Saturday, December 29, 2018

tops of 2018, plus some low points

More mornings than not in 2018, I woke up to a string of insults and imperatives--from myself, hurled at myself before I could bring a cup of coffee to my lips. I spent too much money on coffeehouse lattes, so they came with their own shame, curled like foam on top. I got coffee from gas stations and 7-Eleven, augmenting it with things that left a chemical taste in my mouth. There are too many tiny plastic creamer tubs in landfills bearing my fingerprints. I felt tacky and wasteful. On days I made coffee at home, I felt virtuous, even though it tended to be weak and/or instant, and I ran through portable mugs faster than I could wash them.

The cliche I live by.
Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash
Even the thing that was supposed to jolt me out of my internal invective to be better came with its own list of ways I could do it better.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast so badly that watching other girls execute higher, more graceful back flips gave me almost physical pain. "Oh, Taylor Niemeyer? She's good," I might say of a fellow elementary school gymnast. "Good" contained so much. Pointed toes. Flexible spine. Muscled legs. Moral purity. Otherworldliness.

By middle school, I'd realized that no kid who'd taken lessons only at their local Parks and Recreation, in the same community center that hosted cooking classes and holiday parties, was going to the Olympics. Perfectionism isn't just ambition. It's a horrible awareness of what could be, and everything that's standing in the way.

Eventually I made some kind of life for myself as, I dunno, a queer artist or something? But, like, with a day job and health benefits. To me, the queer aesthetic is questioning what's standing in the way, and who put it there. It's a belief that there are a thousand answers to "what could be," not a single, unachievable Platonic ideal. It's mixing the ingredients of What Is to create a weird but tasty smoothie.

But the part of me that hangs onto those health benefits also hangs onto the idea of the perfect back flip. How can I be a revolutionary when our white supremacist capitalist world has been so good to me?

I went to therapy. I considered these things. I wrestled with them. I wrestled with cancer and infertility and grief and came out on the other side with a belief that I was strong after all. I set my striverhood a little further to the side.

I'm always diving headfirst into What Could Be.
Photo by Eugene Lim on Unsplash
Then I took a certain kind of job with a certain kind of well-meaning boss who invariably wrestles with his own perfectionism and anxiety, and it was like a hole was punched in a container I'd built brick by brick. The tenuous peace I'd found in simply ("simply," ha) being alive and fed and loved and making things was suddenly nearly inaccessible.

I had such a good life. I felt like such a piece of shit.

All of this came to a head in July, and then again Christmas Day, when all the low-grade stress and self-flagellation of the past year crashed into the complicated, banal stress of the holidays. Wrapping six hundred framed pictures of Dash for relatives. Driving from loving relatives' house to loving relatives' house to loving relatives' house to loving' relatives house in a thirty-hour period.

Somewhere between Santa Ana and San Clemente I lost my shit and said really unkind things to AK and scared Dash. And then I did it like three more times. If this were a Christmas movie, I would need to be rescued by the owner of a small-town tree lot who would turn out to be Santa-Jesus. Or, I don't know, maybe I'm the villain, and AK would leave me for the owner of a small-town tree lot.

Apparently there is a movie called Fir Crazy.
If I have a resolution for 2019, it's to rebuild that brick container around my perfectionism, and to tune out the loud voices of perfectionism around me. In practical terms, that means a two-month trial hiatus from verbally shitting on myself. That doesn't mean not admitting my mistakes--but maybe I don't have to beat everyone to the punch.

Perfectionism is egotistical and unhelpful and paralyzing. I also know that art--making it and experiencing it--saves me again and again. As does AK, who does not tune into the same radio frequencies that whisper in my ear. This can be confounding when I'm like "But do you hear it??" But ultimately thank god she doesn't hear it.

All of this is my very rambling, arguably depressing lead-up to my Tops of 2018. Here are thirteen books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts that kept me going and helped me escape:

1. Suspiria: I realized halfway through that I wanted the witches to win. The witches won. Also this movie punches Nazis. 

Me before coffee.

2. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie: This raw and messy memoir reveals what healing looks like in textual form. I think this is what they meant in grad school by "performative writing." Alexie is hella funny, and also writes about how humor is a defense mechanism.

3. The Dream: This podcast peeled the three remaining scales from my eyes re: capitalism. America is one big fucking pyramid scheme.

4. The Favourite: As they say, everyone is going through something. Queens, concubines, politicians, scullery maids, bunnies. An intense love/hate triangle about power and self-hood, punctuated with just the right amount of strangeness.

I related most to Queen Anne, who wasn't as stupid as she seemed, but could not strategize to save her life.

5. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug: Beautiful, meticulously crafted journal that captures all my feelings about guilt and reconciliation.

How to be nostalgic without being a Nazi.

6. The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes, translated by Daniel Alarcon: Emma Reyes was born into extreme poverty and abuse in Colombia in 1919, and bounced between convent orphanages and relatives' homes. Not only did she survive, but she lived to tell her own story with a visual artist's eye for detail and a winking, mischievous take on the world around her.

7. Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam: It takes the writerly equivalent of a neurosurgeon to write from the point of view of a sexually abusive kidnapper in a way that is both sympathetic and unforgiving. Nadzam is that writer.

8. Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation by Ari Folman and David Polonsky: A classic for good reason. Now illustrated, with imagination and humor.

The other Queen Anne.

9. Sharp Objects: Gillian Flynn delivers cocktails of psychology, zeitgeist, and creepy detail. The miniseries version adds oppressively lush aesthetics (think lots of floral wallpaper and creepy dollhouses) and alcohol. Patricia Clarkson is the heartbreaking/-broken mother we all fear becoming. Amy Adams plays a troubled heroine, like Libby Day in Dark Places, whose angst goes far beyond quirk.

TFW your little sis and her brigade of roller bitches discover a toothless dead body.

10. Decoder Ring: Willa Paskin takes deep dives into all corners of pop culture, from hotel art to the "Sad Jennifer Aniston" tabloid trope. Riveting, relevant, and delightfully weird.

11. Faithful Place: Dysfunctional family dynamics, beautiful writing, and muuuuurrrrrder. I loved it for all the same reasons I loved Sharp Objects.

12. Bodies: As suspenseful as a true-crime podcast, except the mystery unfolds in patients' own bodies. Usually women. Usually fighting through layers of medical and cultural bias as well as with what's going on physically. It's a quietly radical podcast that's oddly empowering for hypochondriacs like myself.

13. A Star is Born: On one level, a dramatic musical that throws its arms wide and belts shamelessly. Also a heartbreakingly believable portrait of addiction: The characters truly love each other, know what they're getting into, and find periodic happiness, but it's not enough to make for a happy ending.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

it's fine

Unfortunately, I am always thinking about self-improvement. To the point that I am starting a pretend nonprofit called IT'S FINE. IT'S FINE's mission is that whatever is going on is fine. Could we use volunteers and donations and a board? I mean, maybe, but mostly we're fine.


Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash
I'm better at getting better when getting better is a whispered goal rather than a shouted one.

So this is one thing I've been thinking about. At work and in my personal life. Not as much in my writing life, which is the one place I default to growth orientation and/or act like the mature human I strive to be elsewhere.


Here's another worky analogy for how I want to be in the world. Bear with me.

I was raised on Microsoft Word and still use it for my just-for-me writing projects. I always thought the goal was to create a perfect document that you could share with others, but not let them touch. You have to hit "save" to overwrite anything, meaning you have to make a conscious decision about what is true, and worth keeping.

Oldie that I am, I only started using Google Docs regularly a year ago. In Google Docs, you work together, and every change is real.

At 826LA, we use the phrase "build it out" a lot. As in, "I've created an outline for that campaign, and I'm starting to build it out." I think we may have borrowed that phrase from Rachel, who comes from the design world. I like it. I like the idea that campaigns/documents/life are this thing you're always building, even if at times it feels like the Winchester Mystery House (which was actually not the work of a madwoman, but rather an amateur architect who didn't have a lot of outlets for her creativity--check out the 99% Invisible episode about Sarah Winchester!).

Mysterious, yes. Crazy, no.
I like the idea that progress is incremental and a team effort. It's hard to explain how I think of teamwork and work, in general, differently now than I did pre-826LA, but it feels more three-dimensional now. It feels both more challenging and more comforting. I want to carry this idea into my personal life and daily habits, where I hope to be less perfectionistic and, paradoxically, better.


I'm reading Joshua Mohr's addiction memoir, Sirens, and his relationship with drugs and alcohol feels a lot like (all too much like) my relationship with food, which has not been great lately. Here's a quote that especially resonates with me:

If I zero in on my life, if I scour and stew on any aspect, I'll always locate some benign reason to give up. To fail and flee. So the question becomes, is that what I want? Do I want to end up alone and alcoholic?"

No, of course not.

Yes, of course.

I was raised in the cult of Personal Responsibility (a Microsoft Wordy cult) that half our country is still obsessed with. Hard work fixes all, etc. In a country where corporations have more rights than humans, this is bullshit; meritocracy is the opiate of America's masses.

I try to reorient myself toward the systemic. On a recent episode of This American Life, David Kestenbaum talked about why, as a scientist, he doesn't really believe in free will, and I was right there with him. We are the product of our atoms and our circumstances. No one can really be any different than how they are, or they would be.

But does that make me a person who can't help but guzzle eggnog until I hate myself, or does that make me a person who has a habit of guzzling eggnog and hating herself, but who ultimately stops leaning into self-sabotage and develops some healthier habits for more than a week at a stretch? Either could be written in my bones, my circumstances, my "choices."

But in a plastic cup, and refilled three times.
What is the line between acknowledging the reality of your situation and looking for reasons to fail? As someone prone to addict-esque black-and-white thinking, I think the main thing for me to remember is that there is a line.

Yes, it is exhausting working full time and raising a kid, despite all the help and resources I have. Yes, the holidays are a minefield of cookies. That doesn't mean I have to race ahead of those facts and gain thirty (more) pounds just because. That doesn't mean I'm-fucked-so-why-bother-trying. That does mean the serenity prayer. It all comes down to the serenity prayer.

A friend in recovery told me addicts tend to see themselves as either special or terrible. Another wrote this amazing post about how both sexual abuse and cancer can trigger the same kind of thinking. And even though I'm not an abuse survivor or someone addicted to anything you can quit cold turkey, I'm like yes yes yes.

Photo by Inês Pimentel on Unsplash
Being better--to my body, my soul, my family--means accepting that I am neither special nor terrible. I am average. I need food and rest and time to think, and without those things, I get grouchy, and that's okay. I have strengths and weaknesses. My strengths are special because they are unique to me, but I am not fundamentally set apart from everyone else. This is so boring. This feels like accepting that, after a lifetime of believing I was either a unicorn or an ogre, I am in fact beige carpet.

But it's fine.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

the three mothers

1. suspiria/mother of sighs

“When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them, you accuse them of delusion.” –Suspiria, 2018

Susie is the new girl in the dance troupe, pulled from the flat fields of Ohio as if by an umbilical cord, to a Berlin still catching its breath from the war. The Helena Markos company is a palace of mirrors, where dancers’ bodies twist and break as dancers’ bodies do, to live a story larger than any one ugly foot on one wooden floor. Susie says: More, please.

Sara is an unknowing ambassador to the cabinet of curiosities that lurks beneath the floorboards, with the hair and wrecked bodies and bespoke metal hooks. She is a sweet English rose.

Dr. Klemperer is an old psychoanalyst who does not believe in witches or ghosts, but he lost his true love to the Third Reich. He believes in what a group of people can do, when organized, to other people.

More, please.
Sara and Dr. Klemperer meet over trembling teacups. I think I am supposed to root for them to get to the root of this evil, for Sara to land in some sunlit room, and this knowledge is a kind of sigh.

Madame Blanc is the maestro with no eyebrows or lashes who says: “After the war, there are two things dance can never be again. Those things are beautiful, and cheerful.”

I cannot turn my face toward cheer, and this film won’t make me do it. It is a sigh of relief, this new knowledge.

Susie says: “Why are you so afraid of the mess that’s still to come?”

I am afraid. In the dark theater, I lean into the bloodbath. I crave this world of women as sex and unsex, life and afterlife, intestines and beating hearts, easy as a pear to slice, hard as folklore to destroy.

If you want to see a movie that both features Tilda Swinton and is the cinematic embodiment of Tilda Swinton, Suspiria is that movie.
But at night I transform my fear of mess into the banal, my own alchemy. I have done the reverse before—turned a dull ache into the apocalypse—and I know the ins and outs of such spells. What if AK’s headaches last forever? What if I become only a body shuttling to and from one kind of work to another kind of work? What if my body fails?

We cut our son’s umbilical cord when he was born. His birthmother in the room, bloody. It was magical and cruel, simple and sterile. It wasn’t spaghetti; it was thick, durable, like something from the bottom of the ocean.

2. the dream/mother of darkness

It is not a true crime podcast, but it unfolds like one. Or: It is the truest crime. Our host, from a flat farm town in Michigan, recalls the Mary Kay parties of her youth. The women who gathered and laughed, told stories about tangled pantyhose and a grandmother who wore furs as a child, ate Jell-o, sold each other lipstick.

There are women and warmth and camaraderie, promises of beauty and riches, and this is how the cults get you. Not a pyramid, they say, just a structure that happens to be large at the bottom and small at the top. Guess which part you’re on.

Our host takes us through legal cases and a bit of stunt journalism, signing up her coworker to sell beauty products whose names are modified by adjectives like: perfect, enduring, rich.

I am horrified by this spell in plain sight. Betsy DeVos is an Amway heir. Donald Trump flew to the White House on Amway air. He is made of air.

Flashing gang signs. Someone issue an injunction, please.
The message of every multilevel marketing training is: If this isn’t working for you, the problem is you. You must not be perfect. If you cannot endure, you will never be rich. The message of America is this, also.

I fall for the spell. I know what it is to hustle, in a nonprofit sort of way; I know what is easy and what is not. And yet that makeup sparkles like mica in a gum-pocked sidewalk. The idea of myself in a pinstriped girl-boss suit holds a certain appeal. I was raised on the myth of meritocracy, as American as fat-free Devil’s Food SnackWells.

3. seven/mother of tears

Today I would be the mother of seven-year-olds. Two boys who were only ever tissue and blood. I am only tissue and blood.

A cyst that has not drawn any blood vessels to it is probably benign. I am probably benign.

A headache that retracts with rest is probably benign. A mystery to be unraveled one pill and one yoga class at a time, not a single thing to be attacked with a scalpel. Or so we have reason to believe, even though I don’t completely believe in reason anymore. Even as I say my incantations to the gods of Google.

The mind-body connection is real, but is has been borrowed by the Mother of Darkness, sold as Herbalife and Isotonix. You must be the reason for your headaches, your lack of sales, your dead babies. Do not look over there. Do not look at that man made of air or the pyramid behind him.

How to take a thing that is kind of true and turn it into a zillion dollar quackery industry.
I want to stage a cry-in. Me and all the people fucked so much harder than me, who have learned not to fear the mess. I fear the mess. But for the purposes of this spell, let’s say that I don’t. All of us will summon our salt tears and make a tsunami. Turn the pyramid back into sand. Wiggle our ugly toes in it.

Friday, October 12, 2018

artificial intelligence

Google sinus headache, subcategory mucus
Do not Google brain tumor
When Google autocompletes "do sinus headaches have the same symptoms as"
with "brain tumor," wonder if
this is because sinus headaches have the same symptoms as,
or because others are as anxious and sick in the head, haha, as you
and artificial intelligence knows we are dumb

Google brain tumor

Say all the wrong things
Resent her for dredging up your old apocalypses
Wonder if she resented you when you were sick
Know the answer

Text your friends
Text your doctor friend
Call your sister
Call your therapist
Call your therapist back when the call breaks
up twice

Escalate: in the morning you spoke of sinus and tension
Now, migraines and neurologists

Hell is waiting for the results of an MRI

Crunch numbers
20,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a brain tumor this year
Calculate, add fairy dust, arrive at a .01% chance of brain tumor
in this singular adulthood that belongs to a person you love

Consider adding another child
Consider the risk: more to love, more that could go wrong
Cancel your call with the adoption agency

Pick up your child
Consider his smooth skin, the color
of almost-sunset
and how he deserves so much more
than what you have to offer

Deserve is a dirty word,
to be relegated to the dungeon alongside
Responsibility and Fault

Drive the 710 with slow belching trucks
Watch the almost-sunset behind the skeletons of industry
Listen to The Wheels on the Bus
go round and round and round
as your thoughts expand like the universe
and implode like the universe

Drink cheap wine with your dad
Know that there will be a time when your dad is no longer
Imagine, try not to imagine
When he asks if you have heard about mindfulness
Do not strangle him

Come home to her
She is home
She needs to laugh and you need to cry
Say some more wrong things
Be forgiven

Wake up at 5
Throw your journal in your bag
and begin the hard right turn into Crisis Management
Make mental lists and plans
Plan to put them on paper

Know the answer
These grooves on an old warped record
The joys of middle age: you are strong
you are paper
you are in risk categories

Write this list instead
Cry some more
Teach your phone the truth of a meme you saw:
You never mean ducking

Duck like a duck
Waddle on land, awkward and funny
Swim beneath the surface
like your body was made for this

Sunday, October 07, 2018

queering the texts through which we stumble

1. barnacles

“Every time I work directly with students, it helps me do my job better.”

I say this a lot, to myself and others, but there’s a part of me that believes anything that’s too much fun, or too meaningful, must not be my actual job. I had a very vegetables-first upbringing. That analogy doesn’t work, though, because my point here is that candy is nutritious.

As I was packing up to leave the office on Wednesday, Cathy, our Field Trips Coordinator, asked if anyone present had Barnacle experience.

Mr. and Mrs. Barnacle are the fictional husband-wife team who run the publishing house inside each 826 location. When elementary school students file in, the day’s field trip leaders explain that one of their bosses is so nice! Always knitting sweaters for penguins, etc. The other is, well, kind of grumpy. But no worries, that Barnacle is out today.

Then Mr. or Mrs. Barnacle (depending who is playing the curmudgeonly publisher that day) comes booming through the loudspeaker, threatening to fire their hardworking employees for writing such dull tomes as Watching Paint Dry and Eating an Apple.

I had no Barnacle experience, but I was the most available of those present on Wednesday night, and so I agreed to step in for Thursday’s field trip, imagining myself as the understudy heroine in a backstage musical. This would be my accidental big break!

And you guys, it kind of was (except for the part where my life changes substantively as a result).

Kenny, our previous Field Trips Coordinator, said it helped to have a motif, so I decided my Mrs. Barnacle would be a perpetually dissatisfied boss, tragically oblivious to the stunning and generous feats of her exotic pets. Her dog bought her a half-birthday present? Pshh, it was turquoise, when he knows her favorite color is teal. Her giraffe made her macaroni and cheese? Who cares, it had breadcrumbs. Yuck.

The second graders from Gabriella Charter School were a generous audience, and by the time they broke for lunch, I was on a high.

2. glitter and warts

My second performance of the night was with a handful of Foglifter writers, at Akbar, as part of the Lambda Literary Festival. Just as my 21-year-old self would be shocked and saddened to learn that I no longer attend musicals regularly, my 32-year-old self would be shocked and saddened to learn that I don’t go to literary readings regularly. I used to go to so many that it became a bit of a slog at times. I guess the good news is that going to a reading every five or six months makes them much sweeter.

Miah—grad school friend, brilliant writer, badass activist, Foglifter editor—asked five writers to read on the topic of “Queer Sweet Home,” whatever that meant to us. The obvious fit for me was an excerpt from this piece, about my house privilege and the intersections in a neighborhood of immigrants and transplants.

I imagined a Q&A in which I would be called to task for said privilege, for my whiteness, for my failure to be a truly positive force in my neighborhood. I would stand there and take it, because shame is a small price to pay for middle-class subsidized housing, right?

I texted AK: I’m going to try to just own it. I’ll own it like the landed gentry owns land.

I imagined myself adding, during the Q&A in my head, the complicated defense I work through every day: Listen, I know that maybe the most helpful thing a white person can do is, like, move to the suburban Midwest? But I’m queer, and my family isn’t white. Those other parts of the country don’t feel so welcoming. We have friends flooding out of the city for more affordable places, but it doesn’t feel like a very real option. At the same time, I know it’s only my class privilege that makes staying comfortably in L.A. an option.

But when I read about our eccentric neighbors, the Akbar audience laughed. Some of this is a function of reading live—people like to laugh with other people. But I also think it’s a function of queerness. Yes, social justice, but for centuries before we were allowed to demand rights, and occasionally squeezed by the narrow if fascinating pathways of intersectionality, we survived by being subversive. By seeing humor and oddity in hegemony.

Linda Ravenswood (a new favorite of mine, for sure) read fierce poems about pop culture and her own family’s relationship to property. She said re: my work, “Girl, I wouldn’t be ambivalent if someone offered me a house. I would be like, give it to me.

I felt like she might have taken something from what I read that I didn’t intend, but in a way that liberated me. I felt like to be queer, to queer the texts through which we all stumble, is to free ourselves from the narratives of privilege and lack-of. That might be the sort of thing that only a privileged person would say, or it might be the most radical act of all. Both?

Claudia Rodriguez, another grad school buddy, read bold, vulnerable, hilarious poems about BDSM and butch identity. How do I describe her writing? She grew up in Compton and is fluent in academia. She has a vibe I recognized in a lot of the homies I met at Homeboy, though her content and language are different. It’s like an ability to puff up and perform while simultaneously laughing at the performance. It’s playful and honest.

Terry Wolverton read a piece about her grandmother burning her grandfather’s home to the ground. Yuska Lufti Tuanakotta read a sweet and elegant homage to an Indonesian mother, flipping various immigration narratives on their heads.

What I felt, reading with these writers, was home. It was also queer pride. Not gay pride, but queer pride. The absolute need—a need that so often gets lost in the daily seriousness of fundraising for under-served communities and trying to keep a child alive and trying to pay the subsidized rent I can barely afford—to play. To be weird. To say fuck you. To say yes, and. To say the wrong thing. To remember that I am not (just) the oppressor. Or (just) the oppressed. I am glittery and warty, an angel-witch from a Francesca Lia Block novel, flocking to my birds of a feather.

3. chest cat

Last weekend, AK and I became tías. AK was in the room, coaching her sister while nursing her own sinus infection. (She draped a washcloth over her face and earned the nickname The Masked Doula.) I got to meet Harper yesterday.

Walking into Lori and Brett’s house, I felt a surge of all my old issues: that oldest-sibling, non-bio-mom feeling that something about the world of moms and new babies is Not For Me.

It’s to Lori’s credit, as someone who’s had her own long journey to parenthood, that the feelings dissolved quickly. They were figuring out how to use our old Beco Gemini carrier, and I asked if I could give it a try.

“Of course,” they said, “you have credentials.”

Even though I’ve forgotten plenty since Dash was a baby, I felt a surge of pride. They saw me as someone unlikely to drop a baby! They did not look at my neurosis and fake boobs and see someone hopelessly un-maternal!

Soon, Harper—big for a newborn, tiny for a person—lay on my chest like a cat, pressing away my stress with her warmth.

Art by glait.
I don’t know yet what it will mean to be a tía. It will be different from being a mom. I think there’s something queer about the role, not just because historically there have been many more gay aunts and uncles than parents. In pushing to become a mom, I wanted to step out of the margins; I didn’t want to be a tertiary character in someone else’s kid’s life. It was an important push, my own form of labor.

But now that it’s done, I can, I hope, enjoy what makes the margins special. They’re a low-pressure place where we can all play. Where, no matter how kind and woke a kid’s parents are, other voices are needed. It’s a tía’s job to step in and say, “Sure, but how about this.” To practice a kind of angelic witchcraft.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

stress, management

This week I attended my first management training ever, with my coworker Miranda, in a tall building next to Pershing Square. I was excited because I’d heard good things about this particular training, and because management—like so many other parts of nonprofit work—is something my boss and I had hoped I’d be good at without any training or guidance, only to be unpleasantly surprised.

I’m not a terrible manager. I listen and I don’t micromanage, and I have a good understanding of how various tasks fit into a larger picture. But there are so many other parts—clarifying roles and expectations, managing up and across, being proactive instead of just saying “What do we do now?”

I’ve always shunned management culture because I fancy myself an artist or an activist or something. Management sounds so capitalistic and boring. It belongs to the world of khaki pants and TPS reports. It’s for people who can’t just all be cool and get along, and sometimes fight and cry and hug it out.

This is, of course, ridiculous.

William Carlos Williams said: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.”

It’s difficult to get poetry from management. Yet people suffer every day for lack of what is found there. Management is just couples therapy for groups—a form of clear and fair communication that makes it possible to be in the world with other humans. And we all know how I love therapy.

Look, bizness people doing bizness things. (Photo by rawpixel via Unsplash.)
I’ve been at 826LA one year as of this weekend. For the first few months, I came home with what I dubbed a learning headache. Then we reshuffled our department, and there have been a lot of growing pains. Sometimes I doodled angsty poetry in my notebook during meetings.

Look, we’re all adults here
walking around in our dead-bird skins
tissue paper in our eye sockets.
I’m tired of listening to my self-esteem playlist
every morning while you
light the gas lamps every afternoon.

Sometimes I think I still know nothing about fundraising. Sometimes I wonder if I want to. Other times I imagine myself as both the lever and the thing being lifted, constantly cranking myself to new levels. I’m leaps and bounds from where I was a year ago.

I have a learning hangover. In the past six months, I gained back the weight I Weight Watchered away last year. I never worked late enough, but I was often late to pick up Dash.

That fine line between baby bird and crazy dinosaur. (Photo by Joy Stamp via Unsplash.)
He had literal growing pains—spontaneous and short-lived evening leg cramps—twice last week. At least, that’s what I and the Kaiser nurse hotline think they are; WebMD says they’re nearly textbook childhood leg cramps or leukemia, because WebMD.

He switched classrooms recently and has been a little more clingy, a little more likely to pretend to be a baby bird, a little more likely to pee on the porch, then run inside and announce “I didn’t pee on the porch.”

My 826 predecessor, Carolyn, has always been generous and helpful to me, so it was no surprise that when I posed a question in a local moms’ Facebook group about a baby swing (for AK’s sister, who is due momentarily—stay tuned for auntie updates, y’all), she was quick to offer hers to us, for free.

Despite—or perhaps because of—her general awesomeness, it has been hard not to feel like the Second Mrs. de Winter to her Rebecca. Today Dash and I went to pick up the swing, and I was not surprised to find her house pristine despite the fact that two young children lived there. She was wearing a breezy linen jumpsuit and sorting through her youngest’s books. She was sweet to Dash, and gave me some friendly, practical, down-to-earth work advice. And the swing.

There are no evil housekeepers in my version, and my Rebecca is alive, so it's not really apples-to-apples.
I was just grateful Dash didn’t pee on her floor.

My friend Holly recently introduced me to Amanda Palmer’s song “In My Mind,” which just about sums it up:

In my mind
When I'm old I am beautiful
Planting tulips and vegetables
Which I will mindfully watch over
Not like me now
I'm so busy with everything
That I don't look at anything
But I'm sure I'll look when I am older
And it's funny how I imagined
That I could be that person now
But that's not what I want
But that's what I wanted
And I'd be giving up somehow
How strange to see
That I don't wanna be the person that I want to be

I want to be like Carolyn and also I don’t. I’d like to be a version of me with tidier countertops, who doesn’t sometimes stress-eat fifteen cookies in a sitting, who is a more diligent reader and prolific writer. (I was prolific once upon a time.) I sort of hope/feel like I am turning a corner at work, but I also know I am prone to now-everything-will-be-easy narratives, and that cancer check-up season approaches, which is never easy.

I would like to bring some effective management techniques to my life as well as my work, but I hope the messiness of my learning process adds some nice layers, like the oils in a cast iron pan. Not that I would know how cast iron pans really work, because I mostly cook pasta and pre-made things from Trader Joe’s. That’s fine too.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

open letter to my sixth grade self

Dear Cheryl,

This story takes place thirty years from now. Can you believe you'll ever be 41? You sort of almost didn't make it to that birthday, but that's another story. In this one, two board members at the organization you work for are Hillary Toomey. They think of you as a well-intentioned flea who is not great at gala event seating. They're not really concerned with you one way or another, but in their wake you feel small and frumpy and rejected. This is how you feel every day in sixth grade. You are too tall and have bangs that don't cooperate. You make jokes that fall flat. You are gay and trying not to be, because gay is just another way of doing everything wrong.

The Hillary Toomeys of your future like your coworkers, who are Bonnie in this story. Two different coworkers represent Bonnie--both the conscientious, imaginative Bonnie who will be your lifelong friend, and the sixth-grade Bonnie, who is wooed by the opinions and charms of the mean, popular kids. You wish the second Bonnie would have your back a little bit more, but she is muddling through her own insecurities.

If only your hair had looked this cool. (Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash)
Thirty years from now, you will wilt, at least initially. You'll cry into your lunch in the park and wonder what the fuck you're doing with your life and why you care about things that aren't on your official list of Things Worth Caring About.

Your therapist will suggest that perhaps you care because all this work drama taps into a younger narrative. Duh. That's what therapy is all about. You will spend five or six years talking about how (spoiler alert, and condolences) your miscarriage reminds you of losing your mom to your baby sister when you were three. It makes no sense. It makes perfect sense. It is something so young that you can only feel it with your body, which might be why you spend months diagnosing yourself with diseases you don't have.

This board member thing, this resurgence of Hillary Toomey, will tap into an older young narrative, one in which you are bowled over by the injustices of adolescent power dynamics, which are also the power dynamics of the world. It feels different. It doesn't live in your body unless you count the months you spend on-and-off binge-eating, which is also a thing you will discover a year from now, when you go on your first diet as a tall, skinny seventh grader who hopes that living on 900 calories a day will make your boobs disappear.

Or, you know, eat what stuffs down your insecurities and allows you to simultaneously reward and punish yourself. (Photo by Jon Tyson via Unsplash)
This is your survival toolbox as a sixth grader: parents who love you, a stable home life, academic ease. Those things aren't nothing. You will hear so many stories, later, of kids in violent neighborhoods with addicted parents who experience some "small" social slight--the nice family next door pretending not to be home so the kid wouldn't crash their dinner once again--and ricochet like a bullet into the nearest gang. These are kids who wanted to be loved and popular just like you. Yet because it's 1988 and you live in Manhattan Beach, you are terrified of them. You have nightmares about gang members waiting for you on your lawn. You have a lawn.

Your survival toolbox as a 41-year-old is even bigger: a family who loves you, a therapist who's been helping you work through this shit for 15 years, friends who say you're a good writer and a good friend. You're dumb sometimes, but you're smart enough to listen to them instead of yourself. You're smart enough to listen to your badass, down-to-earth coworkers, even if you're embarrassed by how much you need their pep talks. You're smart enough not to listen to the Hillary Toomeys, and to know that they and even Hillary Toomey are just an idea, just a projection of their own fears and inner sixth grade selves. Right? You're smart enough to know that, right??

We're all just sad little lava monsters.
Look, it's like the final scene in Moana, which you will watch almost every morning with your son, who says, "I was thinking just one yiddle bit Moana."

Moana sees that Te Ka, the angry lava monster, is actually Te Fiti, the green goddess of island creation. She says "This is not who you are" and Te Ka's fiery bluster fades to ash. She sees Te Fiti inside Te Ka ("the part when Moana is Te Fiti's therapist," as your esposa will describe this scene).

She can only do this because she summons the strength of her grandmother and her ancestors. The part where she sings "I will carry you here in my heart to remind me that come what may, I know the say" gets you every time, right in your green spiral ocean-heart.

In the wise words of Moana, you are everything you've learned and more, Cheryl. You are a nerd and honestly your hair still does weird things, but you are loved. Go get 'em.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

the officer in charge

We said goodbye to OC yesterday. I knew him for sixteen of his seventeen years, which is longer than I’ve known anyone else in this house. He lived with me in three places prior to this one. He was the last of the pets who knew my mom.

Once, we assigned jobs to our cats. Ferdinand was a DJ and Temecula was getting her PhD in neuroscience; her dissertation was titled Why Do Some Cats Talk So Much? OC was Some Cats. His job was town crier.

OC had a lot to say, and he believed that all human hands should be petting him at all times. B and I met him when, in a cage full of cats at a rescue event, he wriggled his orange nose under our extended hands. He was persistent to the point of being annoying, and endearing in his lack of guile. I could learn a thing or two from him.

He was always beta to Ferdinand’s alpha, although Ferd backed off once OC got sick; I think cats know. But he was strong as a chimpanzee, as I learned the one time I tried to give him a bath, and up until a week or so before he died, even when he was just bones wearing a fur coat, he was scaling fences.

I could never pet him as much as he wanted, but he never held it against me. When Dash came along, he was the only one of our three cats not to cut and run when he saw a small human ball of energy and hands and mouth hurling toward him.

Dash adored OC and, as in any sibling relationship, was sometimes heart-meltingly sweet and sometimes hit him for no apparent reason. Since learning OC was sick way back in the fall—kidney failure, which the vet later re-diagnosed as possible lymphoma; I resisted diagnostic rabbit holes, which is a thing I’m not strong enough to do for myself and the humans in my life—I’ve wondered how to talk to Dash about OC’s death.

Dash knows my sister’s cat died, and that my mom died before he could meet her. He’s confused about whether my mom died at the vet, and whether that’s where everyone dies. After many, many conversations, he now understands that DYING is different from DIVING, because dying is when your body stops working and diving is when you jump in the water. I just hope we never know anyone who leaves this world via diving accident. You know, for multiple reasons.

We talked about how OC was very old and very sick and would probably die soon. And also about how some cats/people are old and healthy, and a lot of cats/people get sick and then better. I asked Dash how we could show OC we loved him.

 “Maybe a video?” he said, but it was a little unclear whether he wanted to make one or watch one.

I thought of a bunch of rituals we could do, but in the end time got away from us, as it does. In the end, I gave OC some tuna and sat with him on the kitchen floor and petted him and cried while Dash told us “Don’t be sad!” and AK and I told him it was okay to be sad, that we could be sad for a little while and still take care of Dash. He ran around the house and I made a video by myself, of OC licking my breakfast bowl, until my phone ran out of storage.

That’s how it goes. You do your thing until you run out of storage.

There were still many hours before our appointment at the vet, and I took Dash to the Summer Train Festival at Union Station. The specter of 2:30 pm hovered over all of it, and the crowded train station and Dash’s delight at all the miniature landscapes with model trains was extra fun and poignant.

I recently read a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank, in which she writes about how her mother always finds solace in the fact that they’re not on the “trains heading east.” Anne observes that this doesn’t seem like a good place to fix one’s hope, because what if you’re on the train heading east? She prefers instead to look at the immovable sky.

It’s brilliant and true, but I know I am Anne’s mom in this story, appreciating my life especially in the wake of death and sadness.

We were waiting for the Gold Line when Dash announced he had to go potty, so we trekked back to the bathroom. Then he wanted to look at the fish tank and the fountain, and I stopped delighting and started resenting him for taking time away from my last hours with OC, which was unfair, because how many times had I thrown OC off the bed just because I didn’t want him sitting on my hair? I’d had my time.

I hate the feeling of not having space for things; I hate how frequently both happiness and sadness get squeezed out of my days to make room for obligations of all varieties.

Before T-Mec died, we scheduled a vet who did euthanasia house calls. Physical space is so important to cats; it seemed like one last kind thing we could do. But with OC, we hauled him into the car and drove to Lincoln Heights. Because it was the easiest thing. I cut so many corners these days. I’m sorry, OC.

Dr. Bandele was as kind as he’s always been, to OC and to us. Once he asked if OC stood for Officer in Charge (I’m not sure where Dr. B is from; I decided Nigeria at some point based loosely on his accent and the fact that I like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I also like Dr. B). The first time he saw OC step out of his carrier he said, “Oh, a blond!” Today he said, “It’s hard when they’re still eating.”

And I wondered again if it really was the right time. I don’t believe in killing an animal too soon, just to prevent my own suffering in watching them suffer. But also he had a torn cornea that Dr. B thought was causing him pain, and he seemed to get a little more tired every day, searching fruitlessly for the thing that might make him feel better. Standing in the dishwasher? No. Sitting in the cupboard where we keep the dishtowels? No.

It felt like a shrug of a decision. Why this day? Why not this day? Sometimes I feel like life is one big shrug. We love hard and we hurt each other. Things are beautiful and frustrating and terrible and dumb and silly. And then we call it. Now or later. And then we go on to whatever’s next. I think something is next, although I’m not telling that to Dash, because the concept of an afterlife is pretty confusing for someone who regularly asks if he can invite Moana to his house.

Holly, Joel, and Wendell stopped by with little succulent a beautiful, simple book about death that doesn’t assume any particular religious beliefs. Dash was a jerk about sharing his fire truck. They left and we watched The Incredibles and I put out just two bowls of cat food.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

nerding out with a hundred beautiful nerds

This week I’m at 826’s national Staff Development Conference, a welcome breath after many days of worky work. It’s been a pleasant roller coaster ride of inspiring speeches, helpful workshops, information overwhelm, and good chats with universally awesome coworkers. Topped with a sprinkling of my own white fragility because I like to swing between wild fear that the government is coming for my little queer family and unproductive worry that I Am The Problem. Blah blah blah. But I know this: 826 is the right place for me. That’s a good feeling.

Anyway, one of my favorite parts was when poet Nate Marshall asked us to write a variation on Idris Goodwin’s “A Preface.” I riffed on my one true identity.

Nerd on consent.
My parents were nerds
which is to say they studied hard and delayed
or their gratification was in sacrifice
but also knowledge.
They are not to be confused
with academics,
because they went to state schools.
They are not to be confused
with tech geeks,
because it was the ‘50s.
My dad’s eventual career
with lasers didn’t exist
when he started college.
He wanted to be rich
and maybe today he’d invent an app
but in the ‘80s he invested
in real estate which in the ‘80s was
a thing a middle class person could do.
They weren’t fan-kid nerds
because they were lonely.
I’m a nerd
which is to say in middle school
I made lists of ways to become popular
and failed.
I have never been quiet, although
I will always be shy
and clouded with doubt.
I wear glasses. I am a striver.
I will leave you with this moment
from The Last Days of Disco:
Josh: I love the idea that there’d be all these great places
for people to go dancing
after the terrible social wasteland of our college years.
Tom: You’ve been to a lot of discos?
Josh: No. In fact, practically none.
For me, law school wasn’t easy
and I haven’t had much of a social life
since coming to the City, either.
But, I still consider myself a loyal adherent
to the disco movement.

Friday, June 22, 2018

trigger warning for anyone not wearing an "i really don't care" jacket

All week, I've had a tightness in my chest and stomach. I tried to breathe like that chiropractor taught me in 2011, a year that was essentially a slow-motion panic attack. I thought it was about work, which has been a little bit intense. I felt frustrated with myself for letting something so banal--something that on balance is a positive in my life--get to me on such a visceral level.

Then, yesterday, I had a great day at work, chatting with our spirited new intern and leading a writing prompt for our Summer Writers' Workshop. During my nightly plummet into social media, I soaked per usual in the day's headlines and outrage, and my stomach clenched again. It finally dawned on me.

On Tuesday night, Dash woke up around 3 am, and I dragged him into bed with AK and me. He promptly fell back asleep while I tossed and turned and chased the blue light of my phone for hours. I kept thinking about what everyone not wearing a jacket announcing their lack of empathy is thinking about. Then I fell asleep and dreamed I was driving to the border to do...what? I didn't know. On my dream-drive, I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up on the 5 South, terrified and guilty and amazed I'd only caused a traffic backup and not a crash.

So yeah, I think that situation is causing me some anxiety. Poor me! I'm so anxious about a thing that is mostly theoretical to me! But hey, this is my blog and it's where I work my shit out, so here goes.

My friend Wendy is a writer on Bob's Burgers who is in the process of fost-adopting two little boys. She raised a shitload of money for childhood cancer research and wrote this piece a couple of years before #MeToo, and she regularly trolls our troll of a president on Twitter in ways that are cutting and sincere and hilarious. Clearly I want to be her when I grow up. She tweeted:

My husband & I have cared for a child old enough to know when he was separated by DCFS but too young to talk. When he first arrived, he’d scream all night. One of the only ways to calm him was to take him outside to look at the moon. These poor babies have no one to hold them.

Baron Vaughn tweeted:

Creating a large population of children traumatized by a country dividing them from their parents couldn’t possibly backfire.

If you've spent five seconds in DCFS circles or reentry circles or you've talked to your therapist about attachment and trauma, you know where this is going. You know that American greed is creating, among other things, a massive public health crisis. Gang membership numbers peaked in the '90s and have dipped since, but mark my words, we're going to see a spike for a number of reasons in another ten years.

But this isn't about public health or my under-informed predictions.

Here's what I posted in the small adoption FB group I'm part of. (In the fall, I quit the one I was in for years after a fallout with two MAGA moms over, guess what, immigration.)

Like most people with a heart, I've been having nightmares about family separation at the border. But do any of you feel like being an adoptive parent brings an extra layer of...something? I just keep thinking of what a huge trigger these headlines must be for birth parents. I know there's a difference - all the difference - between voluntarily and lovingly placing a child and having your kid kidnapped by ICE, but....

If I and every parent I know, including bio moms who never miscarried or pined for a child, feel gut-busting panic about the possibility of being separated from our children--if we feel like the things that are most true in our lives are subject to review at any moment--how do people who've actually been separated from their children, for any reason, feel?

The replies to my post helped me clarify my fear/outrage and its corollaries. One mom noted that lots of adoption boards are overflowing with comments about "How do we foster or adopt these babies?" As my friend Sarah said, "You don't! They have families who desperately want to be with them!"

I flashed on the days when I wanted a child so bad I had kidnapping fantasies. I even wrote a short story about it, because writing is a healthy alternative to kidnapping. (Try it, ICE!) I admit--and it brings me deep shame to do so--that the feeling of "Hey cute kid, I wish I could take you home with me" was stronger when I saw babies and small children of color. As if they were somehow more available for the taking.

The taking of children of color, and the erasure of their parents, is nothing new in America. That thought I had was the legacy of slavery, end stop. Even in relatively politically neutral circles of Head Start, etc., the stuff we can all more or less agree on, I sometimes sense an undercurrent of "Kids are okay because they haven't yet embodied the fallout of all the shit that society has piled upon them. But grownups with their messy problems and cultural differences, ugh."

I think there's some of that going on right now. We want parents to be with their kids, but I want us to want it not just for the kids--but for the parents. The ones who did something right and necessary by getting their families out of shitty, colonialism-generated situations in their home countries, but who maybe also make mistakes or snap at their children or smoke cigarettes. All of that stuff is okay too. You don't have to be blameless to deserve basic human rights. There's a billboard around L.A. urging people to become foster parents, and it says: You don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent. It speaks to me because for a long time I thought I did, and filling out a thousand forms to prove I was worthy didn't help matters.

I know this post is a fucking mess. I'm a bit of a fucking mess right now. Because I had a busy week at work and am thinking about some stuff I went through in 2011. Can you imagine what I'd be like if someone stole my kid this week?