Monday Night Nonfiction: Post Card from San Francisco

Baycityreds_castrostfair_1975

I love San Francisco, but I always feel a little bit sad here. At first, I was sad because I wanted to live here and it wasn’t going to happen. Then, I was sad because I also love my home, and being away from it for a long time is hard for me. I come out here for a week or two at a time while my husband is working in town, and that’s two weeks away from my Mao, my yoga classes, my favorite baristas … my home. Wherever I am, though, it’s easier if I’m with Nimby because “home is wherever I’m with you.” So, as long as we’re together, I know we’ve got family taking care of our house and the cat, and everyone will be there when we get back.

Still, I find things to be sad about. It is an understatement to say there’s a homelessness problem in SF. Many of the city’s homeless are visibly ill, suffering from delusions, depression, mania, and addictions. I always wind up giving all my pocket change to one person and then walking around the city wishing I had a lot more pocket change. I know no one expects me to save the entire homeless population of SF. I feel compassion for them, and sometimes that feels a lot like sadness.

That’s not to say I’ve been depressed the whole trip — far from it. It’s been sunny with blue skies since I got here, and we’ve had a beautiful time. That little bit of sadness is ever-present, and it reminds me that I’m not sad about where I live or because I’m home sick. Sometimes I’m a little bit sad because stuff is so beautiful and it can’t last forever.

When I came out here for my 30th birthday, I had the most amazing week. On one of our last days, we went to this burrito place in the Mission for lunch, and it was a perfectly sunny day, and I took a bite of this burrito and got misty eyed (one tear!) about how fucking good it was. No, I wasn’t stoned. I just felt really thrilled and lucky to be alive, and a little sad because it was such a fleeting moment.

 

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I’m a Grownup, Damnit!

New_Orleans_Family_1915_211I’ve been thinking lately that it’s time for me to open up a little more online. I’ve experimented here and there with sharing my feelings on current events or talking about loss, but I want to start doing it in a more overt and intentional way. And yes, I really do think this way all the time — I analyze the potential risks of everything before I do it. Opening up the way I want to do feels like a big risk, so I’m going to do an experiment. Once a month, I’ll write a post about what’s going on in my head. It won’t be to teach a lesson or prove a point but just to share. Hopefully sometimes it’ll be light and funny, but sometimes like today it will be more serious.

So here’s what’s up with me right now.

When I go home is the only time I feel less than good enough. I’m the type of person who’s ready to simply walk away from anyone who wants to judge me. I don’t need your approval, and I decline to explain myself. Except when it comes to my family. I have finally recovered from a 10-day trip to visit my friends and family in the south, and I’m trying to deal with the mental fallout from it all.

It’s hard to describe how much my family members mean to me — we’re definitely one of the closest families I know — but I often compare myself to them and find myself lacking. Next to my sister, who is petite and pixyish even after having a baby, I feel awkward, clumsy, and wildly unattractive. My oldest brother is a doctor, taking over the family business, raising three kids of his own, and living in a gorgeous brand new home. Custom built, of course. Next to him, I feel childish, irresponsible, and slobbish. My other brother is kindof like a male version of me. We understand each other pretty well, and I don’t feel bad when I’m around him, even though we haven’t always gotten along. Still, I think all my siblings accept each other and me. We all want to see each other succeed and be happy no matter what. Our parents, however, are a different story. They want me to be happy, but I think they want it to be on their terms. Every time I go home, I think they wish I would stay. They wouldn’t blink twice if I called them right now and asked to move back into my old room.

My oldest brother’s first kid was born before I moved out, and my parents immediately became involved in helping to raise the grandkids. They skipped right over being empty-nesters, and I don’t think it ever occurred to them to let go the apron strings from their kids — especially me. When I was in college, my dad would often say, “We’re not done raising you,” because they were still paying my tuition and helping me in a lot of ways. But now? I’m not convinced that they ever stopped “raising” me, even though I grew up. To be a happily married 30-year-old woman and visit your family only to be treated like an 18-year-old who got caught playing house is extremely unpleasant.

I know what you’re thinking — I should be having this conversation with my parents and not my blog. That’s what adults do. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past two weeks, it’s that my family isn’t perfect, and they’re not going to be. Repeatedly asking them to change hasn’t brought me any comfort yet, nor has explaining myself, justifying myself, and shouting, “I’m a grownup, damnit!”

On our way home, my husband asked if I planned to call my parents about all the emotional stuff that came up during our visit. I was exhausted, so I decided to give myself some space before reaching out again. I went back to teaching yoga classes. I tried to get on a normal writing schedule. I hung out with friends and engaged in some serious self-care. And gradually, I remembered that this is the life I chose. I am the person I’ve chosen to be, and I really, really like it. I have a good life full of people I love who love me back, who treat me with respect, who inspire, challenge and accept me. I made this life myself, and I’m proud of it. But it’s not for my parents to put up on their fridge. It’s for me.

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the human validation system

A cute doll

8/8/12 Stuck at BWI for the next several hours. The only appropriate thing to do is people-watch and write.
Attention BWI animal owners: The BWI Marshal service animal and pet relief area is located on the lower level …

People with loud cell phone ringers. White girls with R&B ringtones. White dudes who stare and shake their heads. Me being the girl who loves the flamboyance but doesn’t want anyone to stare too hard. Uncomfortable even with the over-the-spectacles stare of first class passengers.

Ellie says I have MFA voice. Actually, I said it, and she confirmed it. I said it tentatively, hoping to be contradicted but believing it to be true nonetheless. Ellie was honest: Yeah, I think you’re right.

I have had a fear of being labelled a “confessional poet” as male academics once labeled Sylvia Plath. And why should that bother me? I love Plath, after all, but do I believe in the value of her work? To me personally, yes. But to the world at large? The phrase “daddy issues” comes to mind, a cultural joke to dismiss the unquiet mind of the lady author, model, artist or entrepreneur. Are you angry? Daddy issues. Are you lonely? Daddy issues. Are you horny? Daddy issues. Because what else would drive a woman to express herself so flagrantly? She needs attention. She needs validation. She’s got daddy issues.

Me and my promiscuity and my daddy issues

But I don’t have daddy issues! I might have some third grade math issues (I never memorized my multiplication tables completely and still imagine “touch points” on numbers for basic addition), and seventh grade dance issues, but not daddy issues.

What I do have for sure are issues making friends with other women, not because I dislike them or they dislike me but because there has been bred in us a distrust of one another. We want to be friends, to support one another, and receive the support that can only come from a woman friend — someone who sees what we see and knows what we know.

But our cultural habit of dismissing women in general — their writing, their art, their ideas — keeps us from seeing one another truly as humans and as peers. Every intelligent woman thinks she is different from “other women.” We all think we’re alone. We feel, furthermore, that we have to prove ourselves. We feel like aliens. An intelligent woman feels like a toy that came to life on the shelf one night and looked around alarmed at the dead glassy eyes on either side.

Doll face

“I can’t be one of these! I’m not one of these! I must convince the shop keeper that I am not a toy.”

We have become trapped by the metaphor. Of course we’re not toys. But if we’re not, then how can we believe that they are?

Noticing something about my writing: I tend to start out meta, go macro, then go micro … then what?

The issue at hand is personhood. You’d think that was resolved ages ago when women secured the right to vote. “Congratulations — it’s official now — you’re a fully valid human being.” Except not. Because you have daddy issues or something. Because your value is dependent on factors: your taste in clothing and music; your choice of friends and romantic partners; the color of your skin; your ethnic heritage and its associated genetic traits; your weight and by association the foods you choose to eat. If all of these factors fall into the acceptable range, then you can consider expressing your opinions, beliefs and ideas as a valid member of society. Should your baseline criterion fall outside the acceptable bounds at any time, your status may be temporarily lowered or revoked entirely. It is therefore of utmost importance to keep up appearances whilst expressing any thoughts whatsoever. The thoughts themselves must be fact checked, sanity checked, sensitivity checked, and double checked — just to be safe.

Aside: Has anyone written a guide for the acceptability of women in the past few years? Someone should get on that. I keep proposing one but no one seems to have taken me up on it. It would be complete with sizing charts and a points system for various ethnicities. I’m scared to do that because a lot of people will hate it, especially if I am honest about the way people (men? women? everyone?) value women of different races on a different scale. For example, if you’re Asian, you get bonus points for being pretty, but if you’re overweight, you get some points subtracted. I guess you could say it’s a sliding scale. Anyway, I’m not sure if women would find it hilarious or horribly offensive. I’m afraid people find this type of honesty insulting, even if on some level they know you’re right.

Korean Dolls

After all the required forms for thought checking have been signed and your Valid Human Status has been confirmed, you may venture to express one opinion at a time. When submitting an opinion, keep in mind that should you make any future statements that deviate from the prior submitted opinion, points will be deducted from your overal Human Validity score.

Go back. Go back, Mary. Get this under control. I am urging myself to stay focused and also to keep writing, to see where this leads. Because this is not about “society at large.” We all know society is this way, don’t we on some level? But this is about me. For now, at least.

I have let this fear trap me. The mere threat of being harassed into submission has effectively caused me to submit voluntarily. I may not look like it with blue hair and tattoos and self-employment, but I have censored myself, stifled my voice, and shut myself up in deference to haters, shit kickers, and judges of all stripes. They are anonymous commenters, the boys club of reddit, condescending intellectuals, conservative relatives, and even the yoga community which is full of secretly self-righteous pseudo-sages.

Endings are the hardest part to write. The question is splayed wide open: So what now?

How does one reclaim a voice? Reclaim the right to full expression? Opt out of the bullshit TSA-ized Human Validation System?

I thought transcribing these pages would give me time to process it and come up with an answer, but I don’t have one yet. I’ll just leave this here.

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The Poetry Room

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Hiking up Chinatown, a stranger
is hunting and beseeching for
an open door and something small
and shiny to bring home.

She tiptoes up the stairs
to the silent temple of Howl
where Cummings, Rilke, and Dickinson wait
in their sanctuary of verse.

Their lust packed tightly on the shelves,
it’s all that she can bear
to slip one volume out, then two,
and sniff their wicked pages.

Stepping on the noisy street,
in the sun, a tourist converted.
The careless masses shuffle past.
The pilgrim clutches her Book.

 

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the most disingenuous place on earth

My friend and I needed an adventure. It was summer, and everyone in the world seemed to be on a beach somewhere. I thought I would die if I stayed inside all weekend. So we decided to take a road trip. Each of us brought an iPad, a notebook, a pen, and a change of clothes. On the morning we left, I had a hangover and no idea where we would spend the night.

The beach always makes me think of Death in Venice. Last year it was the Outer Banks where I was privy to a beautiful drunken entropy among my own acquaintances. This year it was Ocean City.

Everyone at the beach seems to be grasping for some kind of infinity. Nothing makes you feel young and gorgeous quite like sunbathing, and nothing proves your impotence quite like the sea. But pairing the pleasant doom of the average beach-goer with the frantic mating ritual that is Senior Week in Ocean City creates a whole new level of existential crisis, which of course, is my favorite type of crisis.



The city is contrived expressly to cater to egos aged 18 to 24. Every girl in town looked like Ke$ha or someone from Jersey Shore, and every boy looked like he needed a shirt and a generous slathering of aloe vera.Yet, in a crowd of thousands of identical drunk teenagers, they all managed to maintain a sense of self-importance. Each and every one of them was utterly forgettable and pointedly ignoring my friend and me, the two 30-ish women meandering slowly and soberly, observing the whole scene with bemusement. Occasionally one would hear our snickering commentary and shoot a scornful look our way.

It wasn’t just arrogant youth on the boardwalk, of course. There were a notable minority of 40-somethings, mostly sun-leathered and tattooed but also the occasional splotchy pink softness of caged animals who had been unexpectedly freed, blinking and flinching under neon lights.

Senior week is exactly what it sounds like: a time when the new high school graduates from all the surrounding states flock to the beach to take part in the parade of youth and ego. My friend and I were intruding. At least the 40-somethings had the decency to get drunk and shut up.

I would like to say something profound about Ocean City, about what it means to be an adult woman in America, or about our cultural obsession with youth, but the whole day my brain felt stifled by the heat and the flies, the smell of carnival food and the sounds of the most disingenuous place on earth.

Walking along the boardwalk at night in the garish glare, I began to have terrifying repetitive thoughts:

This is a place where crimes happen. This is a place where girls’ lives are ruined.

Teenage boys leered down from balconies and postured on the sea wall as girls affected looks of flirtatious disdain. In the back of my mind, I was calculating the shear unsearchable number of hotel rooms in town, the dark and unkempt places into which one might disappear. The odds were against any girl on her own.

I found shelter in the company of a traveling companion, someone equally out of place, someone who could laugh at the absurdity and keep me from wandering any further down that dark path. We went to the water’s edge where we observed countless identical couples making out on the beach. We commented quietly about the heteronormativty of the place. Wouldn’t it be nice, we said, if one of these couples turned out to be two boys sharing a clandestine kiss? Eventually we did see two boys walking clumsily through the thick sand holding hands. We cheered at this little victory.

Every hotel room in town was booked except for a few dirty rooms that ran up to $300-$400 for the night. There was no place for us. We stopped for coffee and drove back home, comparing notes on the day and feeling a little adventurous and a little old. We were asleep by 1 a.m., safe, sound and sober. Not even a little sunburned.

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