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