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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How Death Animates Us

Perhaps this blog will become: life as animated by literature.

I couldn't fall asleep last night, as happens when I'm newly off alcohol and back to the gym, so I read this graphic novel that's been sitting on my coffee table for about a year: Unknown by author Mark Waid and illustrator Minck Oosterveer.

It's about death. Since Molly's it's become clear that every piece of art and literature is about death. I knew this at fifteen and twenty-one. Just forgot.

The main character, Cat Allingham, is a detective with a brain tumor whose last mysteries involve learning if there is or is not an afterlife. It was only the first in a series, so the jury's still out.

On Sunday, Sonia and I had lunch with my parents and they acted like themselves for the first time in her presence, teasing one another relentlessly, engaging with us and actually showing some joy. It felt good.

We met at the Cheesecake Factory in the suburbs. My parents bravely tried the thai lettuce wraps and loved them. We shared two pieces of cheesecake (all chocolate) at the end and moaned about the indulgence. We walked around the mall together afterward and went shoe shopping, where Sonia impressively saved me $30 on a pair of $105 shoes at DSW.

Who knows why people do what they do? Given time or traumatic events, my parents seem to have turned a corner. They seem more open, more accepting, lighter. I have two theories and they both have to do with death.

A few weeks ago on the phone, my dad told me about a 26-year-old boy who had gone missing from the bar a few miles from their home. It was the same bar my brother and I frequented in our twenties, the closest one to our childhood home. The boy had suffered from mental health problems and substance abuse. He'd joined my mom's church to get help with the drinking and the drugs.

Then one evening, he left the bar, threw his phone and his keys in his car and walked into the woods. It took them a few weeks to find his body, but everyone knew what had happened. My dad told me that path led to an overlook where it would be easy to jump into the river. He didn't tell me that the boy was gay.

The boy who killed himself was or was not gay. In any case, he was in working class Pennsylvania where some combination of lack of opportunity, lack of options and lack of mental health services led to him finding this way out. His options were religion or alcohol. If he was gay, a religion that despised him wouldn't cut it.

Another thing happened this winter. Driving home from the high school where he's been substitute teaching since he got laid off 12+ years ago, my dad did a 360 on an icy two-lane road and narrowly missed an 18-wheeler. Says his life flashed before his eyes. He is increasingly the kind of man who will say things like that, although it's a new look for him.

My mom texted me about the incident the night it happened. She expressed thankfulness for Sonia and my brother's girlfriend. In their shock after that near-miss, they knew what mattered. They knew that Sonia and my brother's girlfriend were the people that their children would come home to if something similar happened.

In The Unknown, death is a chalky-faced stranger with the build of Herman Munster. In my life these days, it seems to be animating a little empathy among my family from a still-safe distance. The empathy is motivating -- it feels like all I've ever wanted -- and makes me want to spend as much time with them as possible. Help them keep their monsters at bay.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

An Ocean of Knowledge

The pond in the back of the Hempstock's house in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is also the ocean that carries Lettie's body away, merits more unpacking.

The metaphor of the ocean in this book is so rich it feels Biblical. It is both a placid pond and a ferocious ocean. It's also a bucket of water that transports the seven-year-old narrator to another dimension.
I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.  
Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all. 
The ocean is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. Makes perfect sense that the writers of the Bible would want us to avoid it, too. Seems to me that the keepers of the keys of knowledge too seldom wish to share, as though disseminating knowledge decreases its value.

Or, what if the tree/ocean of knowledge was cast as "original sin" because spending too much time thinking about it -- how souls are made, where we go when we die -- prevents us from being present here on earth, which is the whole point?

After his ocean experience, the narrator has a conversation with Lettie that illustrates this beautifully.
"Do you still know everything, all the time?"  
She shook her head. She didn't smile. She said, "Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you're going to muck about here." 
"So you used to know everything?" 
She wrinkled her nose. "Everybody did. I told you. It's nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play."  
"To play what?" 
"This," she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
It's nice to believe that when she died, Molly entered this ocean, that she's been granted understanding and wisdom and comfort of a kind I hope not to see for several decades. It's an image of afterlife I can get behind, and provides me comfort comparable to what my mother probably feels when she visualizes heaven.

Long ago, literature became my Bible. I return to the books that have shaped me -- Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Stephen Dunn's poetry, and many more -- in the way Christians return to the Bible.

Literature does the Bible one better, I think. It's not a closed system; writers are constantly adding new ideas and metaphors to the conversation, interpreting the world as we find it for a new generation. Thus a book written in 2013, when I was cooking dinners and partying with Molly, offers me comfort when she's gone, just a few years later.

Shine on, bright star. Swim in knowledge.