Monday, October 23, 2017

Blake Morgan Is Bi!

Happy Monday! I'm on a roll this morning: lunches made, kitchen swept, laundry folded. I have a little over 30 minutes to drink some tea and write so I can exercise for 30 min. and still get to work at a reasonable time. Can every morning feel this good?

Because of my time crunch, this will be a short blog post in homage to the writers of Madame Secretary, which I've been watching solo on Netflix (Sonia avoids political shows).

After working together for three years, Blake Morgan, assistant to Tea Leoni's Secretary of State, finally came out to her. Any queer person watching knew this character wasn't just a straight guy. There was something truly satisfying about this revelation.

Blake Morgan is awkward. He's been burned. He maintains his right to hold some thing or things sacred, and decide himself when he wants people in his inner circle. He'll tell you what he wants you to know when he's ready, and not before.

Plus, he's a dashing dreamboat. He's a bi guy I would've gone for in a heartbeat.

One of my first books after beginning to date women was Look Both Ways (NYTimes review). It gave me confidence but not necessarily a language, or a way of talking about bisexuality to gay (especially lesbian) people I knew or my Christian parents.

Among lesbians, beginning in college, I was an outsider. If they suspected I had crushes (oh, did I have crushes!), I was dismissed as one of the silly straight experimenters. I even thought of myself that way.

Among my straight Christian family, I was already an outsider with my education and liberal views. Add feminism, then bisexuality and eventually moving in with a woman & the bisexuality tends to get lost. It becomes a fuzzy stepping stone rather than a part of my identity to choose and fully own.

Thank you, writers of Blake Morgan. It was a rare pleasure to see a bisexual character on television whose sexuality is secondary to his work ethic, determination and adorably anxious overachieving.

I liked this character because he bucks the "all-out, all the time" mandate from LGBTQ leaders like Dan Savage. I see where they're coming from, but I also think it's a little bit like asking your black friend to represent all black people whenever you have a question that concerns "the black community." It's not his or her job, just like it's not my job to represent all queer people, all the time.

Like "the black community," maybe the "LGBTQ community" is less a community and more of an umbrella that serves its political purpose. I'm under it. Is that enough?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your Life Story Isn't Your Life. It's Your Story.

"Your life story isn't your life. It's your story."

I'm feeling that quote acutely as I sort through thirty-five years of pictures, handwritten correspondence (letters! notes from abroad! the best postcards!), awards, published and unpublished writing and other random keepsakes. The small, finished room in our basement is full of this shit.

While I have an occasional flash of joy a la "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," I'm keeping more than I want to keep. I'm keeping it out of a vague sense of obligation to my mother or unborn child (not sure which).

I'm keeping letters from my college friends because the humans themselves bring me joy, and I'm not inspired in this moment to reread every letter I've ever received from them. Does that mean I'll never want to do so?

I'm keeping the box of pictures from my mother because, while I've been completely happy cutting my own photo collection in half, I've run out of steam. I can't hold another 300-500 pictures in my hand, one by one, and decide what to do with them.

This weekend, Sonia and I went to Connecticut to visit one of her friends from law school. On her fridge was a magnet: "Life isn't about finding yourself. It's about creating yourself."

The friend is gorgeous -- tall and African American with perfect skin and amazing, long dreadlocks. She's from Virginia and told us the story of her husband walking into law offices where she was working and looking her up and down, clearly curious about her but clearly not going to do anything about it. Against policy if not the law, she searched in his file for his email address and sent him a message asking him out. They were married a few years later.

When I praised her bravery, she said, "Girl, I had to find my husband," and shrugged it off.

I don't know too much about this couple, but I liked that quote on their fridge. In the course of a weekend, we went to a winery, a cider mill, a casino and a corn maze. We made small talk easily and avoided politics and anything too personal. There was a sense of confidence in both of them, a sense of plunging headlong into the future together.

There are things I kept because I'm creating myself.

Because I kept the letters from a youth counselor named Mark, I'll remember lying on the floor of an elevator with him in a hotel near the Mall of America. I was sixteen, he was twenty. We didn't kiss. He wasn't my first taste of the illicit.

Because I kept the laugh-out-loud "communication contract" written by my ex boyfriend Dan, I'll remember how funny he was, how I probably would have chosen him if I was able to choose a man.

Because I kept a book constructed by Ari and written in a few months into our relationship, I'll remember the intensity of my first relationship with a woman, how it came upon me like a revelation.

There are things I didn't keep, too. But they're not a part of my story.

Recently, I sat in on a session about trauma's effect on the brain in young children. In all children, the neural pathways that are encouraged (i.e., "If I cry, I am comforted.") are the pathways that become set. Other potential pathways are pruned away. This pruning continues through our lives.

There were maybe a dozen letters from unrecognizable names. These completely forgotten intimacies -- both friends and lovers -- had been completely pruned from memory. Yet I'd been present with them all once, maybe more than once. Regardless, they were in Friday's trash.

It's both empowering and tragic, the relentlessness of time. The reality of so many people -- and each moment -- intersecting with your life so briefly. The constant need to create one's life, and the fact that each moment passes into the abyss if we don't seize upon it.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Our First Month as Homeowners

When last I wrote, Sonia and I were selecting paint samples and gathering boxes, finishing the bottom of peanut butter jars and pitching stale snacks. 

We've been in the new house a little over a month.

The most surprising thing?

I'm doing a lot more "when my parents were my age..." math. It mattered less when I was in an apartment. But check out this smattering of riches:

  • When my parents were my age, they'd owned three homes. 
  • When my parents were my age, they'd built their dream home, which they live in to this day. 
  • When my parents were my age, I was eight. 
  • When my parents were my age, my brother was five. 
  • When my parents were my age, they had two acres of land that they somehow kept pristine while keeping both my brother and I alive. 
I guess you could say I'm appreciating them a little bit more this morning. 

The most lovely thing?

Sonia and I are communicating well, maybe better than ever before. 

We had our first two major fights since moving in, about money and my taste for alcohol. We do math completely differently and get to the same answer, but it drives us both nuts that the other person cannot understand our methods. I drink more during transition times as I'm working on getting into a new routine. 

Also very cool: 
  • Waking up in the bed we own, in the house we own!
  • The Icelandic blue Sonia painted our bedroom with the help of some friends. Both the color and the fact that it happened without me. Like magic!
  • The gorgeous feng shui of our tiny office after I moved some furniture around. 
  • We have a laundry room. 
  • I can't wait to come home after work. Making dinner and walking around the neighborhood feel like bigger occasions than they have in the past. 
Home ownership never excited my imagination in the hypothetical. I didn't dream of a house I might love to own. I didn't even have a long-term plan for home ownership "one day." We both had good jobs and a little savings, so we made it work quickly. 

Now that there's an actual house, I see projects everywhere. Bring down the wall in the front foyer; expand the small first-floor bathroom; rip out the scraggly hedges lining the sidewalk. Sonia sort of understands that this is my creativity at work, but made me promise not to tear any walls down in the middle of the night. 

Not only do I see projects, but I'm excited to tackle them. Bring on the surprises, the magic, the future!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

How White People Write Race

The Doctorow book has me thinking about how I write race.

As a writer, it’s easier to see my black neighbor or the Coalhouse character as sympathetic humans than it is to see my own parents, with all of their ingrained prejudice and homophobia, as sympathetic humans. 

But that’s the easy way out, a temptation we have to resist as white writers, says W. Kamau Bell.

In an interview on With Friends Like These, he told white people to handle ourselves, calling out racism when we hear it and advocating for a new narrative of whiteness.

To participate in writing that future, I might have to understand where my parents are coming from.

The white supremacist is a familiar character, and it is not them. They deserve better. There isn’t a strong narrative of the “good white person,” racially speaking, but perhaps we can only get there by exploring all of the good intentions that lined our path to today.

The task becomes not writing black characters but trying to find empathy or insight in my parents' view of the world.

There is so much I want to say about our time that I felt ill-equipped to say, but surely the only white voices cannot be the bigoted ones. That's serving exactly no one.

Talking about whiteness, talking about blackness, talking about race in America is like talking to my parents about sex. There’s simply no good agreed-upon language for it. There are landmines everywhere.

I've ridden the wave into adulthood on the premise that the old white, Christian tale of America was simplistic and ignorant, the result of brainwashing or fear. Yet my parents are complex people.

Good intentions got us here. We’re going to need more bravery than good intentions to get us out.

Coalhouse Walker: Real Character?

Into this waiting-to-move period, I've injected an old favorite: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. Before I opened the book this time, I remembered loving the book but I did not remember the story. I got to fall in love all over again.

The book is a collage of the early-1900s. Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman make appearances. Two families, one upper-middle class and the other new immigrants, meet these giants of their time in likely, sometimes inconsequential scenarios.

Because there are so many "real" characters in the book, you imagine Doctorow researching and discovering all of the characters: Father, the executive at the fireworks factory, self-empowering Mother and the revolutionary Younger Brother. Tetah the artist who makes it big and his little girl. Their lives elevate to be as important to the course of history as all the names a reader in 2017 still recognizes.

When I last read the book, Emma Goldman was not familiar to me. Now that I know her as a historical figure, the book reads differently: as though any character, if you explore enough old newspaper articles, could come to life and be proclaimed as "real."

This brings me to the central character: Coalhouse Walker. In this reading, I was sure he was a historical figure. Following humiliation at the hands of the local all-white fire department, Coalhouse and his men (a ragtag team of 3-4 black youth and one middle-aged white man) barricade themselves with explosives inside the library and museum of J. P. Morgan. The metaphor is simply too perfect. I wanted to believe it.

From a NYTimes article written shortly after the book was published: "Asked if this angry black man were a real person Mr. Doctorow said, 'There are several hundreds of thousands of Coalhouse Walkers in this country.'" (Article here.)

But Coalhouse Walker entered the novel as a polite and proud black man determined to marry a young maid who was already the mother of his child. It was only through humiliation and his insistence on his own humanity and worthiness that he became indignant, and ultimately dead at the hands of his oppressors.

I believe in the reality of Coalhouse Walker, as unique or as aggregate, as both human and metaphor. I wonder if many black readers also believe in him.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

We're Buying a House!

"We're buying a house!"

I understand that sentence now more than ever: two months of limbo, negotiations and anxiety. Also, the exclamation point. There is an end in sight, after which we'll be homeowners.

This wasn't a part of the plan for 2017. In late April, we got a letter from our new corporate landlords saying that rent would be raised over 10% this year.

Plus Sonia would have to start paying for her garage space. Plus all of the good people -- the ones who have lived here for decades and make this place feel like a community -- are being priced out.

It was time to go. We wouldn't waste another year of rent.

We looked at less than a dozen houses. In three weeks, we found an adorable stone row house in Mount Airy.

It has sun tunnels that tunnel natural light into the top floor. It has a small, carefully manicured front yard. It has a large picture window in the living room.

Before we said "yes," I emailed Sonia my list of improvements I'd like to make in 1-2 years, and improvements I'd like to make in 2-5 years. It was a cultural wake-up call.

Sonia's Korean immigrant parents moved into their house 30+ years ago, and haven't changed a thing. They didn't alter anything unless it broke.

My white parents (2-5 generations removed from their immigrant roots) built their house from the ground up 30+ years ago, and a year hasn't gone by without a major renovation or improvement.

We'd both fallen in love with our new house, but Sonia loved it as it was. I saw only potential: new flooring in the foyer and basement, new drywall in the laundry room & select replacement tiles in the kitchen and bathroom. Once we could articulate that, and I could reassure Sonia that I would not be randomly ripping through drywall in the middle of the night, we could move forward.

On Sunday, I told my parents the news. After trying to call the house, I played the coward and texted them both a long message. Turns out, they were just getting in from the beach. They did not respond with any exclamation points initially. After they caught their breath and looked the house up online, they called.

"Looks like a nice place," my dad said. "There's a baseball field nearby, I think. Did I see that on the map?"

"Do you mind if I ask how much you paid and how much your mortgage payment will be?" my mom asked, relieved when I told her we hadn't paid full asking price.

When they were 24, my parents were married. By 26, I was born and they were in their first row house. By 29, they were parents of two sacrificing daily for their dream, raising a couple of kids in the country on a homestead where, if needed, they could grow their own groceries. They don't understand city living. There are many ways in which I'm foreign to them.

Two years ago, my dad asked me why people of my generation didn't seem to care about buying houses. I realized later this was as close as he'd get to suggesting I buy a house. Such is our communication.

As we spoke about the new house, I kept saying Sonia's name: Sonia's commute would be longer, Sonia is wary of big renovations, Sonia was reading The Automatic Millionaire when we decided to buy a house. My parents didn't respond to any of those points. The conversation skated onward.

As we hung up, my dad said, "Tell Sonia we said hi."

Baby steps.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Old Skins to Shed

The narrator of Rachel Cusk's Outline might or might not be a singular person. By the time I began to suspect that the characters were folding into one another, I was nearly finished. It will be a good one to reread, but I'm uninspired to do so right now.

I didn't have enough empathy for the characters, or interest in their movements. This may have been because the whole book was a brain tease and I didn't catch on until too late.

However, this reflection by Angeliki, a mother of one son, knocked me over.
'...for me, of course, it would be disastrous to have more children: I would be completely submerged, as so many women are. I ask myself why it is my mother wishes me submerged in my turn, when I have important work to do, when it would not be in my best interests and would be, as I say, tantamount to disaster, and the answer is that her desire is not about me but about herself.
'The parts of life that are suffocating,' Angeliki said, 'are so often the parts that are the projection of our own parents' desires. One's existence as a wife and mother, for example, is something often walked into without question, as though we are propelled by something outside ourselves; while a woman's creativity, the thing she doubts and is always sacrificing for the sake of other things...has been her own idea, her own inner compulsion.'
I don't want to be submerged.

In high school, the Immaculate Conception scared the shit out of me. There wasn't an Internet and sex education was virtually nonexistent. My overactive brain couldn't handle that combo. I convinced myself that when I got pregnant due to some freak accident, I would be strong enough to kill myself. I carried this conviction into my twenties and I'm not even sure when precisely I let it go. Once you've gone down that road, I'm not sure there's any coming back.

So many of my friends are having their second babies. My best friend is pregnant with her first. Two others are attending a book/therapy group called Maybe Baby for queer couples thinking about kids.

On Saturday, Sonia and I went over to a couple's house and met their daughters, who are two years old and five months old. The woman and I used to be roommates in Philadelphia; we'd run into each other at Molly's funeral and didn't want to leave it there. I'd always liked her.

Sonia spent most of her time with the baby, but that two-year-old was my favorite. I am 35; Sonia is 32. No decisions have been made. I don't doubt for a second that I'd love raising a kid, but the pathway there is still unclear.

Plus, I have some old skins to shed: that scared teenager I used to be and others' desires I've been carrying around. Spring's a good time for that.