in Desmond’s book, it’s a page turner.
4. Wind River: a murder mystery that draws attention to the dangers of being indigenous and female.
5. S-Town: a mystery and a study of thwarted genius in rural America.
6. Coco: a story about the tensions between following your family and following your dreams, covered in glowing marigold petals. I realized a week later that it’s also subversive: Calavera Hector first appears as a tricky criminal trying to illegally cross into the land of the living. Once we get to know him, we see he’s a hardworking guy who wants to be with his family. Take note, America.

No tiene papeles.

7. Carol by Patricia Highsmith: sumptuous mid-century prose, nuanced character development and a happy ending for a queer couple.
8. Closer Than They Appear: Carvell Wallace’s new podcast about race in America, as seen through an interpersonal lens. As co-host of Mom and Dad are Fighting, he made me love the way his brain works. In a cultural landscape of white people shouting about how awful white people are, I find it incredibly refreshing to listen to a black guy (and guests ranging from Van Jones to Carvell’s Aunt Bea) talk—thoughtfully, honestly, unflinchingly—about how complicated all people are.

Carvell Wallace puts the pieces together.

9. Better Things: formally odd, fantastically feminist TV show about a single mom and actress played by Pamela Adlon. Or as my co-worker Kenny has framed it, all the truth and awkwardness of Louis without the problematic Louis thing.

Sam, Duke, Frankie, Max: some of the best names on TV.

10. Get Out: as good as everyone says, for all the reasons everyone says, and it would probably be higher up on my list if it weren’t so terrifying as to be extremely stressful viewing.
11. Big Little Lies: juicy and true, with a great soundtrack and a great cast. Reese Witherspoon, keep going with your bad producing self.
12. Silicon Valley: Everything I know about coding, servers and the boom-and-bust tech world, I learned from binge watching the witty and sweet SV while recovering from the flu.

Happy New Year, friends!

Thursday, November 09, 2017

seasons of love

Everything Cheryl does, she’s totally joking and completely serious.

2,628,000 minutes
2.6 million moments so dear
2,628,000 minutes
How do you measure, measure five years?

In new jobs, in boob jobs, in blog posts, in cups of coffee
In coffee, more coffee, in coffee, and tea
In 2,628,000 minutes
How do you measure five extra years?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love

2,628,000 minutes
2.6 million plans gone awry
2,628,000 minutes
How do you measure public places I’ve cried?

In grants that I wrote, and novels on the side  
Facebook rabbit holes are no source of pride

It’s time to kiss Dashaboo
Though he’s sticky with jam
Let’s celebrate, remember five years

Remember the love
Remember the love
Remember the love
Measure in love

Rent rent rent rent reeeeennnnnnt!
In diapers, in houses
In homies, in couples therapy
In contacts, from birthmoms
who never wrote back

In 2,628,000 minutes
How do you figure five years on earth?

Figure in love
Figure in love
Figure in love
Measure in love
Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

fear-based life

Putting Dash to bed has been an ordeal lately, an up-to-two-hour affair involving multiple requests for milk (yes, after he's brushed his teeth; I judge me too!) and kisses from whichever mom isn't in the room. He wants "one more book." He wants to sleep on the floor. No, wait, he wants to sleep on the bed. No, the floor. He wants "that pillow." No "my pillow," which might look like that pillow, but is in fact inexplicably different.

He wants "Dinosaur Boom Boom," a game I used to play when he was a baby, which has recently enjoyed a revival. He lays down and I hold his legs and chant "Boom boom, boom boom, dinosaur walking, dinosaur walking. Swish swish, swish swish, dinosaur dancing, dinosaur dancing." Etc. Recently he added a part where he kind of kicks me in the face. Good times.

He has successfully sleep-trained me.
He is, as you may have gleaned based on the behaviors described above, 2.75 years old. My emotions swing along with his, from charmed to exasperated to near tears as I contemplate what it means to be the kind of person whose toddler doesn't fall asleep until 9:47 pm. Surely it's because I haven't read enough parenting books or been tough enough or kind enough or created a sufficiently predictable routine.

(Sidebar: Yesterday I was part of a work email exchange about using strength-based language when it comes to describing the kids we serve. Except I learned that "serve" is not the most strength-based word, because it smacks of missionary language and savior complexes. My first thought was OMG, I am THE WORST at strength-based thinking! I tried to amend that to I am willing to learn! But as I shared with my therapist later, I always worry that if I'm not asking myself "Cheryl, are you a piece of shit?" then I won't even bother trying at life. I don't actually think I'm a piece of shit. If that was true, I wouldn't be able to maintain healthy relationships or apply for jobs or blog. But I am convinced--especially when under-caffeinated--that I must maintain constant vigilance or I will tumble down a slippery slope made of peanut butter cups, and land in the shit pile that is my true destiny. I'm working on it.)

Anyway, I have varying degrees of empathy for Dash's bedtime shenanigans. One more book? Sure, kid. Reading is fundamental. Throwing books off the shelf and biting Mommy's leg? Not so much.

Last night he was heavy-lidded and SO. CLOSE. TO. SLEEP. He sat up and said, in a small sad voice, "Mommeeeee."

"What is it?"

"Scary masks."

Contemplative little monkey, refusing his monkey head (which isn't a mask, but why risk mask-adjacency?)
Two weekends ago, AK's dad invited us to a Halloween festival in Orange County. We imagined a fun day in the park with Nana and Papa. But it turned out her dad couldn't even go--he just thought we'd enjoy it. And it wasn't a park so much as the parking lot of Tarbell Realtors, with some bounce houses and stickers. And when Dash spotted a seven-year-old in a Scream mask and hood, he leapt toward me, burst into tears and clung to me like the monkey he's dressing as for Halloween.

His fear was as abject and visceral as my need to comfort him. I wondered if that made me a little fucked-up--to take such pleasure in hugging my kid when he was so sad. Do I want him to be miserable? But I'm going to try not to overthink this one. My most important job as a parent is to keep him safe, and I will fail at it. The world is full of war and disease and unprotected left turns, so if I can be a hero in the wake of this one made-up danger, I'll take it. I'll milk the hell out it.

Drew thinks this mask is scary too.
Two more Halloween parties this past weekend solidified the scary-mask thing. He also finds puppets and animatronic toys highly suspect, and I agree that moving things that are not quite human are fucking terrifying. But I was surprised to hear they were haunting his thoughts after the fact, which feels like a more adult category of fear.

My heart sank a little. Do anxious cycling thoughts set in so young? I was a scaredy-cat kid, and managing fear has been a major theme of my adult life. Temperament-wise, Dash seems to be outgoing but cautious, not the first kid to jump off the top of the slide, but not the last. But if ghoulish masks were floating through his mind--more terrifying because you can't just step away from your own thoughts, because that kind of fear doesn't recede on November 1--it was a new category. And I could relate.

"I know masks are scary, but they can't hurt you, and Mommy and Mama will always do our best to keep you safe," I said, trying to walk that line between validating and fanning the flames. "Let's try to think of something happier."

I proceeded to lead an ad hoc visualization exercise, dreaming up the toddler equivalent of a walk through a calming meadow. "Let's imagine we're on a train with all your friends. With Patrick and Wendell and Serenity."

"And Claire," he said. (Claire is an older kid at daycare. The other day he announced that he'd hit her, and she'd hit him. "How did you feel when that happened?" I asked. "I like it," he said, and I had no answer.)

"And a bunch of dogs and cats, and our big train is going by the ocean," I said.

During this time, I was hugging him but also stretching out my arm to text my friend Holly and look at Facebook, because I suck a little. But my therapist and I have also talked about how being a slightly distracted parent frees kids up to become themselves without feeling a bunch of pressure. So let's call that a strength.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

dirty john and the domestic sphere

Yesterday I cleaned the house while AK took Dash to Orange County for some tia time, and I binge-listened to the L.A. Times’ Dirty John podcast. I’m one of those true crime podcast junkies: I was into both seasons of Serial, I squeal and laugh along with the sloppy-funny hosts of My Favorite Murder every week, and I loved falling deep into the Southern gothic tragedy of S-Town.

Orange (County) is the new noir. (Photo credit: Christina House, L.A. Times.)
At first Dirty John seemed like a well reported but relatively unremarkable imitation of other true-crime cultural phenomena, right down to the Making a Murderer-esque soundtrack. The title character is not an affable possible innocent a la Serial’s Adnan, nor a tortured genius like S-Town’s John B. McLemore. Dirty John is a fairly typical conman with some power and anger issues, who has perhaps seen too many mob movies. It’s not that I don’t think literal psychopaths are interesting (if my not-completely-scientific study of My Favorite Murder is any indication, the equation for psychopathy seems to be horrific childhood abuse plus head injury, which is reason #493 Dash doesn’t get to play football). It’s that psychopaths are kind of defined by their immunity to outside influence, and I’m interested in the ways people are shaped by culture, systems and family.

Debra Newell, part of the interesting part. (Photo credit: L.A. Times.)
Then I realized that Dirty John was not the interesting part of Dirty John. (Some vague spoiler-esque comments follow, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.) Having worked with formerly incarcerated people for a few years, I thought a lot about the injustice of the justice system and the humanity of criminals. To the point that every now and then, I’d be surprised all over again by the realization that Victims are real people too. My Favorite Murder—in its tripping-over-its-own feet, non-didactic way—does a good job reminding its audience of this. Also that victims of violent crimes are disproportionately female. Also that they are sometimes as fucked up as anyone.

At first I thought Maybe I’m unimpressed by Dirty John because it’s about one psycho asshole, and it doesn’t reveal anything about a system or a culture. Then I realized Duh, the system at work here is the family system he insinuated himself into. And maybe I think of family as uninteresting because I’ve been taught to devalue the domestic sphere.

Once I shifted my focus, I was fascinated. Debra Newell, an Orange County interior designer who’d had chronic bad luck with men, is the mother of two daughters with the most intense SoCal upspeak you’ll ever here: Jacquelyn, who takes no shit, and sweetheart Terra, who seems a little dumb, who lives for dogs and The Walking Dead.

Long ago, Debra’s sister was murdered by her controlling ex-husband. Debra’s Christian mother decided to forgive her son-in-law and even testified on his behalf in court. This family culture of forgiveness seems to impact Debra’s willingness to “see the good” in Dirty John long after most people would have given him the boot. Without revealing the ending, I will say that Jacquelyn may not be the only family member who realizes that forgiveness can be a slippery slope to victimhood.

Georgia and Karen staying sexy and not getting murdered. (Photo credit: Entertainment Weekly.)
Almost a month after leaving Homeboy, I’m still processing my time there. I’ve complained—both good-naturedly and seriously—about our lack of systems, and how we haven’t totally realized you can’t run an $18 million organization like a one-man-show in the back of a church. But Homeboy’s reluctance around rules goes beyond nonprofit growing pains. I also witnessed how sometimes our mantra that “You’re not the worst thing you’ve ever done” got flipped into “You can keep treating people poorly with no consequences.”

I don’t personally know where or how to draw the line. But I know that empathy for perpetrators (who inevitably were victims first) can’t carry more weight than empathy for victims. Or maybe that we can love perpetrators all we want—deeply and truly—but only victims should be in the business of deciding what’s forgivable and when.

The domestic sphere. But imagine that instead of rolling dough, I'm microwaving mac n cheese.
I was thinking about family systems in a less dramatic way (though it felt very dramatic at the time, largely because I missed a dose of Effexor) on Monday night, when Dash was losing his shit over the fact that I wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk before bed. He kept yelling, “I need milk! I’m talking to you, Mommy!” His face was red and puffy. He sobbed and pounded on his bedroom door. I held my ground because I think that’s a thing I need to do more, but wondered as always: Really? Is this the hill I’m going to die on? 

I offered water and applesauce and goldfish crackers. I kept my voice calm and may have literally said at one point, “There’s no way out of pain but through it, but I am here with you.” I fought the urge to cry and make it all about me, and encourage him to take care of my feelings, the way my mom sometimes did, unintentionally, to me. He continued to rage, tragically and adorably. I felt like shit.

Last week AK and I debated the merits of timeouts, or lack thereof. She knows more about child psychology and development than I do, and sometimes that makes me feel like a loser, although no one but me is stopping me from reading a few childcare books.

I started feeling that by discouraging me from giving Dash a timeout for biting me, she was taking his side and leaving me to take care of myself. My therapist rightly pointed out that I was casting AK in the role of my mom, who I believed always took my younger sister’s side. Cathy was smaller and needier, and I was up shit creek, as far as I was concerned. (This is why I pay my therapist the big sliding-scale bucks.)

Of course that was my highly biased, sibling rivalry-influenced child-view of things. My mom loved me like crazy, and certainly didn’t turn me out on the streets as soon as my sister came along when I was three. But a piece of me still totally believes that’s how it was, and that part was wild and desperate on Monday night as I threw myself under the bus for a wild and desperate little kid.

First, second and third.
But we heal the damage of past relationships through current ones. I hope that Dash’s cheery, utterly forgiving (forgiveness at its best) greeting the next morning helped both of us heal. He realized that the person who wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk—the person who couldn’t or wouldn’t magically make him feel better—was still there for him. I realized that his needs wouldn’t kill me.

I won’t give away the ending of Dirty John, but I’ll say this: It’s very satisfying. Debra and her family reclaim the narrative for themselves, along with a cameo from a truly badass junior lifeguard named Skylar and a miniature Australian shepherd named Cash.

Monday, September 11, 2017

imposter syndrome and the second coming of fred savage

Last night AK and I binge-watched the first three episodes of Friends from College, a Netflix comedy starring Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage, and Annie Parisse as, well, friends from college whose lives get re-intertwined when they all end up in New York. Keegan-Michael Key is Ethan, a literary novelist in search of commercial success. Fred Savage is his agent. Annie Parisse is the woman he’s been casually hooking up with on out-of-town visits for twenty years, despite being married to another college friend, Lisa (Cobie Smulders). The show is clever and real, despite some loopy plotlines (replacing a dead bunny, writing while high, etc.). I enjoyed many literal lols, like when the group tries to figure out whether Marianne’s (Jae Suh Park) experimental, cross-gender production of Streetcar has started or not.

Having a creative crisis in a very spacious apartment.
I also paused the show a handful of times to nervously ask AK things like “Do you think I’ll ever publish another novel? If there was a character who’d published a couple of small press novels and was struggling to get her third out there, and only had a little bit of time to write, would she be seen as sympathetic, or a failure-slash-joke?” and “Oh no, their son on the show is named Dashiell. Do you think it will blow up? Do you think, like, even if we didn’t choose the most unusual name, it’s still not at a Jayden-slash-Noah level?”

Don't underestimate Marianne or her bunny.
I’ve blogged about this before, but when I was in middle school, I could not watch The Wonder Years because I was constantly comparing myself to Fred Savage. He was supposedly a struggling preteen, but he kissed Winnie Cooper years before I kissed anyone. He was a giant mess of first-world problems, as far as my seventh grade self was concerned.

And now he’s a super successful literary agent with a doctor husband (a deadpan Billy Eichner) and an immense New York apartment. Damn you, Fred Savage, must you haunt my whole life? Why must you always be three degrees cooler than I am, even when you are not playing anyone particularly cool?

Ethan has "won a bunch of literary prizes no one has heard of." I would take that!
I’ve been thinking about imposter syndrome, which stems from comparing other people’s outsides to our own insecure insides, as I head into a new job.

It seems like I was just writing about leaving Poets & Writers for Homeboy Industries, but in fact it’s been almost four years. An entire college education, complete with amazing teachers, hard lessons and unforgettable friends. As I told Fr. Greg, Homeboy has redrawn the shape of my heart for the better.

It’s a frenetic, beautiful, fascinating, rare place to work. It is a privilege. It’s also really hard at times, especially during the moments when I didn’t have the mentors I needed. Now I have Ed, who is a sweetheart and an incredible mentor. He and a handful of others helped me see I might actually have something to say; that despite my continued belief that savvy implementers and independent thinkers are every bit as important as leaders, I might want to actually, um, lead.

Nerd alert: I have nonprofit crushes.
That’s part of what brings me to 826LA, an organization I’ve had a nonprofit crush on for years. Starting a week from today, I’m going to be their Development Manager. The other part of what brings me to the doors of 826’s Time Travel Mart is, of course, creative writing. The opportunity to immerse myself in a world where people love words as much as I do—where they invest in empowering underserved kids to write—was too good to pass up. So I didn’t pass it up.

Heading up fundraising for a small-but-not-tiny organization is mildly terrifying to me, which is where imposter syndrome comes in. As I waited to hear back about the job, I kept picturing my hypothetical competition. She would have a ton of experience with major donors. She would be fluent in Spanish and a snappy dresser.

You can see how I envied these smooth operators.
The good part about being as old as Fred Savage is that I can recognize imposter syndrome for what it is. I don’t think of myself as an amazing fundraiser, or even a fundraiser at all, but I have faith in my ability to learn. I have faith in my ability to create a to-do list and go through it methodically, which is all a development plan is. I have faith in my ability to communicate what’s exciting and important about a thing I love, and that’s all nonprofit fundraising is.

Homeboy tries to help homies see that they are not the worst story they’ve heard about themselves (one undoubtedly told first by a parent, reinforced by legal and educational systems, and most damagingly repeated by themselves). So I try to take that to heart. The voices in my head say I’m over-privileged, lazy, selfish, trauma-scarred, destined for failure or at least mediocrity, and undeserving of most of the many good things that have happened to me.

It would be easy to channel those insecurities into a belief that nowhere besides Homeboy, my beloved Island of Misfit Toys, would put up with me. It’s the same thinking that causes trainees to relapse during the 17th month of an 18-month program. It’s the job of those of us who love damaged people to help them see beyond us. (Dar Williams has a song about it, where she says The farther you go, the closer you are to me.)

I landed at Homeboy breathless from four years of trauma, and it was hard for me to believe that there would be a post-post-traumatic period, but I think I’m entering it. Which is to say I am still a little jumpy, but I have a renewed faith in the sun’s likelihood of rising the next day. I am willing to consider that I am not destined to be a lifelong drama queen, even though I will never again be the straight-A student on a steady upward march. I’m looking for that third thing. That third or fourth self.

Ooh, she's got a point.
Sometimes I think that all this Brene Brown-ish self-talk, while true and necessary, might be better activated through service to others. Like, sure, I’m beautiful and good and all that, but how about a little less posting of Pinterest-y quotes and a little more volunteering? Still, maybe the latter begets the former. Or vice versa. The stream of love and self-love flows in many directions.

Mine is flowing west down Sunset to Echo Park, site of my next wonder years.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

does this post make me look like a nazi sympathizer?

Working at Homeboy Industries comes with a certain cachet. Most liberal-to-moderate people love the story of the radical priest who rode his bicycle into the middle of gang fights and refused to see gang members as evil incarnate. Today even law enforcement gets the basic axiom that “hurt people hurt people.” In grant applications, I boast about working with the “least likely to succeed.” Tour groups pull up to our headquarters by the busload, partly because people with tattooed faces are still something of a sideshow attraction, but partly because they’re moved by the idea that all these tatted-up gangsters have changed their lives for the better. Sometimes tourists sit for hours in our postage stamp of a garden, listening to stories of pain, confusion, relapse and redemption from literal killers.

So it’s hard to remember what things were like back in the day. In 1988, when Homeboy was a tiny jobs program at Dolores Mission Church, gang members were the subject of fear-mongering news reports, (most) cops hated Father Greg, and Homeboy Industries received bomb threats from community members who saw his work as condoning society’s most hideous elements. When police responded to gang homicides, they would tell radio dispatchers that there were “no humans involved.”

Fr. Greg at a funeral in 1990. (Photo by Anacleto Rapping, Los Angeles Times.)
Homeboy’s mantra is that we will stand with the demonized until the demonizing stops. And it’s through that lens that I’ve been reading an endless feed of Nazi-hating with growing discomfort.

To be clear: I am not talking about hating on white supremacy an institution, because um, yeah, it’s bad. I’m not talking about hating on elected officials who are tepid and slow in their response to public displays of hate, because those guys have power and a platform and they can do better. I’m talking about your “average,” disaffected white guy who joins a scary-ass movement because he’s scared. I’m not equating that guy with gang members, exactly; this is not apples to apples, because gang members invariably come from poor, disenfranchised communities and white supremacists do not always. But sometimes they do.

And just as gang members who choose to heal—because gang membership has failed to bring them safety or happiness, because someone showed them a bit of kindness and opened a door to another way of life—will tell you that they’re no longer falling for the myth that their “enemies” are their enemies, so will ex-Nazis tell you that people of color and Jews are not their enemies. Both are groups who fell for a lie perpetuated by white supremacy. White supremacy as an institution wants gang members to keep killing each other, and it wants poor angry white people to hate everyone who isn’t them.

Nazi gang member.
My friend Marcos.
Fr. Greg maintains that no kid ever joined a gang because he had a choice. I wouldn’t say the same is true of people who join militias and neo-Nazi groups, but I would bet money that they are all suffering. Just not for the reasons they think they are. White supremacy works its magic by saying You’re not poor because of complicated and fucked-up trade policies that favor multinational corporations, and you’re not angry because the parents you want to love maybe treated you super shitty. You’re poor and angry for a much simpler reason: because of THOSE PEOPLE.

My feeds are full of white people yelling at other white people to stop being Nazis. To stop being racist. To implicate and flagellate ourselves if we want to be taken seriously as non-Nazis. They’re full of vague condemnations of what their other white friends aren’t saying (“Can’t help but notice that some of you are awfully quiet,” observes the collective Big Brother). They’re full of people saying If you voted for Trump, get out of my life right now.

At best, these kinds of posts are cries from people who want to make the world a better place and are frustrated by their own helplessness and the complacency of their own people. Many of these people regularly do the things that actually make a difference: call their electeds, donate money and time. That’s more than I do on many days.

But it’s also a looootttt of virtue signaling and a lot of deflection. “Maybe if I proclaim loudly that I hate Nazis and, better yet, that white people all suck, no one will notice that on some level I’m a white person who likes cake also.”

At 8 am, seven FB friends shared this sketch. By 10:30 am, the backlash had shouted them down.
I tend to read these kinds of posts as if they’re intended for me. Then I proceed to wrestle with my privilege guilt (going strong since 1995) and my lack of activism, and I cry some more white tears, and nothing really changes for anyone who is oppressed. So yes, I’m wondering even now if some of my exhaustion isn’t just so much defensiveness. I could gaze deep into my own navel here. But if there is someone who has actually been social media-shamed into being a better citizen, I would like to meet them.

I love seeing Americans stand up against fascism and hatred—showing up at rallies, putting on angel wings against Fred Phelps and his minions. But I can never work up a lot of energy for people taking swings at easy targets, which is what declaring your disdain for Nazis on social media and painting them as subhuman basement-dwellers is.

I’ve read three things recently that speak to what I’m working through here:
  1. This post by Myriam Gurba, a queer Latina/Polish writer who is suspicious of the essentialism and religiosity present in “whiteness is terrorism” ideology
  2. This Clickhole article, whose headline gets to the heart of what I see as the real problem: My Republican Colleagues Must Condemn Racist Violence and Go Back to Peacefully Passing Racist Laws
  3. This post by Karissa Tucker, a young white writer and soul-searching Christian, who ponders the gap between caring and activism
Next to me right now, AK is reading a book called Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. She just sighed and said, “I wish Trump’s father had read this.”

Because pain and cruelty create hate, create a lack of empathy.

Nazis: not a fan of my people.
To be honest, I’m scared of posting this, because maybe it will come across as just another white person being defensive. But I’m also queer, part Jewish, and even the WASPy side of my family is full of literal genetic mutants, so we would be first on the eugenics chopping block. Blue eyes aside, I am not exactly Aryan race material. And the people I love the most in this world are brown. That doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to be them, or even that I’m not racist, but it means I have a personal stake in white supremacy not winning.

Maybe it sounds soooo 2015, but I still think love wins. So, dear justice-hipsters who love Homeboy and who are denouncing whiteness and Nazis, and pretending morality is an identity and not a thousand daily decisions, if you really want to be ahead of the curve, try some radical love. It hurts, and it’s hard, and I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that would personally put themselves in harm’s way. But that’s what makes it radical.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

pushing against the wind

Wind River is an intense, beautifully made movie about a hunter and an FBI agent investigating the death of a young woman on a Native American reservation in snow-strangled Wyoming. The landscape is a character in itself, often a villainous one. When 18-year-old Natalie Hansen (Kelsey Asbille) is found barefoot in the snow, six miles from anywhere, raped and bleeding, the medical examiner can’t list homicide as the cause of death because technically the cold killed her. This creates a jurisdictional nightmare, because Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) can’t call in FBI assistance unless it’s officially a murder. But there are only six cops (led by Graham Greene, who plays the part with world-weary humor) on the whole reservation, so without backup, the investigation is fucked.

Getting the weather report.
The snow holds tracks and covers them. Blizzards shut down roads and obscure views. Long shots of snowmobile caravans making their way across a white snow-desert conjure images of The Hurt Locker as much as the presence of Jeremy Renner as a local hunter/tracker does (because Detroit is also out now, my brain did a spectacular crisscross and I thought I was watching a Kathryn Bigelow movie the whole time; sorry, Taylor Sheridan). Someone observes that here, it takes fifty miles to go five and says “Welcome to Wyoming.”

O-jai, nice to see you.
In a flashback, Natalie and her boyfriend do some California dreaming about where they might like to live, landing on Ojai. Think of Southern California as a metaphor for being white and middle-class, possibly male. When you want to live your life, you step outside and do it. Rural Wyoming is what it’s like to be Native and poor. You step out your door and the land and weather fight you every step of the way. The world for you is harsh at best, deadly at worst. It’s not a coincidence that this is the kind of place the U.S. herded its original inhabitants into; analogy and reality merge here.

Enter Jeremy Renner with his snowmobile and ability to read tracks like tea leaves. As a local and as the father of two mixed-race children—the older of whom also died in the snow—he is the Man For The Job. To extend the metaphor, he’s an ally doing what allies should, putting his skills and access to use for the good of people who could use a hand.

Cowboy on a great white snowmobile.
The movie is also a contemporary Western, with Indians and cowboys, good guys and bad guys and a shootout that exposes toxic masculinity for the tragicomic clusterfuck that it is. Agent Banner—a rookie who is as petite as Mary Kate and Ashley—puts her gun down and gets control of the situation. She is not fearless, and at times she’s in over her head, which makes her badassery that much more admirable. Similarly, Wind River works as an action movie because the victims and the grief that blooms in their wake are never just plot devices.

At the end of the movie, a couple of lines of text note that no statistics are kept on how many Native American women disappear each year.

I cried hard as the credits rolled, because how could I not think of Roxy the whole time? As we left the theater, I said to AK, “I don’t say this often, but right now I’m really feeling like ‘Fucking men.’” I paused. “I guess white people aren’t so great either.”

At home, we thanked AK’s mom for watching Dash (and doing the dishes, god bless her). He was still tossing and turning, so I curled my body around his and thought about Roxy’s kids, who had a great mom and who now have no mom because some guy could not find his way out of the dark. Jeremy Renner’s character says to Chip, Natalie’s angry drug-addict brother, “I wanted to fight the whole world too, but I figured it would win, so I fought that feeling in myself instead.”

Angry young men.
“Dash is one of the good ones,” AK said.

There are plenty of good ones. There are. Wind River is a fantastic and important movie, but it would have been better if Jeremy Renner’s character was played by a Native guy. Ally metaphor aside, nothing much in the script would have needed to change. And to be honest, the movie passes the Bechdel test only on a technicality.

If Taylor Sheridan had written a movie with a Native protagonist, would people have criticized him for trying to speak from an experience other than his own? Not to be all “White people just can’t win!”—because it’s pretty clear white people do plenty of winning. But representation politics are complicated.

I’m glad Wind River exists. I will be thinking about it for a long time. We should produce more movies by Native writers and directors, starring Native actors. All these things are true at once.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

there are deaths and then there are deaths

Every few months, a shoebox appears on the reception desk at Homeboy. It’s covered in paper printed with grainy photos. Sharpie or ballpoint pen explains who died: someone’s mother or brother or homie. A few times it has been a trainee, although never one I knew personally. Once it was a baby. Rarely is it anyone over fifty. There’s a slit in the top of the box for folded bills.

At this year’s mandatory open-enrollment meeting, our insurance brokers talked about HMOs vs. PPOs, inpatient vs. outpatient, FSAs and co-pays and preventative care and cancer. Everyone watched with glazed eyes. When the brokers got to the life insurance section and mentioned funerals, the room buzzed. Everyone knew exactly how much a funeral cost.

I didn’t know Roxy well, but I didn’t have to ask “Which one was she, again? Did she work in the bakery?” The first thing I noticed about Roxy was that she was beautiful—like undeniably, Disney-princess beautiful, with big dark eyes, dimples and long straight hair. That kind of beauty can be a blessing and a curse. I mean that in a general way, because I don’t know how it was for her. The only time I interacted with her beyond hallway hellos was when I wrote a letter to a landlord to provide a counterweight to her bad credit. I explained that she was a single mom to three kids who were thriving, who would love to play sports in the park near the apartment building. She struck me as sweet. She talked about escaping domestic violence and gaining confidence.

It’s an old story: Woman leaves an abuser. Abuser apologizes, cajoles. Woman tries to move on with her life. Abuser escalates.

I was already in a weird, antsy mood on Monday morning when I heard someone sobbing. And then many people were sobbing in stereo. Someone said, He killed Roxy. He shot her. And then Roxy was a face on a box.

People talk about trauma fatigue, but I’m not sure I can claim that. I’m not a therapist or a case manager; I was friendly with Roxy, but we weren’t friends. Instead, I’ve spent the week in what I’ll call a third-responder fog. Because there are plenty of other variables in my life, I can’t tell whether I want to leap out of my skin because I’m outraged by injustice or because I’m petty and unable to count my substantial blessings. All I know is that when a male leader shushed me and another woman in a meeting yesterday, I wanted to punch someone in the face or cry or both.

When you’re a third responder, you feel like you’re getting smaller and smaller with every word you don’t say. You wonder what you’re even doing here. You can’t tell whether you’re wondering that because a woman was shot by the man everyone knew wanted to shoot her, or because you want a nice life where meetings start on time and people return emails.

“There are deaths and then there are deaths, you feel me?” one of the homies said today. A guy who mentors others and has a lot of wisdom. “Everyone—guys from different neighborhoods—are saying what they’ll do to this fool if they find him. So I tell ‘em, don’t go to the vigil, don’t put yourself in that situation.”

Island life.
I’ve been wrestling with some existential questions about my work, trying to find a balance between seeking out my tribe and changing the definition of what a tribe should be. Am I a person reshaped by trauma, who belongs on an Island of Misfit Toys? Am I writer and an introvert, who belongs with other writers and introverts? Neither? Both? Should I STFU because it’s a luxury just to have such a crisis?

Monday night I drove to therapy, where I was grateful to spill it all. When I pulled out of the parking garage, the needle on my gas gauge was at the bottom of the yellow warning section. My wallet, I discovered, was at home. All I had was my checkbook, and the guy at the gas station predictably looked at me like I was a weirdo.

So I called my sister, and she and my dad drove to Westwood and put gas in my car and bought me tacos next door. Because I do have a nice life, and people to catch me when I fall. The sky was pink and orange by the time they arrived. The palm trees and wires were Kara Walker silhouettes. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

moana: a hero in need of a towel

I’m a believer in the close read—in getting to know a book, play or film so intimately that you can consider the meaning of every detail—but I’m not much of a practitioner. It’s true what librarians’ bumper stickers say: So many books, so little time. But if you want to study every nuance of a thing, I highly recommend hanging out with a toddler. The catch is that the thing in question will probably be the Minions movie or a picture book about construction vehicles (ask me about the difference between a front-end loader and an excavator).

It’s a little embarrassing how excited I was when Moana appeared on Netflix one day recently. Finally, a movie we could both get into watching 17,000 times! I hadn’t seen it, but I listen to the soundtrack a lot, and I sneaked in a couple of songs between “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the Tidal playlist I created for Dash. Toddler criteria for liking something seems to be “Do I already like it?” When the first song came on, he said “Mommy car!” (where we’ve listened to it) and immediately paid attention. Throw in some water and boats, and he’s in heaven.

The movie is Disney’s take on Polynesian mythology—I feel like there are things to be said about cultural appropriation, except Disney is already kind of shorthand for cultural appropriation. That’s what they do, and it’s not totally okay because corporations etc., but at least they’re big enough and smart enough to do it well? To make a mash-up of public-domain ancient legends that is beautiful, clever and funny, a mix of 3-D animation and 2-D drawings inspired by Polynesian art.

Agua-loving kid with a worry-wart parent. I wonder why I like this movie....
In the opening scenes, Moana is a toddler, and it was a big deal to see a little brown kid up there—not as an ensemble member or sidekick, but as the hero. Of a big movie from a big studio. If I feel that way, I can only imagine what it means, intuitively, to my little brown kid. I want him to feel represented so he can be the hero of his own story, but I also want him to know that other people are the heroes of theirs, i.e. empathy. So for the opposite reason, I am glad Moana is a girl.

Dash’s favorite character seems to be the ocean itself, which plays little tricks and taps people on the shoulder, which I believe is Dash’s way of reminding me that I can engineer all the representation I want, but he’s going to see the world through his own lens. He demands “Moana song.” When she washes up on the beach, he suggests: “towel.” He worries about her sick grandma and asks “Better?” He really, really likes the cave full of ancient boats. Because it’s a fucking cave full of ancient boats and a fucking waterfall.

"Tunnel!" according to Dash
A while back, a former coworker of mine—I’ll call him Hal—tweeted People keep telling me I look like Maui in Moana but cuter, lol. Hal is a sweet guy and talented photographer with a huge ego, the type who frequently talks about “humbling himself.” When I worked with him, he was in the early stages of recovery and prone to long, heartfelt monologues about his journey; he’s immersed himself in at least a couple of new religions in the time I’ve known him. He sometimes talked about how his parents were superstar activists who never had time for their own kid, so he got involved in gangs and got in trouble a lot when he was younger. Every time he met someone new, he pointed out the contradictions of his own success: “People are so surprised to meet this former gang member with multiple college degrees.” I might have done a little eye-rolling off to the side. When he returned from rehab, the staff advised him to just focus on himself and not hide behind his camera for a while. It was hard, but he did it.

The way to a man's heart: through his ego. (#NotAllMen, of course.)
Maui is a demigod whose human parents rejected him. The gods see something special in him and raise him as their own. They give him a magic fish hook that allows him to shape-shift. But he never stops trying to impress humans, pulling up islands for them, lassoing the sun, ultimately stealing the heart of Te Fiti, the mother goddess, causing her to (spoiler alert) turn into a sort of volcanic banshee. I like that too, the idea that all of us are capable of good and evil, and we need heart and a little help to be our verdant-island selves as opposed to our screaming-fire-monster selves. Maui does a lot of boasting and posturing, but he discovers his human side thanks to Moana. Hopefully Hal will get there too.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

somewhere between hot cheetos and whole30

Confession: I joined Weight Watchers. Why is this a confession and not just a statement of what-I-did yesterday? A bunch of reasons:

Canned fruit platter anyone?
Feminism: As I’ve said before, good feminists are supposed to love their bodies and, if they want to get in better shape, train for triathlons or something. They’re not supposed to give money and energy to the Weight Loss Industrial Complex. Despite feeling a bit doughy these days, I do actually love my body. I don’t always like it, but I love it. Once you hit a certain age and/or have survived a disease or two, you have genuine gratitude for every day without organ failure. But I’m not so great at treating my body like I love it. Eating M&Ms (which, let’s be honest, are the Charles Shaw of chocolate) by the truckload is not love.

It's a salad bowl and a melting pot!
It’s so middle-brow: Weight Watchers sounds like something a forty-year-old mom should do, not a vibrant young person like…oh wait. Again, I feel like my cooler peers do CrossFit and Whole30. But my former Parenting for Social Justice group was quick to point out that Whole30 is classist because almonds and free-range chicken are expensive, and making everything from scratch requires a lot of leisure time. If you’re truly poor, you’re probably not joining Weight Watchers either; you’re living off ramen and Hot Cheetos and various combinations thereof, and there’s a certain pride in that. But Weight Watchers is like Phantom of the Opera or Jodi Picoult—to be ridiculed because it’s for the masses, but not necessarily the oppressed masses. To which I say fuck that thinking.

Why can’t I just eat a fucking salad? This is the big one. I’m a firm believer in the Michael Pollan Diet: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. If the solution is simple, what’s my problem? That’s what I wondered during so many shame spirals. Despite a predictable high school and college history of disordered eating, I managed to eat (pretty) well and exercise regularly for about 15 years afterward, so it stood to reason that I should be able to do it again. But should is not is.

Yesterday I had a small epiphany: In every area where I’ve had success, I’ve had help. Writing a book. Raising a kid. Recovering from cancer. Getting my head straight. I’m completely open and shameless about my writing group, my co-parent and family, my team of doctors and my therapist. So if I need some nutritional coaching, where’s the shame in that?

The shame is in 1995. Food and I go way back, and I realized I was applying my old-timey value system to a current problem. When I catastrophize about all the ways I could fall apart in life, I usually tell myself Well, if it [whatever it is] got to that point, I hope I’d be brave enough to ask for help. That’s the only guarantee that any of us won’t end up on an episode of Intervention or Hoarders. I could wait until I had 200 pounds to lose instead of 20, but why not save myself some suffering?

When I think about what I’ve learned from my miscarriage spin-out (in which I sought minimal help) and my cancer experience (lots of help), it resonates with what we say every day at Homeboy: Healing happens in community. Eating a lot of mediocre chocolate happens in private.

All the ick of canned tuna, all the horror of a whole fish looking at you.
Also: Meet people where they’re at. I’m not a naturally thin person who can eat based on logic. I’m someone who can be “normal” five days out of six, but on the sixth day I turn into an exhausted, ravenous monster who happens to work above a bakery, which is a dangerous combination. That’s where I’m at.

Feeling inspired to eat a croissant instead.
Also: Do what works. What I’ve been doing—trying and failing and trying and failing—doesn’t work. Or it works for five days out of six. Weight Watchers doesn’t work for everyone. It doesn’t work for people with extremely slow metabolisms or people with mean Weight Watchers group leaders. But it worked for my sister, who joined a little over a year ago and lost all the stress weight she’d put on during the (super stressful) year before. She shed pounds and also a lot of shame; WW became her therapy, despite all my years of proselytizing about actual therapy. To her credit, she never evangelized about Weight Watchers. She is a better woman than I am.

I feel really conscious of the fact that Weight Watchers has been “her thing” and here I am blogging about it before attending a single meeting. As most people with siblings know, almost everything is subject to becoming battleground for sibling rivalry. So in addition to not attending the same meetings as my sister, I’m going to try to be low-key about this in general, and to fight my flare for drama. I don’t particularly want Weight Watchers to be “my thing,” but for a while I would like it to be my body’s thing. I’ll let you know how it goes. But I’ll try not to overshare. Too much.