Monday, October 28, 2019

smithing words, making space

Homeboy Industries had a beautiful culture of storytelling, but not of reading or writing per se. People would send long emails about the staff barbecue with detailed information about the type of meat the cafe crew would be grilling, and forget to include the date. Someone would inevitably reply-all: What about veggie burgers? And someone else would reply-all: This is so important to our model of kinship and I just want to really thank Rulies for organizing this!!! It takes a village!!! And someone else would say: When is it??? And eventually we'd find out.

I wrote grants, but I also helped a former trainee rewrite a policies-and-procedures manual, and I wrote descriptions for a bunch of salsas I'd never tasted. Word got out that I could write a variety of things, and people started bringing me their stuff, saying, "I was hoping you could wordsmith this for me."

At first, I was flattered but also annoyed, because "wordsmith" sounded like a word that people who don't value or understand writing would use. Like it was some kind of glitter I just sprinkled over things. It seemed to describe a craft, not art.

Then I started working at a writing organization where people Got It, but I still got requests to "wordsmith" various chunks of text. I've been thinking a lot about that word, and I'm coming around to it.

First, because being a craftsperson is great. When I think about the art I like, it's always a combination of concept and craft. Like Ray Eames' smooth birds and planetary hang-it-all. Or my friend Rebecca Niederlander's intricate wooden sculptures. I like skill and versatility. I like imagining myself as a weaver or blacksmith in a bygone time, someone people would come to with their need for a blanket or a soup ladle. I would return something pleasing and practical.

Second--and slightly in contradiction to Point A--writing is thinking, i.e. concept. I had my annual performance review recently, and came away with shoulders slumped because it was clear I'm not much of a manager. Or, in the language of performance reviews, it's a "growth area" for me. I felt small and dumb. And it's true, I have plenty to learn in the realm of management. But if I'm wordsmithing things for my organization, I'm also thinking through our mission and programs and strategies, and that is a kind of leadership.

I had a very satisfying text exchange with my IKEA Writers Collective friends about how frustrating it is to be a person who leads behind the scenes but doesn't command a room or give shiny presentations. There are some ways in which I'm a straight-up slacker, for sure, but I'm also a critical thinker who understands how people work, and those are useful ingredients in the leadership recipe.

When I was processing my performance review angst with my therapist, he made me pause after saying "Everyone thinks I'm a nice enough person and a good writer, but--" because, he said, "people gloss over the things that are easy for them, but they're not easy for everyone. And even being a good writer doesn't mean you can write in every context." He described a student of his who's a wonderful storyteller but struggles with academic writing (I would too). And it's true that I pride myself on being a little bit of a chameleon.

To that point (this is a transition), AK and I just wrote--drum roll--the profile for our second adoption. That strange and hopeful self-marketing letter to a stranger. It's been a long time coming. First we weren't sure we wanted more than one kid. Then we decided we probably did, but definitely couldn't afford to double our daycare bill, so it made sense to wait until Dash started public school. We took our sweet time completing our home study, which is to say I didn't become a megalomaniac this time around. I can't do that to Dash. It was bad enough when I did it to AK and myself back in 2011-2014. I have to remember that whatever happens, or doesn't, we're already a family. We're not incomplete; we're creating space.

Of course when you create space for possibility, you also create space for disappointment. I worry about our health and our energy levels and our finances and my writing. Sometimes it feels like we're trying to create space where there isn't any. But scarcity thinking has never served me well. So here's to abundance and openness and woven blankets and the baby names I whisper out loud in the shower.

Sunday, August 11, 2019


Friday night I met with my writing group, had a glass of wine, dug into Auzelle's poems, walked home in the humid dark, and started feeling the sparkly urge to write a poem. About the layers of being connected to and separate from another human being (are there poems about anything else?).

Saturday morning, one of the moms from Dash's new school organized a pre-first-day play date so kids and parents could get to know each other, and it was nothing short of a smashing success. Every parent was friendly and chill, and the kids started a group project of Moving All The Sand From The Sandbox Out Of The Sandbox. Dash hit it off with twin boys who were adopted by two dads, and I can't tell you how excited I am that Dash won't have to do all the queer-adoptive-family explanatory lifting himself.

So we're feeling pretty optimistic, and the blurry unknown is coming into focus. This morning I wrote the poem that took shape Friday night, even though Sunday morning is a different place (and Sunday afternoon, when I'm posting this, in a sleepy post-Dodgers haze, is another place still). But here it is anyway, that moment, a prose poem.


Photo by La-Rel Easter on Unsplash


I hate kindergarten.

Me too.

It’s so boring.

I know. 

We sheltered in a cinderblock cave and glared at the sun-soaked playground. The endless recess, the smug glee of other five-year-olds. Denise Moretti and I knew better, two wise old cynics in ruffled dresses. We might as well have smoked. 

Eventually I peeled away. Learned to hang like a sloth from a metal bar, turned a grounded rowboat into a prairie cabin. The adventures of Janet and Mark, successors of Dick and Jane, remained dull as sand, but when Denise said--maybe in spring, when the hillside ice plant offered thin-petaled flowers--Let’s talk again about how we hate kindergarten, I told her I didn’t. A betrayal. I left her on that splintery bench and rowed off toward first grade.


You took to daycare like the frog in the pot. We didn’t boil you, but we made you believe these hand-offs were normal. You learned to walk on indoor-outdoor carpet. You marched to the bathroom in a line. Also: the teacher whose face opened when she saw you, a daisy turning to the sun. Also: the boy you wrestle-hugged each morning, two only children merging into brotherhood. These simultaneous truths: We missed something and gained something, and it is all fine as a box of worn blocks. Smooth wood oiled by many hands.


We are rugged veterans of this village life, and yet. In nine days I’ll wait with you in front of heavy doors for strangers to buzz us in. A security measure, though real estate is the gunman in our neighborhood. Children eat free lunches in the shadow of a crane. 

You: uniformed in navy and royal blue. Me: the doubting general, wondering why my metaphors bend toward war. Knowing what will form in those trenches: the fear, the friendships. Alpha, bravo, charlie. 

You curl on our bed two Saturdays before, trying to name some nameless need. You call it cake, you call it water park. Mama and I form a tent around you, hush your kicking feet. 

I want to go to the water park NOW.

I know. 

I know what is coming, and I send you off anyway. If I could hold your hard days in my calloused hands, I would. If I could save your baby skin. And yet this truth clenched like a forgotten sock: I don’t mind turning my back. Every mother is as kind and ruthless as an ER doctor. Here is your backpack, here is my long nose touching yours, here is my heart, intact.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

some things old, some things new

Sometimes moms post pictures of their nine-month-olds to celebrate "nine months in, nine months out." I've never been sure whether to count Dash's gestation in our lives as two weeks or four and a half years, but here he is, four and a half years out, about to start elementary school (technically "extended transitional kindergarten," but it's part of LAUSD and there is a principal and we downloaded an app, so).

It's late summer--finally hot after months of mild weather, strangely balmy in a way that stirs my sense of possibility. New life phase? I wonder. I'm always a sucker for new starts, even though much is not new: Dash, a veteran daycare kid, will still be away from me for the same number of hours each week.

"Mommy, draw me a Southwest airplane."

My sister got married two weeks ago. Dash cried through the ceremony and acted like a crazy drunk throughout the reception. Her husband is kind and clever and has the kind of dark side that makes me trust him more. He sees her full self, which is what I always wanted for her. They've been together a few years now, and known each other for a decade, so: new and not new.

My work angst has subsided like a tide edging back, slowly returning me to land and revealing a few new shells in the process, their insides pink and pearly.

What will it be like to be an elementary school parent? I love the school we chose--a public school six blocks away with a teacher, principal, and front office person who are warm and enthusiastic. It's not technically our home school, but it has the same demographic makeup, so I think it falls under my umbrella of what's ideologically acceptable. But who knows what needs will be revealed and what decisions we'll make for subsequent years, so I know better than to be smug. I'm just grateful for Ms. Pedroza and her monarch butterfly hatchery.

We're pivoting to elementary life at the same time that we're preparing--so, so slowly--to try to adopt another baby. It'll be a while; don't run out and buy us any onesies just yet. Planning ("planning") this next phase feels like showing up to a baby shower where everyone else is wearing floral sundresses and holding pass codes to the 529 accounts they just started. I am panting and dressed in sweats, ten pounds overweight and too many dollars in debt.

When Dash was born, sometimes I looked at his smooth face and chill demeanor and worried half-jokingly that he was too cool for me, a weirdo who thought about death all the time.

The other day in the car, he said, "Mommy, I have a surprise for you because you listened."

"Oh? Thank you! What's my surprise?" Often it is a sticker.

"It's my fingernail." He handed me a tiny wet crescent he'd just chewed.

While I was giving my toast at Cathy's wedding, he ran onstage, grabbed my forearm like a chin-up bar, pulled himself up, and licked me.

I aspire to be the kind of person who will see the love in this photo before I see my flabby arms, but I also apsire to be the kind of person who has less flabby arms. How cute is my sis, though?
I think he's quite at home in our family of weirdos, and I'm sure our next kid will be too. Everyone is weird because everyone is particular, once they pass the platonic ideal/projection screen stage that is babyhood.

If I bring anything new to this next phase, I hope it's a little bit more gentleness toward myself and others. This past week, I had a slightly odd stomach bug that prompted me to think about cancer a lot. The week before that, I binge-listened to Broken Harts, a podcast about the white moms who drove the six Black kids they adopted off a cliff, leaving behind a chain of half-assed investigations into their parenting and a thread of glowing, well written Facebook posts about raising chickens and creating peace.

Social workers and expectant moms, if you're reading this: AK and I are on solid mental ground and most of my Facebook posts are about how tired I am, so I can't be overselling too much, right? But fuck, that shit shook me up. It seemed to me that Jen Hart suffered from a particular brand of hubris, where she believed that if she couldn't "save" her kids--if she was in over her head, as she and her wife Sarah almost instantly were--they were better off dead than in someone else's care. I think I know when to ask for help. I think I genuinely relish raising Dash in community, and one of my great delights is seeing his agency and personality blossom in unexpected ways (even in the middle of a wedding). But I'm also a recovering perfectionist who thinks everything is my responsibility; I use social media too much; I am prone to crafting imaginary worlds for better and worse (Jen was also a video game addict). So I imagine the tracks veering away from the highway and toward the bluff.

Last week I was on a panel at Book Show about writers with day jobs, which my friend Bronwyn put together for a cohort of summer interns, a diverse and artsy bunch with glowing skin and great clothes, whose general excitement about the world was palpable and contagious. I'm a young enough old person that getting old is still surprising to me. I like that a lot of the pieces of my life have been established, but a part of me is still that college kid who wants to sign up for every extracurricular activity.

The old things: anxiety and PTSD, iffy eating habits, imposter syndrome, envy, a wonderful family of weirdos. The new things: a certain amount of acceptance of the old things, a community that will help raise my kid(s), an appreciation for the fact that (in the half-ironic words of Daniel Ortberg/Dear Prudence) "life is a rich tapestry." Those balmy mornings when the palm trees shake their leaves against gray-pink skies--that old feeling of new possibilities.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

a few words of summer

Yesterday my department had a four-hour meeting at WeWork. I arrived in a pissy mood because I'd spent the first three hours of my workday putting together a mailing list and the fourth on a series of freeways.

The Culver City building that housed WeWork was across from the Sony Pictures lot, over which a giant fabricated rainbow arced. I imagined a team of producers and diversity-committee types saying, "We have this leftover rainbow from the set of [something Sony produces]. Can we repurpose it for Pride?"

The lobby of the WeWork building was decked out with bright lounge chairs, palm trees made of balloons, and an old-timey ice cream cart. It screamed "summer selfie." It also screamed: "Haha, you're not at the beach, you're at work."

It's been almost a year since our department was reshuffled and I was moved from a higher-ranking position to one that seemed like a better fit for my actual strengths. Except my org likes to proceed with caution, and the transition has been gradual. Glacial, I would say. Thoughtfulness and thoroughness are attributes; my last org was much more of the "Let's throw shit at the wall and see what sticks, and write grant reports suggesting that everything stuck when almost nothing did" variety.

But caution has its limits. And I'm getting impatient. And we've been without administrative support for about half of the past year, and guess who's admin support in the wake?

I feel like I'm swimming upstream toward my Preferred Job Description, battling giant waves of mailing lists and database management and post office visits and data entry and reports and seating charts, and those waves keep getting bigger, and my destination is shrinking to a dot in the distance.

I tell myself that all learning is good, and I have learned a lot about a lot of fucking databases. I tell myself that all work that supports a good mission is noble. I tell myself I'm paid really well for an administrative assistant. I walk off my rage in the park next to my office and see the dozens of people who live there in tents and old vans and would probably appreciate a job as an admin assistant. Or maybe they already have one, and it doesn't pay the bills.

I also see my coworkers getting (hard-earned, well deserved) promotions. I see my writer friends and writers on Twitter pounding out #1000WordsOfSummer a day. I remember when I went to MacDowell thinking that writing for eight hours a day was impossible, but after a short ramp-up, I was writing eight hours a day. I imagine what I could do if I had the time, at work and outside of work, and I crumple.

Everything in life boils down to the serenity prayer: What can I control? What do I need to accept? All the work is in knowing the difference, and I panic whenever I start to feel like I've made a stupid, risky bet. Did I miss the boat by not pursuing a career as a freelance writer? There are lots of reasons why the answer is "no" (the pay is usually shittier than nonprofit work, I'm not a good reporter, I'm not a good hustler), and a few reasons why the answer is "yes" (I'm better at writing than anything else, and there would be no mailing lists).

I've been thinking about futility. And the privilege and self-delusion that made me think I had control over my life, even for a minute. I mean, I have some. I want it all. Late last night, as I bitched to AK and Alberto, I toed Dash's trucks into a perfectly straight line. Alberto laughed at me, and I laugh-sobbed, "It's the one thing I can control!"

I always wear my struggle on my sleeve, and it's no secret to anyone I work with that I'm wilting under the weight of mailing lists. At our planning meeting, I did my very, very best to be honest, firm, and leader-like. I tried to Be The Preferred Job Description I Wish To See In The World. But when someone brought up "revisiting" our the roles and workflow we've spent months finessing, I wanted to scream. And cry and whine and perform all my usual unbecoming responses. Instead I got mad--in what I hope was a professional way?--and said no, we just have to do this. The time is now.

When I came out of the meeting, the summer set-up had been wiped clean from the lobby. I'd thought it was a regular seasonal display, like a Christmas tree in December, but apparently it had been there for a specific, two-hour party. I felt strangely relieved. No more pretending. Back to work for everyone.

Friday, May 24, 2019

housing and home

1. don’t call me moogle

Moogle! began the post in a NELA mom’s group I periodically dip into. Since leaving Parenting for Social Justice and sort of burning out on Facebook groups, I haven’t been super active in any. But a few embers remain, and sometimes the mighty algorithm tosses a match.

My husband and I have been trying to find the right neighborhood to move to to raise our son, but we haven’t found a place in our price range that meets our criteria.

Her price range was up to a million, which in LA will get you a house that would play a poor person’s house on TV, but still. A million bucks. Her wishlist followed: walkability, lots of trees, safety, “a strong school district with good public schools that will nurture our son’s upbringing,” and my personal favorite: “Our son will grow up with a peer group that is motivated to learn, open minded and driven; the culture also scores low on materialism and sense of entitlement.”

Bitch, I grew up in the neighborhood you’re describing, and good luck avoiding entitlement. All my motivated and driven peers (not to be confused with my actual friends) run hedge funds now; sometimes they cut checks to the nonprofits I work for. Or they live in the beach homes they inherited from their parents and start motivational Instagram accounts. They’re often very nice people. I’m sure you are too. (I think she really is; after some back-and-forth in the comments section, we ended with a conciliatory exchange about yoga.)

But pro tip: Don’t use the future verb tense to talk about how you eschew entitlement. Because what’s more entitled than talking about your own amazing future as if it’s a guarantee?

2. getting their berkeley on

Tuesday night, AK sees therapy patients; I usually get texts from her in the ten-minute gaps between clients. This past Tuesday, I didn’t, and by 10:15, I started to call and worry. Finally she replied: Crazy meeting at work. I’ll tell you about it. Students are pissed.

The art college where she works is none of the things you’d think an art college would be. Students are quiet and hardworking and more interested in getting jobs in automotive design than in activism.

Or they were.

But the zeitgeist has shifted and so have the job and housing markets. Tuesday night’s diversity committee meeting took a turn when students started testifying about incidents of racism, sexual assault, and homelessness on campus. All are terrible, but the latter hit me the hardest, maybe because it seems like things are getting worse housing-wise rather than bumpily better.

One student posted a short YouTube interview with a homeless student, who gave a tour of the locker room in which he stashed his belongings--a backpack, a paper bag, and a small box of supplies.

The school has no student housing, steep tuition, and coursework that makes it nearly impossible to have a job and study at the same time.

Students said they wouldn’t leave until something shifted. Administrators agreed to let homeless students sleep on campus that night. AK came home, grabbed our air mattress, and drove back to school.

3. the girls next door

Dash met them on the sidewalk outside our house: a six-year-old I’ll call Jasmine and a two-year-old I’ll call Juanita. He’d encountered some kids from the building on the other side of us a couple of times, but they were older and seemed to be gently making fun of him; my heart cracked a little bit, and the friendship didn’t stick.

Jasmine and Juanita were a different story, though. Before we knew it, they were sharing sidewalk chalk. Then they were running loops through our house, backyard, and driveway. I sort of waved to their dad to let him know they were there, and that it was fine. Dash was so excited that he launched into a mansplainy show-and-tell: Hey you guys, I have a construction truck! Want to see my paints? This is my trampoline!

I cringed a bit, but Jasmine and Juanita were tentatively into the trampoline, and then very into the trampoline, a recent hand-me-down from a friend’s kid.

I texted the IWC: This is kind of my old-timey-neighborhood community dream, kind of my no-boundaries college dorm nightmare.

They kept coming over, and thank god they were sweet and funny and generally better behaved than Dash. I still hadn’t met their parents beyond a few waves and nods. I mentioned something about wanting to, and Jasmine said, “Do you speak both?” She was school-age and fluent in English. “My baby,” as she referred to Juanita, spoke mostly Spanish.

She also told me, “My dad doesn’t mind us coming over, but my mom doesn’t like it.”

What did that mean?? Because she felt strange, as I would, about inflicting her kids on someone else? Because she worried, as I would, about not knowing those people? Because she was religious and not cool with her kids hanging out in a den of lesbianism and Cheerio-strewn floors?

Eventually, AK exchanged enough words with their mom to determine it was more of the first, not the latter (that we know of). She confirmed that their apartment was very clean and very small.

They’ve invited Dash over, and one time he and AK hung around their place for a few minutes, but mostly they’ve played at our place. I find the whole scenario taking up a lot of space in my brain, not just my living room.

Some of it is just growing-up stuff. At irregular intervals since he was a baby, I’ve been spun around like a cartoon character upon realizing he’s entered a new phase. Wait, what, you have teeth now? It’s a big and surprising (and not surprising) deal, this ability to make friends on his own. Also not surprisingly, I’m a little wistful that AK and I are no longer the people he wants to hang out with most--I also got my first “Mommy, I don’t like you” the other day, and honestly in that moment I didn’t like me either--and I am grateful for the breathing room. Parenting is both more temporary and more permanent than I could have realized.

But there are other low-grade anxieties that are more particular. A best practice in #Merica, when your child visits a new home on their own, is to ask if there are any guns in the home. This would be an incredibly awkward conversation to have with an English speaker in my exact socioeconomic bracket, and exponentially harder to have in Spanish, when my vocabulary and ability to communicate nuance is just slightly below Juanita’s.

I don’t want their mom to think that I think that they are the type of family to have guns. They seem like they’re not! Then again, neither did my aunt, but when I visited her farm a couple of years ago and Dash wandered into her bedroom, she said, “Oh, let me make sure I put my gun away,” and my heart stopped beating for like three days.

With their tidy apartment in mind, I’ve felt surges of shame every time Dash doesn’t put a toy away and Jasmine does. “Dash, you don’t have to just throw that on the floor,” she said the other day, when he flung a monkey costume two feet from his costume box. I am trying to learn some firmer parenting from Jasmine’s mother, using Jasmine as a proxy.

I am also trying to push past the awkwardness of our comparative privilege to remember that privilege is something to leverage and share rather than hide. I did almost nothing to earn my current living situation, so it feels like literally the least I can do to open up our home and our postage-stamp backyard to kids who don’t have a backyard. They have plenty: two parents who seem kind and attentive, a chill older brother, clean cute clothes, toys, two cars--I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that a small apartment and lack of English equals “underprivileged.” Honestly, in the current housing market and with three kids, they could be pulling six figures and not be able to afford a backyard. Or they could be making $40,000 between them and still be privileged by many non-material measures.

All this speculation rattling around in my brain seems gossipy and precious. I remember how curious my parents always were about what my friends’ parents did for a living. My response was essentially: Don’t you see that you’re boring adults and the kids are the main characters in this story?

It would be as fair as anything if the government seized everyone’s land and redistributed all the wealth, although historically that hasn’t gone well. I’m more and more confident that end-stage capitalism is serving most of us poorly and is literally killing others. My family and our neighbors are at different parts of the middle of the 99 percent.

My coworker, who has older kids, smiled when I told her about Jasmine and Juanita and said, “I’m so happy for you. These kinds of friendships last a lifetime.” I hope she’s right. But she lives in Laurel Canyon, and her kids were born in a different housing market.

I hope Jasmine and Juanita’s family isn’t contemplating a move to the Antelope Valley. But why wouldn’t they?

My reply to the Moogle mom was: I hope you’re thinking not just about neighborhoods that check boxes on your wishlist, but also about what you’ll be bringing to your community.

I often don’t do much more than think, and thoughts and prayers are cheap. Backyards are not.

Dash is crushing so hard on Jasmine and Juanita that on Tuesday night, when we took a breath between play dates, he just stood on the sidewalk looking at their house, like a sad kid version of the Tethered family in Us.

These boxes have been checked on my own wishlist: nice kids my kid can play with, positive relationships with my neighbors. They pile blankets on boogie boards in the backyard. They fight gently over Magna-Tiles. They chase after our beleaguered cats yelling, “Gato!” Dash has already picked up Jasmine’s habit of saying, “Juanita, ven! Juanita, mira!”

Growing up in Manhattan Beach, there are things I didn’t know I needed, and I think that’s the real meaning of community: an openness to life outside your wishlist, a willingness to pause and look up.

Monday, April 22, 2019

running down a dream when already quite rundown

This is a post about how rundown I am, and how I want it to be otherwise, so get ready to be bored and scroll on by, or to relate wholeheartedly, or maybe a little of both.

Many days here in my Very Nice Life, I feel like I'm swimming upstream, just constantly trying to find the motivation to do the next thing. That makes it sound like I'm lying in bed, though. Ha! Almost never. I'm usually doing the previous thing. I am cleaning up mailing lists at work and replying to emails ("Sorry for the slow reply!" they all begin) and cleaning up toy trains and changing peed-on sheets and contemplating the fact that I might smell a little like pee myself. I am trying to help Dash through a difficult phase and trying to work through a difficult phase at work that has lasted longer than any easy phase, even though I Still Believe.

I complain the whole way, and then I apologize for complaining, and then I eat things I shouldn't, and too many of them.

In some ways, this feels like an economic/generational/life-phase issue that's bigger than all of us. In other ways, I think it's a mood thing and a self-care thing, and the solution is simple if not easily attainable.

I realized that a typical night for me goes something like this:
  • 9:48 pm: Dash finally falls asleep.
  • 10 pm: I climb in bed and eat snacks so I can stay awake long enough to unwind.
  • 1:32 am: Dash wakes up from a bad dream, I stumble into his room and lug him back to bed with AK and me.
  • 1:33 am-2:10 am: I look at my fucking phone. It tells me nothing helpful.
  • 5 am: My alarm goes off because in my exhausted delusion the night before, I really thought I would get up at 5 am and write a memoir. I hit snooze.
  • 5:55 am: I finally get up. Make coffee, set up my writing station under a blanket on Dash's old crib mattress in our office, look at my fucking phone.
  • 6:12 am: I write literally two sentences.
  • 6:23 am: Dash screams from our bedroom (even though he is laying right next to AK) "Mommmeeeee!" His voice is full of accusation.
  • 6:24 am: I run in and begin my day, already behind. I won't get more than a half hour to myself until the weekend.
Portrait of me by Anton Murygin on Unsplash.
So I made some goals. I'm always making some goals. But goddamn it, I want to give myself a fighting chance (to look how I want to look in my dress at my sister's July 20 wedding, among all the other things). I feel like the odds are stacked against me, in plenty of ways, but getting some decent sleep will give me one more tool with which to beef up my will power.

I have other tools, and when I'm feeling like the odds are stacked against me (against my mood, against my will power), this is important to remember. I have a great support network. I have legs and a good neighborhood for walking. We are not in a great place financially, but I can still afford fresh fruit and vegetables. We just hired an enthusiastic young person at work, who will eventually clean up some of the mailing lists that haunt me. I have a nice boss and coworkers. AK is rundown herself, but she makes sure I have time to write on Sundays, and her TLC of our yard keeps our house from looking abandoned. The lovely Ikea Writers' Collective doesn't get tired of my complaining. Books exist, not just my phone.

Anyway, the goals, starting this magical Monday morning:
  • No coffee after 3 pm (allllll the coffee before; let's be realistic).
  • Stop eating after 8 pm, for fuck's sake.
  • Brush teeth, wash face, feel like a person?
  • When Dash wakes up, go back to sleep and don't look at my fucking phone--YOUR PHONE IS NOT ON YOUR SIDE, CHERYL.
  • Get up at 5 to write OR DON'T. Sleep or don't. No more of this snooze nonsense. 
  • No sweets? I mean, that's a thing some people do.
  • When I feel like I'm melting down, take a 20 minute break. Walk, breathe. Like a person. I want to set an example for Dash, who has also been doing some melting down when exhausted. I want to stop running him into the ground too.
We have a big work event coming up, and, much further down the line, a little baby coming up? It's hard to not to feel like: Why even try? But there are a million good reasons to try, and some frivolous ones too. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

no one is free when others are tethered

One evening back in the fall, I pushed Dash around Highland Park in his stroller. A carnival had sprung up like a cluster of toadstools in the park next to the library. The lights blurred in the fog and paint peeled from the signs on the rides and exhibitions. It felt like we were in 1992, or 1955, or 1890. The carnival was crowded with families and packs of teenagers and couples with their hands in each other’s back pockets, but I was the only white person I saw the whole time. The sense of witnessing a ghost Highland Park, a fading twin of the mixed, gentrifying neighborhood it is in daylight, was palpable and eerie.

Us opens on the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986, when a little Black girl named Adelaide wanders into a funhouse called Shaman’s Vision and returns shell-shocked and changed forever.

In the present day of the film, it has been renamed Merlin’s Forest, presumably because we don’t appropriate Native American culture anymore. That’s all in the past, right? 

Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) tells her husband what happened that day: She saw a little girl who looked exactly like her, and she’s always had the foreboding feeling that the girl is coming for her.

These opening scenes, of Adelaide moving through her family’s sunny beach vacation steeped in dread, felt a lot like the past two weeks of my life. If you think that’s an exaggeration, you haven’t met PTSD. I had my semi-annual cancer checkup right on the heels of Molly’s death, and everything I hoped I’d left behind reared up. It rattled my door and stood in my driveway, creepy as a family of clones in red jumpsuits.

Spoilers ahead. Spoilers are how we know we lived to tell the tale.

The family of doppelgangers takes Adelaide and her husband and two children hostage. Red, her double and the only Other who talks, explains in a deep, halting voice that she and her kind live underground, their bodies separate but their souls tethered to the humans above ground: the ones enjoying roller coasters and candy apples and epidurals during childbirth. Meanwhile, the Tethered subsisted on raw rabbit meat and never saw the sun. Who are these people?

“We’re Americans,” says Red.

The film turned for me in that moment, from a terrifying but personal tale of PTSD to a social story—more poetic, less spikily scary, but more horrifically wide-reaching in its implications.

The central metaphor of Us is that if America doesn’t face its past and present—of slavery and oppression, of carnival rides on the backs of humans whose suffering we conspire to make invisible—it will come for us and tear us down.

But here’s the twist (more spoilers): As we relive the Shaman’s Vision quest through Red’s eyes, we learn what really happened that day. The girl from the world above was dragged underground, and the Tethered girl went to live in the sunshine. The Adelaide we’ve been rooting for, the one willing to fight to the death for her children, is the changeling.

But she isn’t some evil witch in disguise. She is, basically, a kid who leaves a rough neighborhood for a good job in corporate America. She wants what everyone wants, but she knows whom she left behind, and she doesn’t have the luxury of blindness to the Tethered. Meanwhile, Red—as the once-loved child who longs for what she lost—has to be the one to lead the revolution. You can’t summon the appropriate rage if you don’t know what you’re missing.

Adelaide’s fear strikes me as a kind of survivor guilt. She knows—in her bones and blood and hair follicles—that she’s no different from the Tethered. Of course, I don’t have Molly’s blood on my hands in the way that white people have Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous blood on our hands. But I know that the difference between a good outcome and a life cut short is as arbitrary as a flipped mirror. I know how much of my energy and anyone’s is devoted to maintaining the fictions that say otherwise.

As in Get Out, Jordan Peele reveals the terror inflicted on Black bodies and souls as particular, visceral grief. The howling rage, sadness, and cautionary bleakness of Us feels truer than any documentary.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

we are the coolest

The first time I met Molly in person, I was coming off a morning spent roaming the aisles at Target, contemplating the fact that, depending how you sliced the statistics, there was a ten percent chance I would be dead in five years. It was 2013.

Then I remembered that coffee existed, and I got some and dried my eyes. I sat down at Swork and waited for Molly to find me, which wasn't hard to do because I was the only bald woman in the place.

She told me her story, which is to say her cancer story, which was of course only a piece of her story. She'd reached out to me at Poets & Writers about a Poets & Writers thing, but in the process she'd come across my blog, so she added a P.S. to her email: "If you ever want to talk to someone who went through the same thing at a similar age...." And here we were, talking. About fake boobs and prognoses and the super annoying social worker who'd crossed both our paths.

I admitted: "I just feel so old and creaky and uncool."

Molly was more than a year out of treatment. Her blonde hair had grown back. She was starting a new micro fiction collective.

"Are you kidding?" she said. "I think we're the coolest."

She was so undeniably cool--the way she talked and wrote and moved through the world--that I instantly believed her.

Molly on the runway in 2017. One badass thing among many.
For a few months, we were fast friends. I joined her collective and hung out a couple of times at the loft she shared with her then-husband in Atwater Village. I had some kind of art/cancer/sister crush on her. Navigating a world people tried to avoid, I'd finally found someone aspirational.

And then she slowly drifted away, admitting in an email that she was struggling with depression, which was not new for her and which her oncologist said was common a couple of years after cancer treatment. I circled back to her blog and her Facebook page now and then, looking for proof she was still healthy and hoping she'd still want to be friends. She was mostly quiet.

Then, in January 2017, she shared a long, unflinchingly honest, un-self-pitying Facebook post: She'd been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2015 and writing about it anonymously (until now) on a blog that I devoured instantly. A rich meal that made me sick even as I ate it.

She wrote beautifully. She said things I'd thought about and shared wisdom I hoped I would arrive at if I got to the point of Stage IV. I did what everyone does when reading, even about fictional people, which was to slide inside her narrative. It was a slippery and dangerous and irresistible task. I hadn't seen her in a few years and so she became Molly The Story, even as she was Molly The Writer and Molly The Person. I was mindful of all the ways it was unfair to Molly The Person to project my own fears onto her, even though Molly The Writer was aware of this inevitability and wrote about her own projections.

Death is the process of transitioning from Writer to Story, whether you are a literal writer or not. Story is a kind of earthly immortality, although I hope there are other kinds. Writers try to trick death by telling our own stories, even though most of us know we will be digital ghosts at best, not Shakespeare, not even suggested summer reading.

I'm telling you about Molly right now because this morning I saw these tweets.

Until now, she's been the one telling her story, which is as it should be. At Homeboy and now at 826LA, we talk a lot about the power of claiming and telling your story, and it's easy to forget what what it actually means, though it is also easy to remember, to be pulled back to earth by this gut-level truth. I say that storytelling is my own religion, and like any faith, I can't quite explain it. Like any faith, it takes work. It can be lost. It can be exploited.

At this actual moment, I don't know if Molly is still alive. I feel like I'm floating and sinking at the same time. But in handing over language, she is passing the baton, making her peace with becoming story rather than teller. (We are all teller. We are all story.)

I didn't know if she would read my reply--I doubted it--but I wrote: "I think about you all the time. Thank you for showing me and others that honesty in is art. I love you."

Then I saw my typo and corrected: "*honesty is art."

Her probably-final tweet contained typos; she was a meticulous person and a methodical writer, and I suspected she was on some heavy medications. I thought about my dumb correction, a bratty little assertion that I still existed in a world where not only did language matter, but "correct" language.

It buoys me that Molly is walking boldly into the post-language realm with love and lightness. We should all be so lucky. She described a friend who died of cancer as a "sherpa" to others, and while I'm as superstitiously, anxiously, cautiously optimistic about my next cancer check-up as ever, if I have to climb that mountain, I want Molly as my sherpa.

Monday, February 18, 2019

center screen

When I saw The Station Agent, I remember imagining an alternate-universe version of the movie focused on the relationship between Michelle Williams’ and Bobby Cannavale’s characters instead of on Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson. I.e., on the young, traditionally sexy couple instead of the man with dwarfism and the older woman. Of course, that alternate universe is usually this universe, and I felt so happy and grateful to visit a world where the “supporting” characters were central.

Realizing that in 2003 Patricia Clarkson was probably like five years older than I am now.
I had the same experience last night when AK and I saw Roma at the Egyptian Theatre. If it had been a movie about a middle-class Mexican woman (Marina de Tavira) struggling through a divorce while her indigenous maid (Yalitza Aparicio) deals with an unplanned pregnancy, it might still have been a good story. But writer-director Alfonso Cuarón made the same simple/radical choice that Tom McCarthy made with The Station Agent, and told the whole story from the point of view of Cleo, the housekeeper and nanny to Mrs. Sofi’s four children.

The storytelling itself is traditional in the loveliest sense. Black-and-white, slow-moving, hauntingly poetic. But the lingering shots include many of the messes Cleo is tasked with cleaning up: dirty dishes, dog shit, piles of laundry, cigarette butts (it takes place in the seventies, so of course cigarette butts).

This movie will make you crave soft-boiled eggs.
There’s a scene where the family is watching TV. Cleo hangs out for a bit and watches with them. Two of the four kids fight over who gets to cuddle with her. The father (who, like most of the grown men in the movie, turns out to be utterly fucking useless) asks her for a tea. She gets up, clears plates, gets tea. The truth of her simultaneous status as family member and Other is apparent in every shot.

And in this particular shot, I felt a surge of recognition—not because I’m a housekeeper, obviously—but because as a mom who tries to keep things tidy, every chill domestic scene is threaded with an undercurrent of cleanup. I know what it means to always be moving, and seeing it on screen was validating.

This face will make you crave more movies starring Yalitza Aparicio.
The bigger, more obvious validation, of course, was the joy of studying Aparicio’s face—to see someone with dark skin and almond-shaped eyes get the same treatment that rubios have been getting for a century. She looks like the face I see across from me at the dinner table every day (well, metaphorically—we’re actually pretty terrible at the family-dinner thing), and like the kids who fill the tables at 826LA. Needless to say, I can only imagine how heartening it would be for someone who actually goes through the world with that face to see themselves reflected. AK confirmed.

When we visited Mexico City in 2017, I remember being slightly surprised by the number of white people. In the posh neighborhood where we stayed, I did not stand out at all. No one expected me not to speak Spanish. Seeing Roma, I was reminded again that what many Americans think of as generically “Mexican” (because racism, ignorance, and actual immigration patterns) is more often than not indigenous-Mexican. People who are doing fine economically are less likely to leave. White Mexicans are more likely to be doing fine economically.

Every man in this movie: "Um, I have to go over here for a minute." [Leaves forever.]
After the movie, there was a Q&A with the two main actresses. I think I overdosed on Q&A’s in my twenties, so I tend to avoid them. I’d rather just savor the dream-world of the movie itself. De Tavira and Aparicio were gracious and funny, but the interviewer was insufferable. In addition to asking the most predictable questions, he seemed intent on mansplaining his movie-nerd facts and revealing his ignorance about everything outside those facts. When de Tavira said something about “during the six months or so when we were shooting—” he interjected to say “108 days!” He doled out some pandering flattery (“the camera loves you”; although he was not wrong) to Aparicio, but almost all of his questions to her were about being a first-time actor; it seemed like he wanted her to share a story about how she thought the camera would steal her soul or something. Instead she told a hilarious story about working with the dog in the movie (“He was also a first-time actor”).

At one point, the interviewer said, “Mexico City has a lot of wealth and a lot of poverty—it’s an unusual city in that way.”

Someone in the audience shouted, “Like L.A.” I mumbled, “That’s not ‘unusual.’”

We took our cue and fled to get food at a little Oaxacan place up the street, and to try to return to the dream of the movie. Among the many things I loved about Roma was the reminder that life is precarious—men leave, the government steals your land, earthquakes shake the ground you stand on, fires break out at your freewheeling 1970s New Year’s Eve party—but human beings are scrappy. And when the sound of the crashing waves gets so loud you can hardly hear anything else, you cling to each other.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

milestones and other rocks

1. the middle will write itself (unfortunately not literally)

Some small but important things happened since my last post, and it feels necessary to mark them here, because subtle milestones, like subtle angst, have a way of getting lost in the churn of everyday. I mean, they are the churn of everyday, which is why they’re so easy to not see.

I’ve been thinking a lot about units of time. I know what I want in the big picture—love, creativity, and whatever makes those things possible on Maslow’s pyramid. I sort of know what it takes to translate those things into a single good day. Read. Write. Connect with people I care about. Clean some small square of my house and take a walk. (I often don’t do any of these things because work, because life, because phone.) But when I think about the middle range, I tend to panic: What is my five-year career plan? Do I have a five-year career plan? Is it utter hubris to assume I’ll be alive in five years?

One solution—and I’m not being facetious here—is to not think about the middle range. Trust that it will write itself if you work on having good days and moving in the general direction of love and creativity.

The other thing that has been a beautiful balm for the What if I’m doing it all wrong? voice in my head is the IKEA Writers Collective. Toward the end of 2018, a writer named Shea posted in a Facebook group for writer parents that she wanted to finish a draft of her book, and she needed some accountability partners. A group text grew out of it—Shea, Aubrey, Debbie, Jennifer, Hannah, and me. They’ve been, essentially, an antidote to the image of Writer as white man who locks himself in his office at a beautiful wooden desk for four hours a day—and even to my more contemporary image of Writer as multi-platform Millennial who crafts zingy Tweets against old white men and gets an instant book deal as a result.

We cheer every time Shea puts a star for writing five hundred words on the sticker chart she made herself. We weigh the pros and cons of having a second or third kid. We share pictures of messy houses in solidarity or admit, as Hannah did, “I think it’s still too early in our relationship to show you all a picture of my sink.”

It is early, and I’m in the throes of infatuation, but bear with me.

This isn't any of our living rooms. This is IKEA.
Aubrey texted about a dreamy solo trip to IKEA, and we all extolled the joys of childcare and veggie dogs, and wasn’t there like a wholeTV show shot in secret in IKEA’s staged rooms? That’s when we began dreaming of a writing retreat at IKEA, or anywhere really—any place that would understand and cater to the needs of trying to write in the midst of everything else. The churny intersection of the spiritual and the banal would have to look like IKEA, I think.

These five women, all of them really good writers, have given me the gift of not making it look easy. And the paradoxical result is that writing has gotten a tiny bit easier. For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing for twenty or thirty minutes before Dash wakes up. Dash, for his part, has given me the gift of sleeping till 7 or 7:30, which could change at any minute. But I’ll do this while I can, when I can. I’ll take these gifts and run with them and try to trust that when they depart, there will be others.

TFW when your memoir is flowing.
Almost exactly a year ago, I finally admitted that I needed to write the first section of my memoir—all the anger and longing and heartbreak and semi-psychosis that predated cancer. I didn’t want to, but Dan (of our late great writing group that never quite got off the ground) encouraged me to do it. Thank you, Dan. That section exists now. It’s messy and full of holes, but it exists. It’s 112 pages. I have two big sections to go, which exist in the form of journal entries. But they exist too. So I could call that a…draft? For the first time in forever (picture Kristen Bell’s voice singing it, Frozen fans) my memoir feels like a project, not just a weight I’m carrying around.

2. next stop, flip-flop station

I also feel like I pushed through something in my relationship to my job, although that is as much of a work-in-progress as the memoir.

Something is shifting with Dash, too. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but this has happened since he was a baby, where I’ll periodically look at him and see a new person and feel a little shy and shaken, like I need to reintroduce myself.

For the past six months or so, I’ve appreciated that he’s getting more independent, and I think I over-celebrated my ability to do other things while he’s in the room. I became a little bit obsessed with what I could clean or cook while he played with his cars, and I was always jumping into the addictive blue glow of games and socials on my phone. It wasn’t good for me or him, and in small fussy ways, he’s let me know.

I’m trying to listen to him, and to think of this as a chapter in our attachment, where he’s voicing his needs and I’m adjusting because I am attuned, vs. a failure to take care of my kid, vs. choosing a dumb fashion game over my child.

Just this past week or so, I’ve focused on giving him my undivided attention for ten or twenty minutes at a stretch. Those bites—like writing for twenty minutes—are doable, and they add up. As Dash becomes more engaged with his surroundings, he’s also more sensitive to them, and he seems more likely to need a break from the stream of activities AK and I drag him to. He needs to sit under a blanket with me and read picture books, or build a roller coaster, or pretend our kitchen chairs are a bus (passengers include Mama, Mommy, and a lone flip-flop; our stops are Mama Station, Mommy Station, and Flip-Flop Station).

He needs space and breath, and it turns out I do too.

Photo by Roopak Ravi on Unsplash
You’ve probably heard that management parable, about how you have a big jar that represents your time, and you have to put the big rocks in first, followed by pebbles, followed by sand. These geological objects represent your priorities, in descending order. If you fill the jar with sand, you’ll have no room for the big rocks. Homeboy’s head baker once performed a live demo of this at Morning Meeting, using tennis balls and marbles.

I don’t disagree with the metaphor, but I’ve been thinking about how the type of sand makes a difference. Maybe not all the grains of sand can be a returned email or a scrubbed sink. Maybe they shouldn’t all be a stroll through Instagram’s suggested videos, either. And maybe some of the space in the jar needs to remain unoccupied. Just air.