Thursday, December 31, 2020

tops of 2020

Seeing year-end round-ups and reflections makes me feel as tired as just about everything else in 2020, but here's mine because hypocrisy, because tradition. No philosophizing, though. I've been scared, exhausted, grateful, irritable, and productive most days this year. My productivity has, at best, kept me sane, hopeful, and employed. At worst, it's contributed to my irritability and made me extremely unpleasant to live with for the two people who cannot escape me (and honestly the neighbor girls aren't big fans of me at this point either)...all while being futile! No baby, no book. Yet? I don't know whether it's optimism, entitlement, or pure Aries stubbornness that keeps me believing a baby and a book could still happen.

And there are still six months without school ahead. But maybe "only" three or four without childcare of any sort? 

Till then, I will keep my head down and stick with my mantra, which is I need more coffee. 

With that preamble out of the way, here's a list of the best things I read and watched that helped me escape into other people's problems in 2020. 


(I got ARCs of a few of these, so technically they come out in 2021; others were published in the 1940s. This is a what-I-read list, not a what-was-published list. Also all but one of these books are by women, and 6/10 are by writers of color, which is kind of cool, though maybe I should read more books by men?)

The Street by Ann Petry: This is a gorgeously written and infuriating account of how poverty and racism grind down a handful of characters in 1940s Harlem. Reading it during the drama of 2020 sustained me, as I thought about all that people have endured throughout history, but it doesn't exactly end on a "they can't crush our spirits" note. Spirits most definitely get crushed.

At one point, Lutie Johnson, the beautiful young protagonist who is trying to save her son from the trouble and indignities that await him on the street, traces the cause of all that's befallen her back to a white society that won't pay Black men enough to support their families. (After she took a nannying and housekeeping job, her bored, unemployed husband cheated on her.) I struggled a bit with the gender essentialism of that theory, but, you know, 1940s. Meanwhile, Lutie finds herself a pawn in the schemes of both white and Black men, and Petry paints a perfect, devastating portrait of misogynoir in lush, layered prose.

Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina: A stunning and intense braided memoir that combines the history of Okinawa with the author's evolving relationship with her mother, who left her home on the resilient and oft-conquered island to marry Brina's American father. 

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld: Curtis Sittenfeld writes so many tricky things well. On display most prominently in this speculative novel are love (she makes Bill Clinton so likable and then so hatable!) and randomness. People read in part to escape the randomness of real life, but Sittenfeld considers the role that chance plays--in her universe, Donald Trump is as egomaniacal as in this one, yet willing to throw his support by anyone who flatters him, even Crooked Hillary--without depicting life as meaningless. It was wonderful to inhabit this world for a while, and not just for the obvious reasons.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado writes: "When I was a kid, I learned that you develop immunity when an illness rages through your body. Your body is brilliant, even when you are not.... It learns. It remembers. (All of this, of course, if the virus doesn't kill you first.)"

This memoir in fragments frames an abusive queer relationship in more than a hundred different ways, capturing the nature of (largely) psychological abuse, which is impossible to legislate and difficult to describe even in traditional prose. Machado frequently references Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature as one way of communicating how societies have told secrets without telling them. And then there's the opposite of taboo: "We think of cliches as boring and predictable, but they are actually one of the most dangerous things in the world.... To describe an abusive situation is...awful and dehumanizing, and yet straight out of central casting." She rescues her story and other women's from central casting, giving it the fierce and honest examination it deserves. This is performative writing as public service; what may have begun as un-tellable has become intensely readable.

The Likeness by Tana French: This book is getting a high ranking not just because I love me some Tana French, but because it might be the book that inspires what might be my next writing project, a maybe-literary-maybe-murder-mystery. Maybe!

This is the third Dublin Murder Squad book I've read, and while I've enjoyed them all, this is my favorite yet, a meditation on the tension between freedom and security with a satisfying mystery at its center and lots of delicious crumbling countryside cottages at the periphery.

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets by Margaret Kimball: Kimball's debut memoir showcases her technical skill as an illustrator, questions the authority of both memory and "official" documents like marriage and hospital records, and tells a poignant, intergenerational story about mental illness and family relationships. 

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed: Like the protagonist, I was a high school student in an affluent part of Los Angeles when the city erupted following the Rodney King verdict; I found Reed's references and descriptions perfectly attuned. Unlike the protagonist, I was (and am!) white. Reed depicts Ashley's racial awakening over the course of spring 1992 in a way I found believable, complex, and moving.

A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong: Another realistic portrait of high school girlhood, this time contemporary, and following a diverse cluster of Venice Beach basketball players. Leong's sunset-hued illustrations are as gorgeous as her words are poetic. 

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen: The middle school protagonist is a gay boy trying to come out to his mom, a Vietnamese immigrant who loves him deeply. They inhabit different worlds and lack the language to communicate about sexuality, but they connect through both western and Vietnamese fairy tales, which Nguyen illustrates with incredible beauty and research-informed imagination.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro: By her own account, Dani Shapiro lives a well examined life--an author of multiple memoirs, a practitioner of mediation. But in her fifties, she gets the surprise of a lifetime when a just-for-fun DNA test reveals that her late, beloved father is not her biological father. What ensues is a love letter to both genetics and upbringing, and the fragile, malleable identities that thread them together. With the possible exception of Dani's narcissistic mother, the story is populated with kind, lovely, functional people; imagine if everyone on one of those Maury Povich paternity-reveal episodes had an advanced degree and a few years of therapy under their belts. Yet there's no shortage of drama and suffering, largely as a result of layers of secrets--because of shame, because of religion, because of sketchy practices in the early days of reproductive medicine. The book inspired me to start listening to Dani Shapiro's Family Secrets podcast, which also unites different kinds of families under the umbrella of secrets that once held them separate.

Also, this book inspired me to interview one of AK's family members about her own family secrets, which was one of the most meaningful things I did in this stupid year.


(Again, these are not 2020 movies, necessarily. Also, some of them are TV shows. Also, I miss movie theaters so much.)

The Babushkas of Chernobyl: If you're not foraging for radioactive mushrooms and drinking vodka straight from the bottle, are you even cottage core? This is the perfect movie about survival.

Little Women (2019 version): A very different vibe, yet also a movie about survival—for women, for families, during wartime. Jo remains a hero for all writers and baby dykes, but Gerwig elevates Amy and suggests that there are many paths to love and goodness. AK and I also decided that Louis Garrel's Friedrich Bhaer is the definition of spicy-white.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution: When I was a counselor at UniCamp, UCLA's summer camp for kids living below the poverty line, we often talked about "camp magic," the spiritual feeling that came from creating your own world with people you loved. It happened a lot at Homeboy, too. Made by a former camper, this documentary about a hippe-run camp for kids with disabilities—which started with the radical notion that disabled kids were humans who wanted to have agency and do fun things—shows how camp magic shaped the disability rights movement.

The Crown: I could not have cared less about the royal family going in, but the family's relationship to duty and show's depiction of it is endlessly fascinating. Probably because of excellent writing and performances, but also because it's helped me understand that my own family's commitment to responsibility-over-joy might be somewhat cultural. (My dad's mom and grandparents moved to the U.S. from England in the early twentieth century. Usually, I just default to "Oh, we're all white, we're just oppressors," but there may be ways in which we're more particular than that.)

"And we could all together/Go out on the ocean" episode of Social Distance: Like most anthology shows, Social Distance is hit and miss, and I didn't watch that much of it. But this episode! Starring the wonderful Danielle Brooks, it sums up the harried, multi-tasking, tech-fueled nature of being a working parent during quarantine (she plays a home health aide and single mom who watches her kid via FaceTime while she works), and the notion that your pod might not be like-minded besties so much as a marriage of convenience. It resonated hard, and ends on a transcendent and poetic note.

#blackAF: I haven't watched Blackish, for no other reason than vague confusion about how to watch network TV now, but this series, based on the show's creator and his family, is what this blog aims to be. If, you know, I was super successful, worked in television, and was a Black man with six kids. It is about a neurotic, self-absorbed artist who cares deeply about culture. Each episode is a witty deep dive into the intersection of art, race, and class. The series makes so many other conversations about these subjects look ham-fisted; Kenya Baris is an embroidery artist who relates to and through culture in a way that resonates with me and AK.

Dead to Me: I watched a bunch of episodes of How to Get Away With Murder before I realized that Viola Davis' excellence was distracting me from the fact that the show was so nonsensical as to be completely predictable. Then I found Dead to Me, which has all the suspense and much better writing and character development. Bonus points for an organic BRCA-gene plot line. Thank you, Christina Applegate! 

Midsommar: The best break-up movie ever, with some good 2020 vibes. But you might want to fast forward through the parts where old people get beaten to death with rocks.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold: Like the Brady Bunch movies and Mean Girls, this movie plops a perky innocent in the harsh landscape of contemporary high school. But we're firmly on Dora's side, and soon enough, so is everyone. Lots of clever moments, an anti-colonialist message, a great cast, and enough fart jokes to satisfy Dash.

Pose: No one will ever accuse Ryan Murphy of being too subtle, but Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Billy Porter sell every storyline. It's always a good time for a show about chosen family, the cultural impact of marginalized populations, and surviving/dying of a virus, but now is an especially good time. Also dancing and costumes!

Monday, December 21, 2020

iduna remembered

They tried shutting her away:
their strange blue-eyed girl
who brought ice to life,
but they’d read enough fairy tales
to know stone towers don’t hold.

Agnarr erred 
on the side of concealment.
He had a kingdom to consider,
not to mention 
their younger daughter,
not his heir, but always 
his favorite.

Iduna remembered
the forest of her birth,
how the leaves turned
plum and rust each fall
and the reindeer’s coats 
grew thick and musky. 
She knew the weight
of carrying another world
curled inside your cloak.

Their strange girl belonged
to neither fjord nor forest,
and it frightened them. 
How to prepare her
to use her own power
when Iduna herself
scarcely understood it?
How to prepare her 
for the ways fear could curdle
into cruelty?

It was dangerous to sail
in winter, Agnarr argued.
It’s dangerous not to,
Iduna said. She had a map,
a song, a memory
of nursing a young man
from another land 
back to health. 
If it was so wrong 
to choose the unfamiliar
over the soft moss
and dense furs 
lining her father’s house,
would the gods have rewarded
her daughter
with magic?

Uncertainty churned in Iduna 
like the waves of the Dark Sea.
Their destination remained
a riddle, but her resolve
ran deep as a glacier; 
even when the wind picked up,
she knew what she’d known
since her first daughter’s first breath:
there was no turning back.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

what child is this

I understand a little better this year,
when the air is thick with phlegm
and desperation, the impulse to look up
and ask for a miracle.

Urgent case in California,
begins the email from the adoption agency.
A woman due two days before Christmas.
I picture us racing up the coast

guided by starlight
playing the song our son danced to 
last December, parents packed
shoulder to shoulder in the auditorium.

He'll nod along and then he'll nod off. 
His eyes look more like his birthmom's 
when he's sleepy. We'll talk giddily
about TV shows, high on gas station coffee.

None of this comes true. 
Like the Christmas story, it has been tainted 
by the teller. The woman chooses 
different parents for her baby.

Photo by Magnus Ă–stberg on Unsplash

This year our son is obsessed
with his Christmas list: night vision
goggles, L.O.L. dolls, a plastic waffle maker.
He has discovered the power of wishing

but not, yet, its limitations,
which lurk at the edge of the frame.
When he rages and plunges his fists
into every pocket of his advent calendar

I suspect that he suspects
how desire can propel and destroy:
a rocket, a supernova, some sublime deity
not meant to be looked at straight on.

And so we will point our longing
toward quieter things, no less miraculous:
our cat's safe return moments after
two coyotes paw silently across the street

stillness that dims the blue light of screens
immune systems that rally and bend
to meet new intruders
a trough that softens and becomes a bed.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

things i have smelled to prove to myself i don't have covid (knockonwood)

Redwood trees


Chipotle bean dip

Soap and water on my son's skin

My own unshowered skin

A veggie hot dog with onions

Canola oil blistering in the pan

Sheets, peed upon by aforementioned son

A billow of kid-fart

Mown grass

A flurry of leaves, startled by a blower

Exhaust, the start of someone's commute

Bacon wafting from a Craftsman

Unidentifiable flowers, the way perfume 

is supposed to smell and never does

Pasta water

Shea butter shampoo, the good stuff

I'd never buy myself

My cat's fur

when he comes home each night,

having dodged cars and coyotes,

having befriended new neighbors,

his return as reassuring as the moon

Monday, November 23, 2020

the microclimate in our living room

It usually goes something like this: We do our morning things. Dash starts angling to see the girls next door. If it's after 11, we walk over and knock on the metal screen. They pop up or they mosey. Change out of their pajamas or don't. Gather up their homework and shoes and spend the next two or three or five hours at our house. 

They are three amigos: small, medium, and not-quite-large, ages four, almost six, and newly eight. They play post office and pizza restaurant and school and family. They whiz around on scooters and beg me to push them on the swing. 

They want things: raspados and cheddar cheese slices and trips to the beach and to Dollar Tree. 

Lately, Jasmine's* wanting has felt like a current that's pushing us along and sometimes pulling us under. She gets upset if we don't all do things her way. This used to manifest mostly in the dynamics of play, typical older kid/younger kid stuff. It was frustrating, but reminiscent of how my childhood neighbor and bestie, Lizzy, used to say, "It's my house, so we have to play what I want" and also, at our house, "I'm the guest, so we should do what I want."

Now, sometimes, if I offer a trip to the park but say we can't stop at Dollar Tree to buy stickers and fairy wings and tiny erasers, Jasmine's initial excitement turns to pouting. She starts muttering about homework. If I say "Maybe a different day," she assures us that she will not be able to play on a different day. It's now or never. The other night, when she was upset about not being able to ride her preferred scooter, she said she would not be able to play again for the whole year.

Dash is loud and screamy and physical and intense. He's easily hurt and doesn't know how to deescalate. He repeats, "Are you still playing with me?" whenever there's a pregnant pause. Just to make sure. He is not the easiest neighbor or best bestie himself. But his needs are still a little simpler, and I'm more equipped to meet them.

I wish I felt less like an eight-year-old myself in responding to Jasmine. I want snap and pout and get passive aggressive. I want to yell, "I just did five fun things with you! Can you please be less insatiable?"

But as AK and I have slowly and stumblingly realized, she's insatiable because what she needs isn't tiny erasers. What she needs is more of her parents, who work outside the home all day. From everything we know--by way of observation and Spanglish front-porch conversations--her parents are lovely people. Kind and boundaried and hard working. They work outside the home all day, but they're around their kids as much as we ever were pre-pandemic. But back then, the kids had real school and after-school programs.

Now, Jasmine and Juanita have long, aching gaps in their day. They have an older brother who is a good kid, but who spends a lot of time playing video games until it's time to skateboard with his friends. They have YouTube and a kitten and us. It's more than a lot of kids have, it's less than Dash has (though they have each other, which Dash does not have), and it's not enough. 

Jasmine is old enough to see that there are some class differences. We have the same number of bedrooms in our house for three fewer people. We go out of town periodically. We get weird fancy pizza, when she would prefer Little Caesars (or Yiddle Scissors, as Dash calls it). I'm constantly, cringingly conscious of these differences, and my M.O. has been to share what we can, celebrate what they have, and downplay material shit in general. 

But AK has wisely pointed out that the material stuff is more of a symbol. So I'm trying to set aside my own projections. Capitalism isn't a parasitic machine of destruction because Jasmine doesn't have enough LOL Dolls. Capitalism is a parasitic machine of destruction because it pushed businesses to open at the expense of schools and dragged out the pandemic for eight months and counting, because it forces people to "choose" between working and caring for their children. 

Realizing what's going on is a little like coming to understand systemic racism: It's a relief to know it's bigger than me, and it's devastating to see how big it is, and to know I'm not going to fix it, no matter how much I decolonize the language I use in fundraising materials. No matter how much I give in to Jasmine's whims or help her with her homework or make her Annie's Shells and White Cheddar macaroni and cheese, the only acceptable kind, I'm told.

It feels like it's time to pull back a little and set some boundaries. AK assures me this is best for Jasmine and for Dash. I worry that I'm a failed white savior, a Myka Stauffer returning her kid like a sweater that didn't fit.

AK is reading Jesus and John Wayne right now, about evangelical Christianity, and she said, "There's so much in the bible about loving your neighbor. The best parts are all about that. The bible doesn't have a lot to say about marriage or most of the other things evangelicals are hung up on."

I'm not Christian, let alone evangelical, but I do want to be a good neighbor. I want to invest in my community, to not see anyone as disposable. I want to do one small mutually helpful thing in this horrible fucking pandemic, and hosting J&J has been that. It's still that. It just has to look a little different, I think, and figuring out how is taking up a lot of space in my therapy sessions. 

The inside of my brain

The other night, Dash said, "When you were a kid, did you have a neighbor who wasn't nice sometimes?"

I told him about Lizzy. He instantly became fascinated with her. He wanted to see a picture of her as a kid (I had none) and now (I showed him Facebook, and Lizzy's two tween daughters). He wanted to see her house (Google Maps). He wanted to know if she still had the super cool pencil box she had when she was six, which she informed me was "just for first graders." I was in kindergarten at the time. 

I assured him that Lizzy was a very kind person, that her childhood bossiness had done what the girl-power books promise, and transformed into leadership. I texted Lizzy and told her the story. She said she still feels bad about being a jerk as a kid. I told her not to, that she wasn't really a jerk even then, and I thought about the time Stephanie's mom yelled at me over the phone when I was being a jerk to Stephanie. I still feel bad about making my My Little Ponies gang up on my sister's My Little Ponies. I gave and I got. It's just really hard to learn how to be a person in the midst of other people learning how to be people. 

And it's not easy to teach small people how to be people, either. Especially during a pandemic in a horrifically unequal world. 

At work I write about educational justice and the gaps that have grown wider during COVID like untreated cavities. I feel like I'm the gauze stuffed into that cavity. The minutae of the three-kid pandemic microclimate in our living room is my world, a product of the rest of the world that often feels so far away now.  

Today I'm promising myself that I'll send J&J home after two and a half hours, max. Jasmine will probably do things that remind me of my younger self; she will probably be sweet and creative and anxious. She'll probably say things that make me want to scream, and I won't scream, but she'll hear the tension in my voice, the momentary coldness. She might sense that there's a knot in my stomach, and without even knowing it, she'll try to use that knot to her advantage, even though neither of us knows exactly what's in her true best interest. I'm trying to figure it out, because all I know is that it's not her job, and the more I let it be, the more she'll spiral.

*Name changed

Monday, October 26, 2020

efficiency monster and her opposite

Earlier this month, AK's mom had a stroke. The good news is that she's recovered now to the point where you wouldn't know anything had happened, but we had/have some long-term stuff to figure out related to medication and the other complexities of getting old. In the weeks when AK was helping her sister care for their mom, I did a bunch of long days (even by pandemic standards) working and parenting simultaneously with no interludes. 

I think about how this time is changing my brain. I've become an efficiency monster; I use the phrase "radical pragmatism" a lot. I bark at my kid, I sigh loudly at him, I spend more time with him than I ever did. If I sit still, I think about things like the election and death, so I do laundry and corral kids and write things. I don't know if I like the new me or not. 

This is not the new me. This is Natalie Lima.

On Saturday, I had the house to myself for an afternoon while I participated in a humor writing workshop led by Natalie Lima for The Porch, a long-ago gift from AK. It was such a breath of fresh air. It's weird to say "Now I'm going to write something funny," because humor sort of needs to sneak up on you to work, but I'm nevertheless pasting the result of one of her prompts--write about a strange obsession--below. Even though it's more of a list poem. I've really cultivated some kind of poetic-trauma voice over the past several years, and it's nice to try something else. There's such a strong internet vibe of "If you're not sobbing/outraged, you're not paying attention," that humor can feel slightly dangerous. But Natalie pointed out that the most prominent humor writers now have "been through some shit." They lived to tell about it, which is the whole point.


Here are some things the Explore tab of Instagram thinks I might be interested in:

  1. Betty Broadbent, aka “The Tattooed Venus,” who is wearing, in this 1938 photo, bobby socks, silver kitten heels, and a short satin dress that displays the dozens of black-inked tattoos on her legs and arms
  2. A cake draped in blue fondant and decorated with smiling mushrooms and frogs
  3. A makeup tutorial by a woman with no arms
  4. The mom of quadruplets, posed with four babies draped across her body like nursing piglets; she describes her account as “sharing the reality of raising quadruplets,” a reality which includes dressing them in coordinated Toy Story costumes and pulling them in a wagon through an apple orchard. Her reality is quite well lit.

What we try to hide from the world, or even ourselves, the algorithm knows. It knows that I’ve been obsessed with circus freaks and their modern-day counterparts since childhood. It knows that when the day is over and my Zoom meetings are done and my kid is in his pajamas (top half: Woody from Toy Story, bottom half: Storm Trooper), I don’t have the mental capacity for narrative. I want a pastiche of images that are dark, shiny, or somehow both.

Do I want to see a lot of videos on how to braid hair that is completely unlike my hair?

Do I want to read some animal facts that will make me smile? (“Bees make a ‘whoop’ sound when they bump into each other.”)

Do I want to see creepy Victorian Halloween costumes?

What about 4,000 pictures of sea glass arranged in rainbow order?

Would I like to take a deep dive into the subculture of lifestyle bloggers with severely disabled children, who make sure their child’s ventilator matches their peach-tan-and-coffee color palette? 

Would I like to buy a hoodie that says “Going to therapy is cool?”

Did I know that you can make nails with bubble-wand tips? Well, not you, but someone.

Look, here is someone doing the middle splits.

Here is how to make pomegranate lemonade.

Here is someone taking a mallet to a giant chocolate heart. Inside there is candy and a new iPhone.

Here are some things that might be ads or clickbait or foreign election intervention.

Here is a montage of celebrities posing with their younger selves. Matt LeBlanc has aged well.

Here is an artist who makes sculptures out of bananas. 

Here is an opportunity to vote on who looks better dressed as Marilyn Monroe: Kylie Jenner, or Marilyn Monroe.

Who wore it best: Marilyn, Kylie, or this banana? (Artist: Stephan Brusche)

Would I like to watch a turtle eat watermelon? 

Do I want to know what’s happening at Ukrainian orphanages? No, not really, but I’ll click anyway. 

Do I want to see a comic-book/pop-art-style drawing of a man embracing a tearful woman, telling her “We’ll be okay. All of us”? Yes, I definitely do.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

the most colorful species

I called my Aunt Vanessa a couple of weeks ago after learning her husband had passed away. Linus was in his early nineties and his health had been deteriorating for a few years. He was Vanessa's fourth husband, a Danish dairy farmer who built their house on an expanse of rolling green hills outside Eureka. He was a curmudgeon who sometimes made rude jokes to Vanessa while babying his parrot, Baby.

Aunt Vanessa was a little jealous of Baby, but she liked birds and drew detailed colored-pencil illustrations of the most colorful species.

"Baby was so good when I took her to see Linus in hospice," she said. "She didn't squawk at all. I told Linus to give me a sign from the other side, and this morning I was out in the front yard and I found one of Baby's feathers. I've never found one of her feathers so far from the house. So I knew it was Linus."

After my mom died, Vanessa told my sister about a painting that was hanging in the other house on their property. It was a portrait of my grandmother with my mom and aunt as children. I don't know who painted it, but were a lot of artists in the family. The tenant living in the house at the time told Vanessa, "One of the girls in the painting is fading, and the other is crying."

Vanessa saw magic everywhere. When I was a kid, she showed me a storybook that had some sort of real-life treasure hunt tie-in. Follow the clues hidden throughout the story and they would tell you where the prize lay. I can picture the book in my mind; it shimmers with mystery and nostalgia. I don't know where it came from, but it was glossy and full-color, not something stapled together at the local copy shop. Still, Vanessa concluded, "I'm pretty sure the treasure is somewhere in the greater Eureka area." Of all the places in the world treasure might be hiding, she certain it was just around the corner.

My mom always said Vanessa could go to the grocery store and come back with an amazing story. Like a star, her gravity pulled things to her: friends, men, adventures, ideas, trouble. When my mom, the nerdy and responsible older sister, made the grocery-store remark, there was an eye roll in her voice, as well as genuine admiration. 

My mom and her sister are together now. Last week, less than a month after Linus' passing, my cousin Maria--who now lives with her husband in the house with the weeping painting--crossed the gravel driveway between their homes to pick up Vanessa for an appointment with an orthopedist. Fixing her knees was one of the long-delayed tasks Vanessa hoped to tackle now that she wasn't attending to Linus all day. But Maria found her face down, not breathing.

Maria and her husband Al had just installed a security system, and the footage later told them she fell. We don't know whether it triggered a heart attack that triggered brain damage, or if the fall itself injured her beyond repair. But after a week in the hospital with no discernible brain activity, Maria made the hard decision to let her go to the place she already was. Maybe it was just a crazy accident, but I can't help thinking about the things grief does to a body.

Maria is the family historian. The photos in this post are all her doing. She was raised by Vanessa, my mom, and our grandmother until she lost my mom to the family she started with my dad, and lost our grandmother to a stroke when Maria was in high school. You can see how the past might be a comforting place. You can see why we both have a stake in talking about our moms and grandmother being reunited.

I don't know what I believe about the afterlife. I think it's hubris to assume think there's nothing beyond our bodies, but it's also hubris to think heaven would be exactly as we imagined it. Sometimes I think our sheer collective wanting can create reality. Vanessa believed in a place where she'd see her sister and mother and father and husband, where she and my mom would sing goofy songs they made up together. And so I believe in it for her. 

I'm so glad Aunt Vanessa got to meet Dash when we visited in 2016. Here's another post I wrote about Vanessa. I'm sad for the stories she takes with her--especially the ones I never heard about my her childhood with my mom--and for the ones she won't get to make on her next trip to the grocery store. Like so many things in 2020, this is all a bit surreal, and too real. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020


My son lost his front tooth
when he bit my arm 
and I jerked it away.
Every afternoon he spirals 
into a fit of exhausted rage. 
My midlife version is coiled
but I pulled back a little too hard
and the tooth went flying. 

It was his third tooth of the pandemic,
the second in a week. 
Like those dreams 
where my teeth splinter and crumble, 
like the walls of a Berkeley wreck
purchased by friends 
back when two young teachers 
could afford such a thing. 
The husband put his hand 
through drywall like bread dough.
The wife patted it back in place:
No, we need that. 

We believed we could save things
with our hands, though even then,
we smelled our own desperation.

This morning an earthquake hit,
the single-jolt variety,
the sound of wood creaking,
old bones stretching.
When our house stood foreclosed 
three residents ago
it became a party spot.
The evicted owner's teenage son
invited his friends. 
There was beer and a yard,
but no electricity.

Have you ever seen a small child's skull?
The rows of adult teeth waiting 
in vertical wings? 
Behind their perfect skin,
a horror show. 
My son says,
"Maybe I will grow a vampire fang."

My dad told me the richest town near ours
was built on sand 
that would rock during an earthquake 
like a bowl floating in a bowl--
he cupped his hands to show me. 
It wasn't a metaphor,
but I know he envied the homes there:
acreage and old trees and tiled roofs. 

Look, it's easy to see loss upon loss,
all that is stationary becoming sand.
Because it will. 
Because I stopped Googling virus deaths.
Because it's 147,000 now.
But after 17 years of therapy,
sometimes, in the dreams 
where I lose my teeth, 
I tell myself,
Maybe things will work out.
I'll call my dentist. 
And the Berkeley couple 
remodeled a guest house 
that they lend out free
to anyone visiting the neighborhood.

I searched for my son's lost tooth
as he screamed at the sight
of blood on his shirt. 
When I bent down and looked up
I saw it in his nose
like a kernel of corn.
I thought of teratomas,
those tumors with teeth and hair,
and I laughed. 
Tragedy plus time and all.
Even if the time is minutes,
even if we never quite catch our breath.
What world is this, 
where a parody of life 
springs from tumors 
that are, mostly, benign.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

at five and a half

Yesterday you turned five and a half. You woke up in our bed and I relayed the news, this number clutched from the air. You said, "It's my birthday?" Half birthday, I said. Halfway between five and six, between the first COVID cases in Los Angeles and, if we are extremely lucky, the first vaccines needled into an upper arm. "Will we have cake?" you wanted to know.

Time, at five and a half, is a torturous trip from popsicle to popsicle; there is so much waiting for all of us. Numbers are tricksters: the days since you were born, the days I've been in remission, the days in a row I've unrolled a yoga mat, the anniversaries that sideswipe me, a hit and run. I promised I would write you letters every month, and I haven't. I've written about myself instead, though you write me into new shapes every day. Today I am a net, full of holes, lightly shimmering.

I tried to run a science lesson for you and the girls next door. We poured water in empty spaghetti sauce jars and dripped in food coloring. You all wanted to use all the colors, none of you believing red or yellow would be beautiful on its own. I poured olive oil on top and screwed three lids on tight. We shook and shook and watched the oil split into tiny bubbles, three murky ponds. I searched my phone for what scientific principles we were witnessing, read you something as you ran off.

Later, we scootered to a coffee shop, where I made you wait outside. I knocked on the glass and smiled through my mask to let you know: I'm still here. There was more sugar, more concern over who got what. You blew bubbles in your water cups and pondered what you might turn them into. Telescopes for your box fort, or a kindergartner's version of beer pong.

At five and a half, everything is a treasure, and everything is trash: lessons, meals, the movie we just paid $6 to rent. Play-Doh and cheese ground into the floor. Easy come, easy go.

"Look, the sun went away," one of you said at a corner. "It made shade for us." We stood in the starburst shadow of a palm tree.

We watched the same sun dip behind a different palm in the evening. "The moon is in the pool," you said. At five and a half, you love space and Stormtroopers and Jupiter and talking with a loud voice. The power, the gravity. (Your pitch goes up when you see a cat or Penny, the neighborhood chihuahua mix. The girls have taught you the noises girls make, and together you are your own planet.)

Nino and Gracia fed us salad and rice balls next to the pool. You gunned for cake. You leapt from the edge of the pool into Mama's waiting arms.

It's been five months since we had a babysitter. Sometimes you go next door. Stand in their small neat kitchen. The food smells. The rinsed yogurt containers waiting to be recycled. Their kitten doing flips on the tile. Mama and I wait in our living room in the strange quiet. It's never more than thirty minutes before you burst back in, and our upside down world rights itself, and I feel the familiar exhaustion that I mistake for equilibrium.

Last night Nino said he'd watch you one or two nights a week. I cried: our knight on a sleek unicorn. But no, that's not quite right, or that's too European, too gendered. What I felt was something humbler, more Eastside: The unintentional communities are as important as the intentional ones. I want you to grow up knowing this--that who you let in and seek out can be more like magic and less like a job interview.

I drove you to sleep beneath the treed streets that edge Pasadena. You murmured about Cheetos.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

dozens of narrow fault lines

Denise's mother flip-flopped onto campus
in a white tennis skirt each afternoon.
Smoker's cough, sun-browned legs
heels a jigsaw of fissures. Her feet were a wonder
to my shade-grown, eight-year-old self.
Perhaps Denise's mother made a choice:
tennis over moisturizer and a pumice stone.
Perhaps in the hours between work
and ferrying Denise to gymnastics,
she had time for just one luxury.

In the months between March
and the relentless now, I became reacquainted
with my feet. Saw them emerge from boots
to meet air and driveway dirt.
Was the nail on my second toe always so thick?
Dozens of narrow fault lines
spread across my soles, and I was helpless
to stop them.
I always think that knowing should save me.
I knew about time and it happened anyway.

It was a place where anything was possible
I told someone yesterday, through my cotton face mask,
referring to my work with former gang members.
There was the guy who started
a solar panel installation company
with twenty men who called him boss
but other things were possible too:
relapse, suicide by cop,
the woman who had two babies in two years
and lost both to foster care.

Our days have a rhythm now:
cereal, Star Wars, visits from the girls
next door, more Star Wars, work
squeezed between the cracks,
always so much work.
Our lives are comprised of aftershocks
and a sense that we re/built all this on sand.
So much has changed, I said.
So little has changed, my partner said.
This is no one's fault and everyone's.

If pandemic then why not cancer?
Why not a shiny new job and a unicorn
extending her long neck toward us
flaring her wet nostrils, whispering,
I'm an endangered species and so are you. 
There's a phrase that medical types use:
If you hear hoofbeats, it's probably horses, not zebras.
A migraine, not a brain tumor, but people
in rare disease groups post zebras as their avatars.
Black stripes like cracks in the hard white desert.

Monday, June 15, 2020

what would finn do?

Among the celebrities lending their voices to the movement for Black lives, John Boyega has stood out. Not just because he’s put his body on the front lines at protests and because he’s shut down Twitter trolls with delightful wit, but because—in our house—he is Finn.

You know: the ex-Stormtrooper stolen from his family and raised as FN-2187. When he refuses to kill for the First Order, he defects and eventually joins the Resistance. It’s not the subtlest metaphor, and I’m not the first to say “Yes, this guy! The guy who took off his blood-smeared Stormtrooper helmet and refused to be a cop for the last gasp of the Empire!” But at this moment in history, I am especially grateful for how much Dash, at age 5.5, adores him.

Before schools closed in March, I had never seen a Star Wars movie all the way through, although AK, Dash’s other mom, flew her toy Millennium Falcon around her childhood living room and, as a forty-something adult, has been known to read Star Wars fan fiction online when she needs to unwind.

Dash’s entry point into the franchise was The Force Awakens. He liked Rey, the scrappy scavenger-turned-Jedi and instant feminist hero, and BB8, the snowman-shaped droid who bleep-blooped adorably. But he was fascinated with the Stormtroopers, Finn, and their leader, Kylo Ren, who is torn between good and evil. 

Dash often puts a trick-or-treat bucket on his head, wields an umbrella as a “blaster,” and extends his palm toward me in an attempt to control me with the Force. We have never given him a toy gun, and we’ve talked about what to do if he ever encounters a gun, even if he thinks it might be a toy: Don’t touch it, tell a grownup, real guns kill people. 

I fear firearm accidents, but I also fear that the police will see my Brown kid—when he’s taller and older, or looks older—playing with a toy gun and shoot him.

I’m not so worried about him running around the driveway shooting me with an umbrella. Power play is developmentally appropriate; it makes sense that kids—who are constantly being told don’t slam the door, don’t climb that fence, don’t put that tiny LEGO Stormtrooper helmet in your mouth—would want to be the enforcers now and then. 

He went through a cop phase this fall: Blame Paw Patrol, or the police officer he met at the train station, who gave him a baseball card that had a Dodgers player on one side and an LAPD officer on the other. He and his friend Jasmine still periodically throw me in “jail” and issue me Post-It-note tickets for things like “being mean.” I talked to him about how police officers needed to follow rules too, and how people who went to jail were not “bad,” but had broken big rules or may have made bad choices. We talked about how courts decide whether people are guilty or innocent. But how to describe the prison-industrial complex to a kid who hasn’t started kindergarten? How to explain that being labeled guilty or innocent has very little to do with being guilty or innocent?

Guilty as charged.

Now that his attention has turned to Star Wars, I’m observing his obsession with two men torn between good and evil—the Black man raised to believe he was a bad guy, who chooses good when he has nothing to lose, and the white man born to heroic but imperfect parents (Leia and Han Solo), whose power and privilege mix with his daddy/grandpa wounds to form a perfect storm of evil (basically our president, if he were smarter and broodingly handsome). 

In the original movies, the lines were more clearly drawn, although Luke and Darth Vader’s “I am your father” moment hinted that good guys and bad guys weren’t so far apart. I hope that pop culture is veering toward a more complicated understanding of how people are shaped by systemic forces (or Forces?). 

Dash loves his Stormtrooper pajamas. He loves stomping around and talking in a deep voice. He also frequently talks about how “some Stormtroopers are nice. Finn didn’t want to kill people.” 

Yet if Finn had stayed a Stormtrooper, killing people would have been all in a day’s work.

When I’m not worrying about my son and other mothers’ children getting shot by police, I worry about—and I’m just gonna say what so many white people are hiding behind defensiveness—losing the nice life I have. America has been largely good to me, an educated, white, middle-class, somewhat-able-bodied person. I have a job. I have a lawn. 

When I saw images of overturned cop cars ablaze in Los Angeles during the last week of May, a part of me was transported to April 1992, when I was a high school freshman in suburban LA. My little white beach town behaved shamefully back then. I don’t even remember how rumors spread, exactly, before the internet, but they were hot as fire: “First they’re coming for three B’s: Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Brentwood,” someone said with faux authority. “Then they’re coming for the three beaches: Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo.” 

Ash from South Central fires rained down on us, but even it was white. All those neighborhoods were fine. Parts of South LA still bear scars.

I was disheartened but unsurprised to see a handful of hometown Facebook friends-of-friends traffic in similar rumors about what “they” had planned. I typed strongly worded comments, but meanwhile, my stomach was a knot of fear I couldn’t quite untangle. Was I, too, scared that a real revolution was coming? Or was I scared of what the cops and the National Guard might do to the revolutionaries? Both? Was it possible to crave order and understand the need for periodic chaos? 

When Finn escapes the First Order and crash lands on the desert planet of Jakku, Rey mistakes him for a Resistance fighter. 

Finn gets a look on his face like he’s bullshitting in a job interview: “Obviously. Yes, I am. I'm with the Resistance, yeah…. This is what we look like. Some of us. Others look different.” 

I’m not usually a fuck-the-police type. Can I be a legit Resistance fighter? The imposter syndrome is strong in this one. I’m a rule follower by nature, but one of my least favorite feelings is being trapped in an unwinnable game—whether it’s my boss asking about the status of a project that was never explicitly assigned or Dash railing against a snack he asked for a minute ago. And that’s what policing has created for communities of color: an unwinnable game. 

Proposal: All cops should wear their undies on the outside.

When AK was in grad school, she left class in West LA one day at dusk, and sat in her car eating a bag of almonds before beginning the long drive back to the Eastside. A cop knocked on her window. What was she doing? Where was she going? 

AK has cinnamon-brown skin and indigenous features. West LA isn’t entirely white, but it’s white enough that there are people invested in keeping it that way.

“You had your hood pulled up and you took it off when you saw me,” he said. 

“No I didn’t,” she said, because she didn’t. 

“Yes you did.”

He was letting her know the rules. He was letting her know who would be telling this story. Never mind that a hoodie on a person of color is considered a weapon in America. 

An unwinnable game. 

When I remember that AK’s experience is the norm for people of color—when I devote time to imagining what I can’t imagine, but must—I can step out of my own wound-gazing, where I just feel like Why does it seem like all of social media is vaguely mad at me? I’m not a Karen.… Am I a Karen?

The other day, Dash was running around as AK and I were doing what he calls “arguing,” meaning any debate conducted in a mildly serious tone of voice—figuring out our work schedules, reacting to the shit-show news feed. 

He grabbed a dish rag and thrust it at us like a weapon. “You don’t know the power of the dark side!” he roared. 

We do, though. And we don’t. And sometimes it feels like we’re armed with a dishrag.

We stopped our serious talk and broke into laughter. 

There’s a scene in the 1995 movie Jeffrey in which the titular gay man, played by Steven Weber, gets mugged. “Whaddya got?” growls one of the homophobic perps. 

Jeffrey looks up from the ground. “Irony?”

Queers, communities of color, kids, and artists have learned how to use whatever we have at hand to push away evils in the shadow zone, wielding laughter and play. 

As a middle-class white lady and as a parent, it’s easy to leap to keep the lid on the status quo. But I’m glad I can still be knocked off my guard, diffused and disarmed.

As Hayley DeRoche and others have pointed out, part of the work of anti-racism is sitting in our own discomfort. For me, that means acknowledging not just American history, not just my own biases, but my deep-rooted fear that I might be a bad guy, simply by benefitting from what other bad guys have done. So who am I to shout fuck-the-police from the rooftops? 

It sometimes feels like biting the hand that has fed me, but it’s not feeding my son and other people I love. It might start as a whisper. I might only have a dishrag and irony and the spare time to call one council member to politely ask him to defund the police. 

Last night, I was texting about fear with my friend Shea and she said, “So many fears are about self-preservation. [There are situations] when you get a gut fear that’s important to follow. That’s self-preservation that’s positive, right? It’s kind of the same thing when you feel privilege threatened--but in that case, that instinct shouldn’t be authoritative.”

I’ll try not to let fear drive this bus. To make a world that is more comfortable for Dash and his peers by, in the words of the wise Fiona Apple, “travel[ing] by foot, and by foot it's a slow climb / But I'm good at being uncomfortable, so / I can't stop changing all the time.”

In the words Finn repeats to himself, breathlessly, as he’s making his escape: “I can do this. I can do this.”