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?

Saturday, June 09, 2018

death of the author


I spent the last couple of weeks preparing for 826LA’s big gala. My coworker Shawn—a woman whose superpower is asking people to do hard things in the most graceful, inspiring way, a skill I wish more powerful men would watch and learn—led the charge, but I was second in command. It was all sales and numbers and making multiple donor management databases talk to each other, none of which is my jam. Toward the end, I was working 12-hour days. Also not my jam. My eating habits tanked. My parenting was meh. I relied on AK for a lot and didn’t give much in return.

The night of the event, I worked registration in the role of “trouble shooter.” At Homeboy’s gala, if a name wasn’t on the list, I just sent that person down the line to the Lady With The Laptop. Now I was the Lady With The Laptop, which was mildly terrifying. I went in feeling rather proud of my meticulously devised and revised seating chart, and I finished in tears.

Being the Lady With The Laptop at a gala event is like carefully packing a U-Haul—everything is boxed and labeled, and maybe the last couple of boxes are sort of wonky, containing a spatula, a skirt, and some mail you grabbed on your way out.

Then you have to parallel park the U-Haul.

Then a giant flock of wealthy chickens descends upon you and begins to peck you in the face.

Don't mind me. Definitely not judging you. (Pic by Jehu Christian on Unsplash)
You realize that the two boxes you forgot to pack contain all your family heirlooms. The chickens are nice, but they have been sitting in traffic and would like to get a cocktail. You don’t want to parallel park this thing, and they don’t want to watch you. The door of the U-Haul falls open. You want to run away, but there is a U-Haul to repack. You throw random shoes and plates and hope for the best, feeling very conscious of the underpaid people who have to clean up your mess.

(This is a metaphor I’ve been honing over the past several days of reckoning with PGSD, or Post Gala Stress Disorder.)

I believe in miracles. (Pic by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash.)
But then something miraculous happened. Everyone went into the old downtown cathedral that was our event space. They ate and drank and listened to our students talk about the sacrifices their immigrant grandmothers made so they could go to Berkeley and Stanford. They gave generously, because wine and grandmothers. The room became more than the sum of its parts—more than my flawed databases, more than a celebrity’s name stamped on our invitations, more than the 400 chapbooks our beleaguered designer had to assemble the weekend before the event.

Miracles are made of the mundane. To me that doesn’t dull their luster; it enhances it. It’s humbling and comforting to see how we’re all just cogs in a machine, but if you’re fortunate enough to find the right machine, your grandson will go to college and your event will shimmer like a Los Angeles sunset.

2. sherlock holmes and roland barthes

Slate’s Decoder Ring had an amazing episode about Sherlock Holmes as historical epicenter of fan fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the creators of the BBC’s Sherlock have felt both sharp edges of popularity’s sword, as fans create and demand alternate outcomes to their stories.

Although most of my books’ Amazon reviews are written by people I know, I still feel those guys. I love writing because it’s the one space where I have complete control. But I also know that control is a myth—not just because, to paraphrase the wise Michael Cunningham, I’ll never be able to successfully translate the ball of fire and passion in my head into words, but because readers project their own experiences and ideas onto whatever I write.

(Roland Barthes wrote all about this phenomenon in The Death of the Author, but podcasts about Sherlock Holmes are where I’m at these days.)

But what readers and viewers bring to a thing is also its magic—the other edge of the other edge of the sword. I used to love the moment in writing workshops when my classmates debated what one my characters might do, as if that person was real. I’d stitched a scarecrow, but they were making it dance. It was magic, alchemy, a glittering night in a cathedral.

3. reality, projection, and projection as reality

I never read anything by Anthony Bourdain; I knew him vaguely as a food guy who liked meat? I liked Kate Spade’s designs but couldn’t have told you that she sold her company ten years ago. But watching people in my feed react to their suicides has been touching and fascinating.

I don't know when that handbag is from, but I can tell you that's a 1957 Thunderbird. Thanks, Dad. (Credit: Patrick Jasin.)
Some people saw it as an opportunity to post suicide hotline numbers and remind friends they weren’t alone. (I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve been to places dark enough that I would definitely read those lovely posts and think: Yeah, but you don’t mean me. You mean your real friends. You’re probably cuddling your baby in one hand and writing your best-selling novel with the other, so of course you can be charitable toward me as I spiral into the abyss.)

Others have said, more or less: It’s not about mental health, it’s about a fast-paced, fragmented society that is rampant with cruelty.

Even in their deaths, these creators became projection screens.

My own projections were most in keeping with those of Molly, a writer who maintains a brutally, beautifully honest blog about living with stage IV breast cancer. Her diagnosis makes certain questions more immediate, but we’ll all face them eventually: What will I leave behind? Does what I leave behind matter more than what I do while I’m here? Is there a point in process without product? Is there a point in product if you don’t enjoy the process?

Who said Only connect? Because yeah, that. But I still want to publish another book before I die. I still want to be famous, even as I see how hollow fame is.

I’m spending most of the weekend at my dad’s house, trying to catch my breath from a fast-paced, fragmented life (albeit one rampant with kindness). I’m going to try—again—to dive back into the memoir that I believe in and don’t, which I enjoy writing and avoid writing. This post has been my warm-up. This has, too, been the real thing.