Sunday, December 26, 2021

tops of 2021

I recently learned that the original lyrics to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" were "Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow," not "...hang a shining star upon the highest bough." I'd heard both, but I sort of thought they were different verses of the same version. Apparently the latter replaced the version in Meet Me in St. Louis, which I remember as a bittersweet, kind of weird movie. 

Then I read this article and found out the first draft of the song was "Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last." 

Muddling through suddenly seems appealing, and I did plenty of it this year. Things were not too shabby—vaccine, book contract, schools reopening, summer road trip, a hummingbird outside our window—until August, when the adoption roller coaster chugged anxiously uphill, then plummeted down, and at times I felt like I'd flown off the tracks entirely. I think AK felt I had too, and that wasn't easy on her.

But we've muddled through, to the point where I'm feeling cautiously excited about the future again (along with a bunch of other negative and positive emotions). This is all preamble to my annual round-up of books, movies, and TV shows that I loved, and which helped me process, escape, and survive 2021.


The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O'Rourke: This book is incredibly validating for anyone who's chased a diagnosis (and I haven't, knockonwood; my Big Sick was fortunately very straightforward), as well as beautifully written, describing the mindfuck of illness the way only a patient and poet can. It's rigorous and evenhanded about both the accomplishments and failures of Western and holistic medicine, and I think it should be required reading for anyone in medical or nursing school.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: Just a few pages in, I could tell this novel was clever and well-observed, nailing nuances of subculture and zeitgeist with linguistic flair. Sometimes, I felt like the characters talked in essays, but they're good essays, so I didn't really mind. Deeper in, I decided this was an Austen-style novel of manners for the trans community. Finally I decided, as I do about all my favorite books, that it's about everything: love, desire, identity, human frailty. But what I'm most grateful for is specific: the perfectly described longing for motherhood in a queer body that has been told it has no business wanting such things. I'm a cis queer woman who said goodbye to my boobs and ovaries for cancer reasons, and I felt SO much of what Reese feels in being excluded from this particular marker of womanhood. I often wondered if trans people felt like I did, and it was heartening to know that at least a few do.

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
by Kristen Radtke:
Part memoir, part social science survey, part cultural criticism, this graphic nonfiction book is all too timely. Radtke examines the experience of loneliness from an array of angles, through a personal and unexpected lens. Reading it, I felt less lonely.

Crude by Pablo Farjado, Sophie Tardy-Joubert, and Damien Roudeau, translated by Hannah Chute: Chevron fucked over the Indigenous people of Amazonian Ecuador, to put it mildly. One impoverished Ecuadoran worked in the oil fields, witnessed the corporate crimes, and studied to become a lawyer so he could hold them accountable. Farjado's personal story is as inspiring as the oil company's is rage-inducing.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg: This book takes such an innovative approach to memoir, using bible stories, Greek classics, The Addams Family, and The Golden Girls to describe Lavery's evolving relationship to his gender. His experience was *not* one of always believing he was a boy. How do you describe longing for something you didn't know was possible? How do you know if your feelings of discomfort in your body can be chalked up to a culture of misogyny or to gender dysphoria? These are the questions Lavery tackles with enviable wit and wisdom, and a playful push against all sorts of traditional narratives. Some of the parables he worked from remained opaque to me, but I think most readers will be able to find their way into at least a few.

I've read Lavery's work in The Toast and followed his Dear Prudence columns and podcast. This book draws on both those styles, while also employing a more personal and vulnerable approach that I craved even more of. (Although, next time I hear someone talk about wanting to write a memoir but being afraid of over-disclosing, I'll point them to this book, which somehow goes deep without sharing much in the way of family background or life events beyond the one at the story's center.)

The last chapter is one of the most poignant, and feels like a bit of a cliffhanger for a future memoir (or maybe I just know too much from following Lavery and his wife Grace on Twitter), and I hope he writes it.

The Violence Almanac by Miah Jeffra: Without, IMO, ever glorifying violence or excusing those who commit it, Jeffra spends time in the minds of both perpetrators and victims. Of course, if you aren't deep in denial, you know that most perpetrators are victims in one way or another. When woundedness meets power—in the case of Mr. Huberty, a man who struggles to find work but stockpiles guns in "Eye Wall"—trouble usually lies ahead.

I was particularly moved by the opening story, "Babies," which imagines how Andrea Yates killed her children to save them from the void she felt: "A cutting away, releasing the doubt, to preserve what good they had left in them.... If she kept on to them, held them close in this world, her world, they would all fall into that gaping hole, the one of eternal torment."

But Jeffra also lets us see, in no uncertain terms, what it feels like to be Yates' terrified child. In these ways, the book is much more painful than the bloodiest movie, despite the fact that there's very little graphic violence.

In "Ain't No Thing," a man tries very hard to be unassailable his whole life. From his father, he learns how to take a beating. Women complain "I want want something from me!" He tries to be even nicer. He tries to hold it together. He tries to follow the rules and bury his hatred for those who don't—specifically, some young men of color on a MUNI bus, carelessly disposing of their trash—because it would be too painful for him to learn what the young men may already know, that Goodness will not save him. It reads like a cautionary tale.

Jeffra's work is so gutsy and imaginative and searing. Somewhere in here is a manual for how to live in this world, and how not to.

The Low Desert by Tod Goldberg: This collection of connected short stories is compelling, masterful, and occasionally heartbreaking. In spare, confident prose, Goldberg writes about people who regularly smash skulls and chop off limbs, but he doesn't seem to take violence lightly. For me the most wrenching story was that of Tania, a cocktail waitress who spends her windfall to adopt a Russian 12-year-old who apparently runs away. As readers, we get a lot more closure than most of the characters ever do, which I suppose is the point of fiction.

Last Chance Texaco by Ricki Lee Jones: I only had a vague idea of who Jones was going in, but damn there are a lot of adventures in these pages. Some traumatic, some joyous, many a mix of both. And always music. She writes sentences with as much rhythm and style as her song lyrics, and the book is a sort of non-prescriptive master class in creating an artistic life.

Honorable mention: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garica, The Insiders by Mark Oshiro, Trove by Sandra A. Miller


Encanto: In addition to gorgeous animation and addictively good music, it depicts family constellations—how people function, interact, and suffer based on the roles they play in their family—in a way five-year-olds can understand. I mean, the particular five-year-old I saw it with was scared of Bruno's sand cave, and the 6-year-old wanted to play a game on my phone. But the nine- and forty-five-year-olds and I enjoyed it.

Reservation Dogs: I don't know very much about youth rez culture, but somehow I feel like this show captures it perfectly? That's how convincing it is in its depiction of a culture whose influences are a hybrid of traditional and contemporary, urban and rural, proud and frustrating. Each episode is like a short story. It's funny and sad and delightfully weird. 

Maid: I watched the first episode and had to stop because the main character's life—shitty ex, wild mom, total lack of resources—felt too much like that of April*, the expectant mom who broke our hearts. My therapist even told me, unprovoked, not to watch it. Then, after April broke our hearts, I decided to watch it to remind myself I didn't envy her life. And it's just a really good, gripping series about how class functions in America, and how hard it is to dig yourself out of a bad spot.

Succession: They're everyone's favorite family to hate, and they're mine too. AK and I got a lot of mileage out of dissecting them. Gerri is my favorite. A cool cucumber model for my middle years (except I will try not to be evil, and I'd never fuck Roman).

Mare of Easttown: I mean, it's got mystery and texture and character development and thematic arcs about post-traumatic stress and Kate Winslet. Of course I loved it.

Zola: Sharp, funny, savvy story of sex work and varyingly reliable narrators, based on a twitter thread.

Sort Of: Sabi is a nonbinary Pakistani-Canadian nanny, who is clever and kind but struggles with direction. The dialogue is of the slightly-too-clever genre, but it works, and all the characters are funny and multifaceted. 

RuPaul's Drag Race: I watched so many old episodes these past few months, in such a dark state, that AK started to resent Mama Ru, which distressed me more than it should have. And my coworker told me RuPaul allows fracking on his land, which is...probably bad. But there's something about seeing fierce queer artists pour their hearts out on stage and in the workroom that I find incredibly life-affirming. I am a late-to-the-game fan of Jinkx Monsoon, Yvie Oddly, Nina West, Sasha Velour, Peppermint, Monique Hart, and Monet X Change.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

this is how it works

If you think about the game,
you've already lost.
That's the whole game.
You might approach someone,
perhaps at a party—
perhaps there is brandied eggnog,
or maybe it's a cooler full
of beer, juice boxes for the kids,
in celebration of the end
of soccer season, or a savior's birth,
or the strong possibility that soon
the days will get longer.
You would say, "You've lost the game,"
and it would be true
because now you've passed the torch
of consciousness
like a virus
to the person closest to you.

There's no winning the game.
It was invented by the British,
of course. Land of fog 
and consumptive moors,
land farmed to the bone. 
Maybe this resignation 
is what happens after you conquer
a continent or two,
leverage a famine to your advantage,
make the locals bring you tea.
And still it tastes bitter,
and still your wife finds you
a bit disgusting 
and your children grow up
and write books
about the terrible things you've done
leveraging that education you paid for
with the spoils of a rigged war.

Depression is a Russian nesting doll
forged in the thinnest winter sunlight:
Do you feel like you're dying 
because the test results aren't back,
or is the No new results page screaming at you
louder than usual (each time is the worst; this is how it works)
because you feel like you're dying?
Do you feel like you're dying
because of a life that failed to take shape,
a miscarriage of sorts, especially in the sense
that you folded in on yourself?
Do you feel like you're dying 
because you are, in fact?
You want the people you love
to win the game, but holding the secret
is swallowing a hundred of the tiniest dolls,
the ones shaped like pills.

And so you spit them out
and watch the splatter and wish
you could take it back. 
If there weren't so much love,
the game wouldn't be so bad; 
nothing would be, at all. 
It's been nine years since you learned
about the game, or six, or eighteen,
or forty-one, depending how you count.
Do you count?
Too much—leaves on trees, numbers on a screen.
Not enough, though maybe that's a relief,
being just one more flimsy leaf
red-gold on the driveway.
Time is on your side.
Time is not on your side.
Time is 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

ode to the end of peach season


The peaches this summer were inexplicably good. The ones from Trader Joe's, I mean. Trader Joe's—known for all those plastic clamshells and sad hard oranges. But there they were, better than we deserved: ombre globes the size of tennis balls, the big soft ones that our son keeps hitting over the fence. Run-down-your-chin juicy, though I always cut them up, because why ruin something exquisite with a sticky face? 

I tried to eat them all. I did. I bought them in cardboard pallets and by the bag. Accuse me of all the contemporary sins: working too much, planning and fretting, checking pandemic stats like the weather. Bending my head toward my phone until my spine is a floor lamp, an inverted J. Despairing because we might not, in fact, upgrade our wonderful lives to extra wonderful in the space of a month. 

But who is here, like a motherfucking Zen master, enjoying seasonal fruit?

Photo by Vlad Deep on Unsplash

And now it's almost gone. Now pears are populating the shelves, and I like pears; I get why six of them plus some cheese cost $49.99 from Harry & David. Now I'm bingeing on pizza and cinnamon rolls, Cheez-Its and sour gummies. All the nonperishables in the cupboards. Late at night, when the day's worries are done and we are, for a few hours, untouchable. When texts and emails—the ones we're waiting for and the ones we dread—are silent. Only the bots are up, promising 75% off jeans for the whole family. The jeans are cheaper and better than they should be, too, but not so satisfying when I bite. And I will bite.


Each time I open the apps, I hear Mabel King sing "Don't nobody bring me no bad news." She was the witch in The Wiz, you know. A house had flattened her sister, and she would be murdered with mop water by the second act. No wonder she wanted to freeze time and accelerate it, no wonder she hoped her factory twerkers in their bright peach rags would make it all happen while she cowered backstage. Her sweatshop produced only sweat.

I'm an old witch and I know, now, how the seasons cycle. I know the time of bland bananas, our failed tomato plants, the one year in our old house when we accidentally grew so many watermelons we had to throw a party to eat them all. The chard plant that bolted—I love that word in its defiance, a reminder that rebellion is not just for predatory mega fauna—it bolted, its bright red stalk becoming thick and inedible, its leaves waving at the neighbors and covering the brick patio. 

Sometimes I treat pear season as if it's a thing I can manifest: Follow all the contradictory advice of all the people who earn their living from families who want to grow beyond the limits of their own stale soil, text at the right time, keep my problems folded tight and out of sight. It's horrible, and I'm no farmer. 

Other times I treat it like a storm on the horizon, like the neon orange fire moon that visits us in early fall, reminding us of the flames to the north, the choking sky, the planet burning and drowning simultaneously, a sort of apocalyptic harmony. Look, I know those peaches were picked by workers who earn $14 an hour, or $1.25, depending on who you ask. 

There's nothing I can do to stop the bad news, I tell myself. I can't sustain summer. I'm trying to sustain summer. It's comfort and despair, the stuff that leads to old seasons of RuPaul's Drag Race, downed like shots of whiskey, and actual shots of whiskey. The Jinkx Monsoon is coming.


I'm writing this as if I'm trying to stop climate change, but I'm not. I go to the store where you can refill your old shampoo bottles from a shampoo keg, and I vote, but mostly I'm trying to eat all the peaches, to manifest my own little orchard in the shape of the present I love, the present I do and don't deserve. I'm in a kind of upward-mobility paradox: This first season (which followed four and a half years of drought) worked out so well, but we can't string it out forever, we can't stop our son from outgrowing his shoes and learning swear words, and we can't make the next season in its image. It will be its own fruit, if we are lucky, and it might not be at all. 

I repeat the latter, magical thinker that I am, just so you know I know. I'm not a dummy, I'm not some sort of entitled idealist who fails to imagine their demise hourly. God forbid I don't hold unhappiness and guilt like worry stones, one in each pocket. God forbid I don't get a jolt of terror every time an Unknown Number lights up my phone, that trickster brick on the kitchen counter.


This year I've seen the evil eye everywhere. Maybe you have too. It looks like the Target symbol in blues: cobalt, black, white, sky, black. Of course, it's not the evil eye at all, but an amulet to ward off the evil eye. A key difference, lost to linguistics. Why does good news feel so much like bad news? The eye stares at me from the bumpers of cars driven by Armenians in our city. They know how bad it can get, or they know secondhand. Trauma fortifies the bones and lights every nerve ending on fire.

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

All I'm saying is I want a peach and a pear. I want to eat them even if they are not mine to consume, with you; you are not mine to consume either, though you are as rooted as a tree. All I'm saying is all the things I cannot. Isn't every poem, at a certain point, about the failure of language? Doesn't that mean it's about genocide? Can't I have a peach and a pear, a tree and a blue-black eye watching over us all? 

Monday, July 19, 2021

road trip!

Cross posted from my daily travel journal on Instagram

Day 1: We packed up our car and drove through the desert, where it was 102 degrees in the dark, and landed in Vegas, where we haven’t been in 15 years. “We’ll be creatures of the night,” we decided, as we headed east into a heatwave with an intense year and an intense couple of weeks and dreams of Nomadland in our rear view mirror. Now we are in the sweet AC of our hotel, watching Peppa Pig in the flicker of the strip club next door. 

Day 2: We jumped in the pool at 8:30 and then overloaded our senses at the Discovery Children’s Museum (as seen, notably, in a Blippi video). By lunchtime we were wilting. We stopped for gas at a station called Terrible’s that was running out of gas. 

We hit the road again, and I watched the temperature like it was my own blood pressure, like we were on the precipice of something dangerous. The rocks turned from yellow to red, clouds dumping long fingers of light on the mountains like a prophecy.

We passed Valley of Fire, where I remember my mom taking a picture of me at 12, all Sun-In hair against red rocks, telling me how beautiful I was, as I shrank under her certain lie.

We stopped for salty Chinese food in a little foothill town called Parowan and the temperature dropped to a forgiving 88.

Day 3: This morning we were admiring two duck families in the cow pasture next to our cabin in Torrey, UT, when I touched the fence and got zapped with electricity. After telling Dash to learn from my mistake, I mused, “I guess it’s good to know what that’s like. I’ve always wondered what cows deal with.” C.C. looked at me like I was a little crazy and I wondered if that’s my MO—always trying to turn everything into some kind of universal life lesson five seconds after it happens. 🙄

At a little shop next to the Wild Rabbit Cafe, I picked up Desert Cabal by Amy Irvine from Torrey House Press, and now I want to be a wilderness writer, except for the living in the wilderness part.

“I want to ride a horse through these canyons,” C.C. said.

“I want to write a horse through these canyons,” I said.

“How do you write a horse?”

“I don’t know, but I feel like the canyons would tell me.”

We drove through Capitol Reef National Park (thank you, 
@imorianderson) with its layer-cake rocks in rainbow shades. I made it an official Klein Family Vacation by dragging my child through the heat to a mineshaft containing mildly hazardous materials.

We picked apricots from trees planted by Mormon settlers and drove to Moab, where I remember getting a killer ear infection when I was ten. Retracing the long straight roads my family drove, I listened to “All at Once,” The Airborne Toxic Event’s song about inheriting the world from our parents and grandparents and being totally unprepared.

Day 4: Our last stop in Utah was Moab Giants, a “museum” that really loves 3D shit and does not seem to employ any copy writers, educators, or graphic designers. I love a good tourist trap, but, like…the exhibit about prehistoric sea creatures was a lot like Backdraft: The Ride and included mermaids and the Loch Ness Monster?

Almost exactly at the Colorado state line, the jagged red rocks and Trump stickers gave way to farmland and dispensaries, and I felt a kind of visceral, bodily relief. Even though Utah was stunning and gorgeous, there’s something about a place telling you “stay away” with its topography and politics (which, of course, are not homogeneous anywhere, but) vs. “come on in and chill.”

We’re in Mesa Verde now, staying at the lodge. My dad is too polite to roll his eyes at our bougie ways, but I still feel a little bit of guilt that we’re not camping (it’s drowned out by that sweet AC though). This place completely captivated me as a kid, and I’m so excited to show Dash the cliff dwellings tomorrow. Meanwhile the air smells like mud and fresh grass, and there was a five-minute ice storm.

Day 5: 
I try not to have big expectations about How A Thing Will Feel, but I guess I had some Mesa Verde expectations, because this morning when C.C. said she felt a cold coming on and could she sit out our first activity, I basically burst into tears, baffling both of us. My sister got it, as she always does—how I can hear my mom’s voice reading aloud all the historical markers, and my dad balking at how much we paid for pizza in the cafe. How you can carry your own ghosts in a place with much older ghosts.

Dash and I ventured out bravely on our own, driving the narrow ridges and carsick curves of Wetherhill Mesa Road until we got to Step House Trail. Step House was stunning—like the coolest clubhouse you could imagine, tucked into a canyon wall.

When I got back from my first trip to Mesa Verde 35 years 😳 ago, I wrote what can best be described as Anasazi fan fiction and turned it in as my fourth grade report on Native Americans. Everyone else wrote about, like, staple crops.

“Anasazi” has given way to the more accurate term “Ancestral Pueblo People,” whose traditions live on in Hopi, Navajo, and other Pueblo peoples. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Pueblo People started building their homes in cliff sides, or why they stopped and then started again. It’s good to have some mysteries, I think.

In the afternoon, C.C. rallied and we all drove to the Far View Sites, a set of older mesa-top structures, and Spruce Tree House.

We got dinner and cocktails at the fancy (and only) restaurant near the lodge, and realized we completely forgot to teach Dash table manners. He was full of squirrely energy, charging up the hill on his way back to our room, through the juniper-scented air, yelling “What the hell hell hell!”

Day 6: One of the last stops on today’s Mesa Verde bus tour was the Sun Temple, a D-shaped mesa-top building that probably had some kind of astrological significance. Our tour guide said, “There’s not a ton of evidence to support this, but the building was constructed in the last few years before the Ancestral Pueblo people left this area. I think it was a last ditch effort. They were running out of water, and they built this to appeal to the gods.”

What I’m saying is that if I write more Anasazi fan fiction, I will call it “Sun Temple Times” and it will of course be an allegory for our times.

We left Mesa Verde and drove through Navajo country, where the flat-bottomed clouds and sinking sun conspired to make a vast Golden Hour. There were billboards reminding people to stop COVID by avoiding parties and ceremonies. The only store in Tonalea sold chicken wings and hair clips and laundry detergent and no produce.

Now we’re in Flagstaff for the last leg of our trip. We are road-weary and relaxed. We listened to Paul Simon in the car, and I think there’s reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.

Day 7: We have reached the “Hey, Dash, want to watch some YouTube while moms answer work emails?” stage of vacation. Other than brunch at the Toasted Owl, we explored very little of what Flagstaff had to offer. Sorry, Flagstaff.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

sympathy for the devil and my own dirty hands

1. skip this part if you don't enjoy white tears

When it comes to acts of individual violence, society has little patience for the perpetrators. Or rather, we try to make up for the failures of courts, the child welfare system, public education, and more with our own swift, harsh judgments. The woman who drowned her children, the man who shot up a McDonald's—why should they get a moment of our time when the people they hurt don't get another moment, period?

On social media, we tweet hard against the Trumps and Kavanaughs and white women who commit microaggressions. I'm not sure it should be otherwise—a tweet just composed itself in my head: Just realized that you can't spell Kavanaugh without ugh—but the urge to judge is also a deflection from self-judgment. If I can dehumanize Karen, then I must not be Karen, right? Right?

It's not that I think every villain deserves an origin story, but I do believe every villain has one, whether or not we should tell it or pay money to see it.

After crying my mascara off when someone criticizes me

I'm thinking about these things because I've been (fruitlessly so far) deep in the adoption world, which—like everything else we touch—is rooted in inequality, capitalism, and racism. I published a poem in which I wrote about some of these factors, and a reader identifying herself as an international adoptee left a very harsh, very accurate comment on it. I want to say she misread things, that she brought her own biases to the poem, but that wouldn't make her comment any less valid. 

If I want to say things in this world, about this world—and I don't seem to be able to stop myself—I have to accept the pushback that comes with the territory. People are allowed to and should fight my speech with speech. 

But damn I feel like a piece of shit. 

And sometimes I envy less self-loathing white liberals, who find ways to mostly opt out of tricky situations where they get their hands visibly dirty. The people who write excellent, finely observed novels featuring a tiny cast of entirely white characters; the people who don't venture into adoption because they have functioning ovaries. They vote for the right people and donate to the right places and just keep quietly educating themselves, and they seem so unassailable. 

I spent a long time in therapy trying to learn that innocence and purity are not actually great life goals. Because I'm only half convinced of it, now, I sort of march forward in agony: trying to do good work (that's also a Fake Email Job and part of the nonprofit industrial complex), be a good neighbor (even though I'm unfairly grouchy at J&J almost every day and I worry that they know; how could they not know?), and accept my own limitations as an individual human. That's what humility is: doing what I can, knowing what's above my pay grade, knowing that being so self-sacrificing as to be miserable would actually be of no service to anyone I love. But damn it's hard.

2. don't skip this part; read this book

All of the above is also part of why I devoured The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence Press), a collection of short, unflinching stories by my friend and fellow CalArtian Miah Jeffra. Fiction is in the business of humanizing, queering, complexifying, and daring to imagine an experience not one's own. That's why I love it.

Without, IMO, ever glorifying violence or excusing those who commit it, Jeffra spends time in the minds of both perpetrators and victims. Of course, if you aren't deep in denial, you know that most perpetrators are victims in one way or another. When woundedness meets power—in the case of Mr. Huberty, a man who struggles to find work but stockpiles guns in "Eye Wall"—trouble usually lies ahead.

I was particularly moved by the opening story, "Babies," which imagines how Andrea Yates killed her children to save them from the void she felt: "A cutting away, releasing the doubt, to preserve what good they had left in them.... If she kept on to them, held them close in this world, her world, they would all fall into that gaping hole, the one of eternal torment."

During a week when I've wondered what right I have, if any, to be a parent, I am thinking about how it takes a certain amount of blind self-confidence to parent. You have to shrug and say, "Well, I'm here, I'll do my best. Even though my children will come face to face with the world's cruelty. Even though I'm kind of a piece of shit, I'm the piece of shit my child is stuck with."

But Jeffra also lets us see, in no uncertain terms, what it feels like to be Yates' terrified child. In these ways, the book is much more painful than the bloodiest movie, despite the fact that there's very little graphic violence. 

In "Gethsemane," a realtor gives a gleefully deranged tour of a house in a gentrifying neighborhood, stuffing the violence of its history into the corners, though it seems to push at the doors of every closet. 

In "Ain't No Thing," a man tries very hard to be unassailable his whole life. From his father, he learns how to take a beating. Women complain "I want want something from me!" He tries to be even nicer. He tries to hold it together. He tries to follow the rules and bury his hatred for those who don't—specifically, some young men of color on a MUNI bus, carelessly disposing of their trash—because it would be too painful for him to learn what the young men may already know, that Goodness will not save him. It reads like a cautionary tale.

Jeffra's work is so gutsy and imaginative and searing. Somewhere in here is a manual for how to live in this world, and how not to.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

shallow but vast

"What is time, even" is a thing I say a lot lately, but I'm pretty sure all of these things happened since last Wednesday. In chronological order:

  • My friend Holly found out she has a brain tumor.
  • After a lot of radio silence on the adoption front, followed by a lot of paperwork and fees as we try to crack the silence, an expectant mom in San Diego told an attorney in Temecula that she wanted a same-sex couple from California to adopt her baby. Then she decided she wanted a same-sex male couple to adopt her baby.
  • We met Ignacio, new baby of Alberto and Gracia, and he is small and beautiful with a lot of silky dark hair and an elfin nose. 
  • Dash told me, "It's not fair that J&J are sisters and I don't have no one to play with. That's why I want a baby." (He also told me he has no toys.)
  • My Grandma Jac died yesterday at the age of 91, her dog Zoe curled next to her on the bed.
  • Roadie brought a baby sparrow into the house and it seemed like we might be able to save it, and we woke to discover that we didn't.

This post is mostly about Grandma Jac, because I need to write to make myself believe that a person I haven't seen in a year is not alive. The parts about Holly and adoption are here, my central narrative, the darkness and the hope swirling around me. There's more cause for hope than not, but sometimes I climb into the pit inside myself, where there are all-caps signs posted on the slimy pit walls announcing that the world is divided into winners and losers and guess which I am, and I must be dragging people I love down here with me.  

Just hanging on
Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Jac was the subject of the first creative nonfiction I ever wrote. When I was in middle school and high school, we'd periodically be asked to write about our families, and I found my immediate family incredibly boring (they worked so hard to create my boring childhood, and I had no appreciation), but everyone, my parents included, assured me that Jac was The Interesting One.

She was born during the Depression, but I think her family did okay. Recently I told my dad that her dad drove a Helms Bakery truck, and he thought he did something else, and now I won't get to ask her. She went to college at Pepperdine, at a time when women usually didn't, and had Black friends at a time when white people usually didn't. She was 19, I think, when she met her husband Gordon. He was older and an archeologist or an anthropologist, something professorial that caused him to fill their house with the artifacts that punctuated my childhood, though I never met Gordon himself. Pottery shards arranged in a mosaic in the kitchen. Animal skulls that made their office feel like a true den. He was an alcoholic and the kind of man who expected his wife to earn money while he got degree after degree, only to look down on her for not being an intellectual. Eventually he moved to the Southwest and became a painter and killed himself late in life. 

When I came into the story, Jac was married to Al, a big, good-natured man who was missing the tops of his first two fingers. He adored Jac and gave her jewelry at their holiday parties, which my mom always thought was a little showy, but it fit them both. At one point they almost divorced, but then they didn't. He died after a stroke back in the early 2000s and Jac never stopped missing him. 

Jac lived at the top of a hill in Torrance, at the very southern tip of Crenshaw, nestled between Palos Verdes horse country and the liquor stores of Lomita. It was your basic 1950s tract house, but she painted it a deep olive green and installed a cactus garden years before people talked about drought-resistant landscaping and painted the windows of her enclosed patio to look like Frank Lloyd Wright's stained glass. 

When I think about Jac, she is as much of a place as a person for me. She filled her house with family, friends, and stray humans every Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, and Father's Day. One day someone told her "You'd celebrate Groundhog's Day if you could," and so she did. Somewhere in the carousels of slides at my dad's house is a picture of a groundhog sculpted out of hamburger meat, with an apple in its mouth.

I'm always trying to figure out who's the cricket in this story
Isabelle Sanchez-Chapman on Unsplash

My dad started going up there with his childhood friend Bob as a teenager. Bob was an old-school flamboyant gay and so of course he needed an eccentric older woman for a friend. And then my dad brought my mom and they brought me and my sister. All my grandparents were dead by the time I was four, and so even though she was only thirteen years older than my parents, Jac became my grandma. 

I thought she was my grandma, but later I realized we were strays she'd collected, not so different from the guy from the hardware store she might invite up for Easter. She always told people, "This family is like the mafia. Once you're in, you can't get out." Her daughter's ex-husband had a permanent place at the long stone benches on her back patio, with his second wife and her daughter. But she stopped speaking to her own brother decades before and I never really knew why.

She was forgiving and open-hearted and progressive, loving and caring for Bob's friends through AIDS, and also gossipy and judgmental. My mom always joked that she didn't want to be the first to leave one of Jac's gatherings because then everyone would talk about her. My mom and my sister and I were three introverts in the corner, flipping through Jac's issues of The National Enquirer (she subscribed as a joke) and her copies of Dr. Laura's books, which may or may not have been a joke. When I think about what I miss about Jac's, that's half of it. Being in a corner with my mom and sister while my awkward-but-outgoing dad made the rounds in the only real social circle he's ever had.

Jac was a bit of a foul-weather friend. If you needed someone to bail you out of jail or pay for an abortion, as my cousin sometimes did, she was your gal. If you wanted her to come to your high school graduation, as my sister did, well, she had a dentist appointment that day.

She told a lot of colorful stories about her days as unofficial den mother to all the kids on the hill. She was a bit of a prankster; she once drove to Gordon's house long after their divorce just to show up on his doorstep as a trick-or-treater. I knew her in her storytelling years, not her story-making years. I knew her house as the place of egg hunts and grand buffets spread out on her kitchen counter, cheesy potatoes and green bean casseroles alongside Peruvian recipes and vegetarian dishes made especially for me and my sister. 

There was a time when I gorged myself on her holiday food, and considered holidays at her house some sort of pinnacle, a chance to show off whatever teenage identity I was trying on—wannabe punk, fag hag, etc.—but later, I think her taste buds failed her and the food started to seem suspect. My tastes changed too. She never really asked me questions about myself; she was too busy bustling about being hostess, and I didn't make an effort to change that dynamic.

I called Jac early in lockdown, because we'd been advised to Check On Our Old People, and I told her, just in passing, just quickly, that there had been a baby who'd stayed with us for two weeks before his parents took him back. She said something like "Oh, that's nice," and I chalked it up to her being hard of hearing, but I also wondered if she wasn't listening in a different sense. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, but the fact that it could go either way says something.

I worry for my dad, who has never had many friends to spare, and has already lost a few this year. It feels like the end of an era, and that's something to mourn even if I can't quite feel the shape and depth of my personal mourning yet. Maybe it's shallow but vast, a thin membrane spread over everything.

Midway through writing this, Dash told me, "I think the bird is alive. I heard a tweet!" 

"Oh, I think that's coming from outside, but we can look," I said. Looking at a dead bird before heading off to school was some kind of closure, I supposed.

We went in the office, where we'd made a nest for the sparrow in the cat carrier of all places. Dash had named the bird Benjamin Kasi, after someone on YouTube and a giraffe we met at the Living Desert Zoo earlier in the year. 

Benjamin Kasi stood there, round and fluffed up, looking at us. Very still, with very open eyes. Probably alive, contrary to AK's early morning report. And then Benjamin Kasi turned his head and let out a chirp. 

It's not Benjamin Kasi's job to symbolize hope and resurrection—it's his job to heal and eat bugs—but I'll take this narrative and run with it.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

is there any other kind?

A couple of years ago, the amazing writer-moms of the IKEA Writers Collective started wishing each other "Happy Fucking Mother's Day" because it's such a strange, fraught holiday (though, really, is there any other kind?).

In recent months, we've tried to inject some new strategies into our adoption attempts. So far that's meant a lot of paperwork and frustration. I'm frustrated for many reasons, including old boring feelings of maternal unworthiness, but also because one reason I hesitated about trying to adopt again was that I didn't want to dump all that longing onto the kid I was so, so happy to have. He didn't deserve it. C.C. didn't deserve it. I didn't deserve it.

I don't know how to live in the present—a present that, in these sweet, tentatively sunny, vaccinated days, I am grateful for deep in my bones—while still planning for the future. Maybe there is some super balanced Zen person out there who does. But until I become her, I have C.C., Chaos Muppet to my Order Muppet, who reminds me to come up for air (as I remind her to set an alarm if she needs to, you know, get up at a certain time). She just sent me a beautiful Mother's Day post by Emily Simon, about how we all mother ourselves to fill in the gaps left by our mortal mothers. We can fill them with music and art and of course each other.

I'm glad the zeitgeist has figured out that Mother's Day, like all our faves, Is Problematic, partly because it's fraught with narratives about women who "do it all," when no one does or should. Sometimes I think "Oh shit, I co-edit a magazine called MUTHA when I only have one kid and I'm only one third of his moms, I'm such a fraud," but I guess that's kind of the point. This isn't math. This isn't even fair: so many people mother without being mothers (side note: read Torrey Peters' Detransition, Baby for a savvy, sad, funny take on this theme, and on daring to mother when society tells you you have the wrong body parts for it). Some people are mothers without mothering, and they deserve love and recognition too.

I'm grateful to the mothers who haunt my life in the best way: my mom, Dash's birth mom. And to the mothers who are earthbound with me: to my sister and friends who take care of me when I'm exhausted from making mediocre dinners and filling out PDFs. And especially C.C., who does it all, but not in THAT way—not all at once. Happy Fucking Mother's Day.

Monday, March 15, 2021

news (the good kind)

No make-up Rainbow Brite glasses selfie as temporary author photo 

I've never fully understood the phrase "No news is good news." I think it means that if you haven't gotten any updates, things are probably proceeding as planned. I was raised to believe in plans and routine and the supremacy of consistency. 

But at some point—maybe when I was 14 and didn't see my name on the list of girls chosen for drill team, posted at the entrance to the locker room, maybe when I got my first negative pregnancy test—I started to feel like "All news is bad news." It's silly, because I've actually gotten a lot more good news than bad news in my life, yet every time I'm waiting to hear back about something, even when the possible outcomes are only "good" and "neutral," my stomach twists and the apocalypse twinkles on the horizon. 

I wrote a book about my annoying brain's apocalyptic flirtations, and about some other things: wanting a baby, miscarrying, getting cancer, adopting a kid, the advantages and dangers of the human impulse toward narrative, and crying at Starbucks a lot. 

And now I have some good news about it. A wonderful independent publisher, Brown Paper Press, will be publishing it in 2022. It's called Crybaby. Because, you know, babies are part of the story, and also because Crying at Starbucks probably raises copyright issues.

Corresponding and talking with Wendy, BPP's savvy and kind editor, was both buoying and a strange emotional roller coaster. Because news. Because pandemic grind, and all its associated good fortune and constant specter of disaster; a year in which I've been called a poophead and not-enough in both subtle and screamy ways, and it's taken a toll on my self-worth. Because I've been writing this thing for eight years, and I've wondered so many times whether I'd live long enough to see it published. I mean, not to be dramatic about it, but one of my first thoughts after finding a publisher was, Even if I'm diagnosed with metastatic cancer, statistically I'll still make it to 2022. 

But hopefully, knockonwood, I'll get to stay healthy and have a book in the world. My therapist has taught me it's okay to want two things. (Actually I want at least one hundred things, starting with A Solution to Climate Change and continuing right on down to Some Candy Right Now.)

It's weird to put a story about your boobs/lack thereof into the world, but I've been blogging since 2005, so I guess I'll be okay on that front.

One of the best parts of forthcoming publication is crafting the acknowledgments page in my head. Like a tiny Oscar speech. This is a first draft of that: 

The people who helped me keep living: AK, Cathy, my dad, my mom from deep within my soul. Nicole, Kim M., Joewon, Annette, Amy, Jamie, Keely, Meehan, Kathy, Bronwyn, Pat, Lori, Holly, Molly. Molly did not get to keep living, and that will never be remotely fair. My online adoption groups. Erica. Dash. Dr. Schmidt, Dr. Hills, Dr. Chung, and Dr. Jasper, who said, in her wonderful Russian accent, "This is not the cancer that kill you."

The people who helped me keep writing (which is to say, more people who helped me keep living): Aubrey, Debbie, Jennifer, and Shea of the IKEA Writers Collective; my IRL/now-Zoom writing group, Elizabeth, Jane, Joliange, Kate, Kim Y., Sarah; Dan, who told me to just write it in order; Dani, who told me in the kindest, most encouraging way possible that my draft was basically a collection of notes and scenes, and having an eight-week-old child was just the beginning of the stress of being a parent, not the end of all my worries; Meg, the best editor and advocate a writer-mom could ask for; Kerry, who kept trying to sell my novels despite the madness of the publishing industry.

There are so many more. And, full disclosure, there are a couple of people on my "Hmph, fuck you" list as well. If you want to know who, you can buy the book in mid-2022. 

Monday, March 01, 2021


As an oversized kitten, he chomped the hand of a friend,
and we said, I'm sorry, he's still figuring out
what kind of cat he wants to be. 

Which is to say: he is not a metaphor
any more than he's a bad omen flitting blackly
across someone's path, but I must tell you this—

A year ago a new cat moved in;
we brought her here, I held the door 
for the invading army, and she marched in

On short legs, waving her tortoiseshell tail,
purring and rolling for the humans, 
but chasing him down like a tiger

He scaled the nearest fence,
a big brother witnessing the horror of an infant,
and disappeared, but he never bit or clawed her.

He's figured out what kind of cat he wants to be.
We don't see him in the sunlight anymore,
and this is my great failure, among many.

My mother birthed my sister because she loved
having one child so much, she thought why not two;
she ruined my life and created my best friend.

It only took us twenty years to retract our claws.
When I say this has been a nightmare year,
I mean there have been good parts and weird ones

Too, sudden cameos by elementary school friends
and psychedelic vistas, unearthly Seussian trees.
Each night before bed, we call our black cat.

Each night I take to the sidewalk unmasked,
sometimes unshod, shake a bowl of dry food,
and call his name like a woman who has long ago

Eschewed sanity. My voice bounces against windows
of lit-up bungalows, their flashing TVs and late dinners.
It is a year of new routines.

I said this sidewalk rosary—Olliebear, Olliecat, Ollie,
Ollie—the night we gave the baby back, the night
I thought we had the virus, the night the vaccine

Emerged on the horizon, a beacon of hope, sure, and also
something hard and literal: instructions to our bodies
to make a spike that fights an insidious enemy.

His body grows bigger beneath the streetlights.
He's middle-aged now, has made friends with
the neighbors, who call him Willie and Jack.

He is all fast feet and qualified forgiveness
and the sight of him is an injection of something.
He smells like a driveway fire pit, or someone's cologne.

If you told me to start a gratitude journal
I would fight you, but when I plunge my face
into his dark fur, it's a kind of sunrise,

One I don't know for sure will happen,
one tainted by my complicity and threaded with shadow,
but true as ink, squirmy as love.