Tuesday, January 31, 2017

people under pressure

1. when in doubt

I signed up to help with the Homeless Count because I have house guilt. (I’m also working on a story about homelessness in L.A. for Razorcake, because what is more DIY than building your own makeshift shelter?) As we’ve settled into our new place, the streets of Highland Park and Chinatown have filled with motor homes like the one my family camped in when I was a kid. It’s like a post-apocalyptic time capsule. Meanwhile my middle-class friends struggle to pay rent on tiny apartments, and a not-small percentage of staff and clients at Homeboy commute from Palmdale. It’s safe to say L.A.—despite all its blue-state benefits—has a housing crisis.

After watching two online training videos, I arrive at W.O.R.K.S., an affordable housing organization in Highland Park. I actually emailed them a while back to volunteer, but I never heard back. Ah, nonprofits. W.O.R.K.S. will be the starting point for counting NELA census tracts. I see my former neighbors, Micah and Saskia, at the other end of the table, and an old friend of AK’s named Barbra.

We watch the training videos again. I’d imagined approaching apparently homeless people and explaining the project, but we learn that this is a “visual count” only. It’s pretty simple: If you see a person who looks homeless, a car or camper that’s being used as a home, or a boxes-and-shopping-carts-type shelter, put a tally mark on a clipboard. Every group will have a driver, a navigator, a tally keeper and counters.

A man in a bright yellow vest announces that he needs six or seven able-bodied people to tackle some tracts that are likely to have high numbers of homeless people. I volunteer; so do Micah, Saskia and Barbra. Saskia later says she thinks her faux leopard coat scared the guy away; he doesn’t pick her or Micah.

The man with the yellow vest seems like some sort of authority, but soon we’re handed yellow vests too. His name is Erik, and he’s a civil engineer with the county parks system, as is our navigator, Eddie. Erik participated in counts in other neighborhoods earlier in the week, and he sees himself as an expert. He says “vehicle” instead of “car.” When we debate whether a given person is homeless or just kicking it on the sidewalk outside CVS, he announces “Remember, this is a visual count. We have to make our best guess.” Later he shortens this to a near rhyme: “When in doubt, count.”

The four tracts we cover comprise my commute to work, exactly: from Highland Park through Lincoln Heights, culminating in Chinatown. In true Angeleno style, there is no actual walking involved in our supposedly walking-intensive trip. We just weave through neighborhoods at a creeper’s pace (nothing suspicious about a big white van inching down the street at five miles per hour), talking, swinging our flashlights into parked cars and snacking on Chinese New Year candies that resemble miniature empanadas.

2. unintentional community

In addition to Erik, Eddie, Barbra and myself, we are: another Eddy—this one with a Y—and his wife, a high school principal; an attorney who has three children under six (HOW DOES SHE HAVE TIME TO VOLUNTEER?); and an older guy named Dan.

Almost immediately we see a guy sitting cross-legged beneath a lamppost near a gas station, smoking and making funny gestures with his hands. There’s an uncomfortable I-caught-a-fish feeling to the endeavor. I’m weirdly grateful that I wasn’t assigned to count, like, Beverly Hills. There are a few others like him throughout the night, but what becomes immediately, painfully obvious as we make our way down residential streets is this: A hell of a lot of people are living in cars.

It’s not just the putty-spackled motor homes, which stand out like turtles in a city of rabbits. It’s mini vans with curtains hung in back windows. Sedans with tilted seats waiting for sleepers. Hatchbacks packed with junk. It seems there are one or two on every block.

The houses here, in L.A.’s first suburb, are delicate Victorians and bungalows. The alleys are marked with tags from the Avenues and Dogtown. The businesses: Bi-Rite, a mysteriously lifeless drugstore; Jaime Caro, the guy who did my taxes up until last year; and Razzle Razzle Razzle, a bright clothing store full of H&M knockoffs.

How much do you want to bet they keep the sign and reopen as a hipster bisexual bar?
“Wow, they didn’t have anything like that when I lived here,” said Barbra, as if Razzle Razzle Razzle were Tiffany & Co.

We roll down Sichel, the street where she lived for eight years and where AK lived for three, in an “intentional community” (it’s a vaguely Christian thing) of young adults. One of their cohort, Meg, is now working as L.A.’s Homeless Czar.

The count doesn’t cover people who are crashing on friends’ couches or living in motels or sleeping in shifts in shared rooms. I met a Homeboy trainee who told me that he and his girlfriend once lived in an apartment with no running water, for which they paid $400 a month.

I get a text from a number I don’t recognize: How is your count going? All ok?

I bricked my phone a couple of months ago and am still gathering the numbers I lost. I assume the sender is Micah or Saskia, and I reply: It’s interesting. Lots of car shelters. No walking yet. Our driver is kinda bossy; I think he secretly dreamed of being a cop. How’s yours?

When I don’t get a reply, I realize the text was actually from Francesca, our site supervisor, who collected all our numbers. I hope she won’t rat me out to Erik.

Erik tells us about the time his Chinese grandmother tried to arrange a marriage for him, when he was sixteen. He refused, but he wiggles his ring-less hand for us now and says “I don’t know, maybe I should have gone for it.”

There is a sandwich-and-beer shop next to Bi-Rite called The Heights. The font and color scheme (red, brown and baby blue) all but announce Hi, we are here to gentrify! Lincoln Heights is being squeezed by a gentrification sandwich, between Downtown and Highland Park. It’s resisted this long mostly because it’s a tough neighborhood, I think. Maybe that resistance will turn intentional, like in Boyle Heights.

It looks kind of great, actually. That's how they get you!
Barbra points out a pale yellow building with an arched entryway. “It used to be a crematorium, but it was remodeled into expensive lofts.”

3. putting the grief in machtergreifung

This week my anxiety about Trump’s executive-order rampage reached a tipping point. All my coping mechanisms are dusting themselves off and preparing for battle. It’s disturbing and righteous. I spent my therapy session yesterday crying to my German therapist, who assured me that the Weimar Republic was a young, unstable government with a shaky economy. I felt mildly comforted; then I read about a rumored anti-LGBT order coming down the pipeline, which would deny federal funding to foster care agencies that place kids with queer couples.

As you can imagine if you know me, that pushed every button I have. I bought eggs and milk from the little Persian market next to my therapist’s office and wondered if the checker had relatives detained at LAX. I wanted to hug her, which would be obnoxious and presumptive, but there it is.

Heart of the beast.
Driving home, I felt almost like something physical was rearing up in me. A kind of…pregnancy, you might say, except my baby is an immense beast made of claws and duct tape and a beating red heart. It is ready. It has been through some shit before, and it knows what to do: how to act and compartmentalize, how to beat back its inner scaredy cat, the one who might choose safety over morality. It knows how to fight and rest and love, and do it all over again the next day.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

you gotta fight for your right to write

1. getting there is half the fun

“It doesn’t even look like we’re on Earth,” says Janice.

I am in a car full of writers I don’t know, driving toward wet black mountains half hidden by clouds. Today Donald Trump is being inaugurated as president. Our hearts and our friends will be at Women’s Marches around the country tomorrow, but we’ve decided to leave town and write.

Cole took the train from Santa Barbara and met us at Union Station in L.A. It arrived late, so we sat in Janice’s Prius for an hour, watching the rain. Not long after getting on the 210 freeway, Janice’s tire blew. We limped to an off-ramp and waited for AAA.

Sporting a new used tire from Moreno’s Tires New & Used Llantas in Irwindale, we are back on the road now.

Cole says she’s writing a book of lyric essays about uncertainty. I tell her I’m writing about uncertainty too, and proceed to tell my three fellow travelers “my story.” I don’t mean the story I’m writing, although I build a literary framework around it. I mean it the way the homies I work with do: the messy ball of events that reshaped your insides forever. Figuratively but also literally.

We talk about living with uncertainty, and how some people—perhaps violent men especially, perhaps our new president especially—are so scared of being wrong or unsure that they try to shoot their way toward something solid. I don’t understand the action, but I understand the temptation.

I say, “By middle age, most people have discovered that their defense mechanisms only work to a point, and they have to discover a new way of living with uncertainty.”

Jessica, who is sitting next to Cole, reminds me, “Or you can be born into chaos, like I was, and you have to learn how to live with stability.”

The freeway forks off, and we start to climb the mountain. The fog is so thick it’s like being in the belly of a ghost. It’s not snowing yet, but we pull into a cluster of cars at a turnout to put chains on our tires, since we know a California Highway Patrol checkpoint lies ahead.

We want visibility.
An hour ago, the other car in our party discovered they had the wrong kind of chains and hitched a ride to an auto parts store with a local. Putting chains on tourists’ tires for extra cash is a cottage industry in the mountains. Her name was Melody. She was seven months pregnant and behind on her rent. She told them locals don’t bother with chains; they know which roads to take to avoid the checkpoints.

2. tools from our mothers

We inch along the icy road, stopping at every turnout to adjust the cables on our tires. From the car’s undercarriage, we hear flapping and clanging and crunching.

“Is it supposed to sound like that?” Janice asks. We are all a little rattled by the obstacles we’ve already encountered today.

Jessica Googles it on her phone, and I think about how a kind of automotive hypochondria is possible. How, at a certain point, all the things that are normal seem like they belong on another planet, and vice versa.

We are just a mile from our rental cabin when we pull over to take one more look at the chains. This time we slide too far to the right, and one of the front tires ends up in a snow bank. When Janice tries to start the car, the wheel smokes. We use a doggy water bottle, an empty coffee cup and the metal lid of a rice pot to dig at the snow around the wheel. The chain has come off the tire, but seems to be stuck to a part of the car we can’t access.

A man in a Nine Inch Nails hoodie pulls up. “Having trouble?”

He thinks it’s just a matter of pushing the car, but when that doesn’t work, he says we’re screwed and need a tow. Phone service is intermittent, so he lends us his cell to call AAA (“Hi again…”) and then gets out of there.

I redecorated.
AAA tells us that the weather is too bad and they’re not sending anyone out. Once—and perhaps still, if I were the one driving—I would have been crying at this point, but I feel okay. There are houses nearby. We have a car full of snacks and coats. And when no one’s life is in danger, everything else is workable.

“Okay, we have two phones that are getting service,” Cole says. “We have a pot lid. We know the other car made it.” She and I have been doing less of the dirty work than Janice and Jessica, and she pauses. “I can’t do anything except narrate.”

While we wait for two of the writers ahead of us to pick us up, I make a sign that says Please don’t tow us, since it looks like we’re going to have to abandon the car.

Janice says, “Humor me” and does some more digging, this time with a multi-purpose, Swiss army knife-type gadget given to her by her late mother. This time, the car inches forward, and we’re able to pull the tangled chain loose.

Our rescuers—not AAA but Sara and Melissa, two curly-haired women writers in an SUV—cheer for us and lead us to the cabin.

“It’s crazy what busy working women will do to write,” Janice says. Our two-hour drive has taken us more than seven.

Why is it so much easier to write at someone else's kitchen table?
We peel off our wet clothes and pour ourselves red wine. We contemplate our hard-won, very short retreat, and also that any one of us could be going through the same motions—chains, tires, ice—for rent money instead of contemplative space.

One of the toilets is clogged, the WiFi is dead and more snow is expected tonight. We can’t do anything except narrate. But we have a big pot of pasta, a bag of mini marshmallows, stacks of books and a low hum of support—it sounds like percolating coffee and the tapping of keyboards—and that will get you through a storm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

it's always both

All the sentences I say to AK lately begin with "In Far from the Tree...." When I was reading the chapter about prodigies, she would say, "Ugh, what about prodigies now?" I think I've shown great restraint in not diagnosing myself or Dash with the various maladies and challenges covered in the book, but right now I'm feeling a little extra empathy for the schizophrenics in the schizophrenia chapter. Many of them know that the voices they hear aren't real; it just takes a lot of energy--spoons in the language of disability and chronic illness--to shut them out.

In the same vein, I know that my anxieties aren't grounded in a ton of reality, but it still takes effort to whittle them down to a manageable size. It's haaaaarrd, and I don't even have an official anxiety disorder, let alone auditory hallucinations. 

Here's what's on my plate today:

1) Is it a problem that Dash dropped a lot of height percentile points between his 18-month and two-year doctor visits? (His doctor thinks it's not. I may have Googled "pituitary dwarfism." There may be a chapter about dwarfism in Far from the Tree. I may have been a little bit wrong about not self-diagnosing. Also a main point of the book is that there's nothing wrong with being a dwarf, etc.)

2) Is it a problem that my right tonsillar lymph node is tender and swollen? I had a shitty cold last week that wiped me out and made my head hurt, so that's a far more likely cause than metastatic breast cancer. But then one of the (non-literal...but almost literal) voices in my head was like "How convenient, Cheryl. Do you really even have a cold, or are you just trying to explain away your tonsil cancer?" So I looked in my bullet journal to confirm that I had a note about my cold on Wednesday of last week, a full 24 hours before I noticed the lumpy tonsil. 

Behold the bullet journal, a beautiful container for your anxiety.
That kind of hyper-vigilance is insane, I know, but that's my history. I thought I had breast cancer when I "officially" didn't (but actually did) and then went through a year of treatment after it was already gone. In the same way dieting can ruin your metabolism, hypochondria can ruin your ability to monitor what's going on in your body.

3) Will AK and Dash and Nicole and Jamie and Kendra and Kim be safe at the Women's March on Saturday? I'm going to be out of town, and big crowds are scary. Like people who fear air travel more than auto travel, despite statistics that say the former is safer, I imagine that my presence would help control their safety. I worry, even though they all have excellent judgement (well, Dash does not, but he has an excellent Mama) and aren't really the type to taunt cops or sacrifice themselves on the altar of social justice.

I keep asking myself: What is this really about? Is my hypochondria a mask for my fears about Trump and the repeal of the ACA? Is all of it just a product of having lowered my dose of Effexor? What is real? Do we live in the Matrix? Does it matter?

Hyper-vigilance, meet hyper-reality.
My brain does these funny dances in part because I'm always trying to figure out whether I'm privileged or not, as if privilege were just one fixed, binary thing. 

I have race, class* and citizenship privilege, so therefore I must not really be worried about Trump, right? I might hate him and all that he stands for and all the ways in which he fails to take a stand at all, but that must just be a fun intellectual exercise, right? Just another college paper, another blog post. So if I'm scared, it must be because I have cancer or my kid is a Little Person, right? (Again, it is fine to be a little person--I was honestly more concerned with a note, several Google pages deep, that pituitary dwarfism can be the result of leukemia.)

This is the kind of book that would make me laugh during the day, then keep me up all night.
This is where the schizophrenia comes in. It's like I've forgotten that I'm a queer woman married to a queer woman of color and we are raising a little Mexican kid and I'm a giant, living, breathing preexisting condition. 

(Side note re: ACA: I have health insurance through my employer. I literally owe my life to it, and am eternally grateful. But if AK becomes a self-employed therapist, I won't have the option of being self-employed at the same time, because who would insure me? If I ever have the wonderful problem of earning a living as a novelist, it better be one hell of a living, because I will be paying for any healthcare I need out of pocket, which only multi-millionaires can do. Or I guess I could get much poorer and go on Medicaid, if it still exists.)

I don't know if my denial of these realities is a form of self-protection or self-flagellation. I.e., I don't want to be a victim vs. I don't get to be a victim. It's probably both. It's always both. 

But imagine if stripes weren't an oppressed group, and Bob's stripes were always telling his triangle-ness to STFU.
This morning Homeboy announced that it will be sending a contingent to the Women's March in L.A. Consuelo, a staff therapist in her sixties, gave a moving and intersectional speech about how Cesar Chavez didn't take injustice sitting down and neither should we. She tried to get a si-se-puede chant going, and it didn't really take, either because it was 8:30 in the morning or because a lot of people trying to leave gangs don't see national politics or women's issues as their cause. Probably both. Always both.

Consuelo reminded me that trying to contain my fear in a neat little box can be useful in the short term and when the fear is small enough to fit in a box. But the fear is always a pointy chip from a giant iceberg, sitting in oily black water. That fear will always flatten me when I try to battle it with my usual defenses: probabilities and carbohydrates. It can only be melted with a long hard Care Bear Stare, aka love-and-truth, the kind that leaves me in a puddle too.

Rawr, I love you.
I've read that Donald Trump is obsessed with videos of himself, and only wants to think about his big win on election night, not about the hard work he'll need to do as president. Something about that felt eerily familiar. I imagine him watching footage of the falling balloons, the cheering crowds and his own face as he tried to pretend he belonged there.  

"Hi, I totally believe I deserve love and am not ruining the world as a personal defense mechanism at all!"
Sometimes when I'm Googling cancer statistics, I'll come across that one reassuring number, and for a moment I believe I'm immortal. Later, when fear and reality set in (because even if I never get cancer again, I'm not immortal), I return to that webpage. It becomes practically etched into my screen. I recite the favorable statistic like a rosary. But it wears down, and the only thing that ever really saves me is living my life with love.

Donald, I see the shadow of your dark iceberg too. Maybe it's reductive to say you are the way you are because you've never felt loved, but is it inaccurate? Like a high school smartypants who gets to college and realizes he never learned how to study, your immense wealth and privilege kept you from ever having to deal with the ways in which you're not privileged at all. Your figurative walls are so much bigger than the real one you want to build, and we're all suffering for their success. So I tell you this as a fellow human with a fucked-up head: Googling won't help. The high will wear off. You know it will, because it's already happening. 

Writing, for me, is a form of Walking Into It. I don't know what your equivalent is, Donald. Maybe you don't have one. I hope you find one. The Homeboy CEO said recently "I am a big believer in people being transformed by their jobs." I hope he's right.

*Class privilege is its own can of worms and false binaries. What it means for me at this moment in time is that I have an education and a dad who helps me out in some ways and would help me out more in a pinch. It means I can pay my bills, if barely.