Thursday, August 19, 2021

Friends from College

Image is "Two men contemplating the moon," Caspar David Friedrich. Public domain.
Both names changed. Thanks to Agnes Enkhtamir for inspiration on the public epistolary format!


Dear Ricardo,

Your name isn’t Ricardo. This is the name you picked out when I had your face in the palm of my hand, the glass of my phone. You said, Maybe you should write a blog post, it’ll be therapeutic for you. Maybe so. The truth is I haven’t written a post in ages because I am not sure of what I believe, or at least less sure than 7 years ago around the time the two of us met, and much much less sure than 11 years ago, when I gave the speech that comes up when you Google my name. I think you know what you believe. In college once, junior or senior year, we ate dinner at Musashi — the little Japanese joint near my old place on Haste. I asked you where you saw yourself living after we graduated. You said you’d like to go back to Seattle, and you’re there now, although I’m not sure it’s making you happy.

You said you don’t like drifting. You make at least 3.5x as much as my grad stipend and you haven’t taken vacation in 18 months because you’re up for promotion review, while I’ve quit my job and gone on road trips and moved across the country for a summer of bacchanals, dive bars at last call, stumbling Brooklyn blocks home blurry with my contacts out after sleeping in other people’s homes. I joke a lot about doing things “for the narrative,” but I’ve realized it’s actually very hard to make a story cohere out of disparate events propelled by no internal logic. I’m used to telling stories that follow an arc: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement. I don’t know what the arc of this summer was or what the next few years will be. I could drift if I wanted; technically I have no attachments but school. You’re a landlord with a townhouse by the zoo and a mortgage now.

I don’t know if you find it disquieting to be addressed quasi-publicly. Secretly, like I said to you on the phone, I think you like it. I can be an inconstant friend sometimes. This summer when I was in the passenger seat of your silver car, you said things are different in a friendship after an 8-month silence. Especially when we used to grab lunch every week. (Remember bowls of poke, bowls of ramen, Super Duper burgers.) I’d like to think that I make some of it up with my words, even if they’re poor substitutes for a long hug, a shared laugh, sitting on a wooden pier at the edge of Greenlake watching the mallards iridescent in the sun. We’re such different people, Ricardo. You stay the course; I barely know how to get home.

Do you remember how in school you let me come over for dinner. I would barely help while you adeptly put chopped vegetables into the plastic trays you saved for prep dishes, mixed corn starch and water into a white slurry in a glass jar. I went grocery shopping yesterday and felt so unmoored. How do you know what to cook and when to cook it and how do you make yourself do it instead of microwaving a Hot Pocket. For my life to work, I’ll have to think a little more like you. I’ll make real food, maybe, instead of subsisting on $5 lattes and toast. I’ll do the things that need to be done. I’ll finally fill out the direct deposit and payroll deduction paperwork the university wanted me to do days ago.

In the blue folder from my department where I keep all my important documents, like my vaccination card and my glasses prescription, I have a bunch of photographs from California. Do you know, I have that one of us from your company’s holiday party photo booth where I threw on a feather boa and we leaned against each other smoking fake cigarettes. Our faces are red and shiny and split open with laughter. A rare precious moment when we wanted the same things, when we had everything we wanted.



Dear Ella,

When you told me that most of my stories and essays are for, about, men in my life, that it made you frustrated or insecure about your own position or both, I felt awful. I was on a train or at least I think I was. You asked me, Do you feel more unadulterated around men? and I never quite answered that question.

My friend H. who you’ve met feels disloyal writing about people close to her, says it feels like using people. Fiction or poem or essay, I write almost only about the people close to me. Or maybe it’s not about closeness exactly. There are some people I trust less than you but write about more, simply because they’re on my mind with the inescapability of an occupying force. With them I have frisson — from the French for “a shiver or a thrill.”

Speaking of a shiver, not the good kind: on the way to the coffeeshop where I’m writing you this, a man rolled down his car window at a stoplight and said, “I saw you yesterday! Man, beautiful!” As I often do reflexively in these situations, I laughed mildly and said, Thank you. Then I felt embarrassed, wondered if anyone else on the avenue had seen this exchange. A high school friend I loved a little for her brassiness, the un-apology of her desire, once told me that she liked it when men catcalled and whistled at her on the street, that it made her feel sexy and empowered. I think the men who do this are exerting power over space and over me. Some would say they're also reifying my gender. There’s this passage from the novel Detransition, Baby, in which Reese is the trans woman protagonist:

“…the slap was a form of pageantry. Beneath it lay Reese’s own sense of womanhood…Reese wanted…to get hit in a way that would affirm, once and for all, what she wanted to feel about her womanhood: her delicacy, her helplessness…Reese spent a lifetime observing cis women confirm their genders through male violence. Watch any movie on the Lifetime channel. Go to any schoolyard. Or just watch your local heterosexuals drinking in a bar. Hear women define themselves through pain, or rage against the assumption that they do, which still places pain front and center…The quiet dignity of saying ow anytime a man gets a little rough—asserting that you are a woman and thus delicate and capable of sustaining harm…She didn’t make the rules of womanhood; like any other girl, she had inherited them…So yeah…Hit Reese. Show her what it means to be a lady.”

When the man in the car made his remark to me I messaged my sister, who then told me about a man who had harassed her in a racially and sexually derogatory way on the subway. Sometimes I think that’s what womanhood is — sitting in a room and talking about what’s been done to us. The Netflix show Sex Education makes a heartwarming episode of this: after one character suffers an assault on the bus, other girls rally around her. The woman who rejects the notion of having suffered harm because of her gender, or who has little to say about it, is stepping out on a kind of sacred bond, an outstretched hand.

I value the hand, I really do, but its grip can also be viselike. In groups of women sharing mundane horrors, I sometimes feel like an ass considering the luck of my own life. I haven’t suffered terribly. My periods are bearable and infrequent. My worst sexual encounter ‘rape-adjacent’ (Brodsky’s paper on nonconsensual condom removal). I don’t talk about wanting to lose weight, nor think it too often. My relationship to my body is never obsessive or dysphoric, more that of an affectionate if occasionally deadbeat roommate — we share space, do the metaphorical dishes more or less on time. And then there’s this: men have approached me on the street, even in the middle of the night, and I haven’t always felt scared. Brooklyn at 2 AM on the Fourth of July (well, I guess the 5th), a jovial Park Slope man named Maxwell got out of his still-running SUV to tell me I looked like a fashion model, asked what I studied, gave me his number. I felt — what, bemused? Entertained? Can I say this to you? Or does this scene make me look like a gross Ayn Rand-esque character, a woman so invested in shedding the image of fragility that I ignore the reality of my own peril? When you wanted someone to escort you from the Downtown Berkeley station up to Northside, I had the passing thought that I would make the same walk at all hours of the night alone. Last Thursday night I paced outside the Delancey-Essex subway station in lower Manhattan at 3 in the morning, past alleys rank with urine and men sleeping rough under the awnings of fast food restaurants closed for the night. I was watchful but not anxious. There were enough eyes on the street. Am I breaking the rules, Ella?

In a park at night in Beijing the summer of 2017, some girlfriends and I were sitting when a man on a hoverboard approached us and spoke insistently to us in mixed Chinese and English, wanting to know our names, where we were from, if we would add him on WeChat and help him practice his English. My default then was to assume others wouldn’t want to talk to a strange man, especially one who seemed so pushy. The other girls weren’t doing anything to put an end to the situation, so I thought they might be scared or tongue-tied. I was blunt and terse in my responses, eventually admonishing that it wasn’t polite to approach us in a park so late at night. When he left, one of the other girls almost burst into tears. Why were you so rude, she said, that made me really uncomfortable.

I realized it had been audacious and wrong-headed for me to try and protect anyone but myself. I had no way of knowing what they really wanted. (What would you have wanted?) Maybe I didn’t even know what I did.

Probably I could have gone either way. Either way because I’m often unsure of how people should treat each other, aside from agreeing with the greatest-hit commandments. You locate and defend your own boundaries with conviction; message our group chats with questions about the best terminology to use for a heritage month, the difference of one letter; and post announcements on your Instagram stories about activist causes, what to know and where to donate. You’re always trying to do the Most Right Thing; I’m not sure that it exists. I think I like living in the moral grout, the sticky space between the bricks, being labile and forgiving and forgiven.

Maybe why I haven’t written about you like this before, even though you’re often on my mind, is because you’ve never felt dangerous or elemental to me, like the pull of gravity or a riptide. My feelings about you are complicated in a different way. I was riding in the back of a friend’s car a month ago; my friend’s friend, a curly-haired recent grad with a geographically inexplicable surfer’s drawl, lit a joint in the passenger seat. One of the other women in the backseat looked at him and opened her red-lipped mouth to declare amusedly, “You’re such a boy!” You’re such a boy! that condescension and delight. My feelings about you are complicated by the worry I might be a better friend to you if I were less of a boy: less scatological, less argumentative, less drawn to feral traipsing in the middle of the night. These things shouldn’t be the domain of any gender of course. Just as I think one of the moments I felt closest to you happened just because of who you are, your deep warmth and capacity for love: when I got out of the shower that day in May you were staying with us and my worn white towel had fallen to my waist and I was blasting, outlandishly, the J.Lo and Pitbull song “On the Floor.” From London to Af-reeeeeka. I’d thought it would rouse me from my feelings but there I was still sobbing uncontrollably about the impending dissolution of my life. You came and gathered me up in your arms and didn’t let me go until we were both quaking with laughter. Maybe that’s the most unadulterated I’ve ever been.


Monday, October 05, 2020

Misplaced Civility

Lately my Twitter feed seems divided between two camps: those who wish President Trump well in his fight against COVID-19 and those who are gleeful about the karmic retribution of a man who has systematically downplayed the seriousness of this virus being struck with it himself. I’m less interested in what camp any individual falls into than in the power dynamics reflected by calls for “civility.” Why is it acceptable to call for policies that guarantee the deaths of many people but not to express an ill thought about a powerful individual?

The late Anthony Bourdain had this to say about Henry Kissinger:

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”

John Yoo authored a set of memoranda known as the “Torture Memos” presenting an argument for the permissibility of the euphemistically named “enhanced interrogation techniques” (mental and physical torment, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation). He now enjoys a position at UC Berkeley’s law school, though numerous courts and legal experts have argued he should be indicted for war crimes. There is something very peculiar about a society where war crimes do not keep you from six-figure teaching positions (in 2015, John Yoo made $406,385.00) but a felony conviction for marijuana possession could keep you from getting a minimum-wage job (depending on the state in which you live). This society is OK with the rich and the educated doing terrible things to other people, if they do it in abstractions. It is permissible here to torture and to kill so long as you do it with the stroke of a pen.

Mr. Kissinger or Mr. Yoo can speak at conferences and hobnob with billionaires who disagree with them. Later some reporter will write glowingly about how beautiful it is that people can have friendships despite their differences, that a figure so polarizing can actually get along with everyone! 

In our fetishization of everyone getting along we have forgotten that the “everyone” in DC or any hall of power does not reflect the “everyone” outside. Wealthy and credentialed people are able to get along with each other regardless of whatever odious policy they might have enacted because they are removed from the most marginalized in our society. Would you demand that someone attend dinner parties with, and send Christmas cards to, someone who regularly spat in his sister’s face? Probably not. But we do not expect our public figures to see the huddled masses as their brethren.

I hope that no human is completely irredeemable, so my personal wish is for the president’s illness to be a scientific and moral education for him; maybe having COVID-19 will make him more willing to listen to experts and more empathetic to the families of the 200,000 dead. But I’d hardly admonish (especially given his apparent lack of personal growth thus far) those who have expressed more colorful desires.

Kanye West shocked some Americans in 2005 when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” I wonder if we could have more productive governance, ultimately, if everyone was more willing to level with our past and present without the niceties. George Bush told Matt Lauer later, “ ‘He called me a racist. And I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist.’ I resent it, it’s not true.” This response shows a misreading of West’s statement. West spoke in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so he was hardly making a statement about Bush’s interpersonal relationships with Black people, or saying that Bush necessarily had an explicit desire to cause them harm. Instead, the statement gestured at the evidence of New Orleans, the wreckage in predominantly Black neighborhoods and police officers and National Guard who seemed more concerned with preventing “looting” than allowing people to survive. George Bush implied a distinction between someone who is racist (i.e., discriminates against Black people in face-to-face encounters) and someone who “handles his business” in a way that exacerbates racial disparities. It is that luxury of absolution via distance — killing is okay if by the stroke of a pen — that we only afford to the powerful.

I don’t think the left needs to speak in hushed voices about these wrongs. I love Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, AOC and the Squad, and many others precisely because they are angry about injustice and they don’t hide it. I used to be very frightened about coming across as “angry.” (I am still polite, even when I volunteer to text voters in North Carolina and get a Trump fan who tells me I am an “idiot CLOWN” with twenty clown emojis 🤡, but I don’t think this makes me a good person.) Trump’s temperament is especially grotesque, so I understand the desire to return to some semblance of “normalcy” in which people treat each other graciously regardless of political alignment. But it is important to remember that the greatest scandal of our body politic is not the temperament of individuals. It’s the dispossession of the masses. Children go hungry in the richest country on earth. Solving that, I believe, takes truth dispensed without apology.

Saturday, September 12, 2020


I watched Cuties tonight. For those of you who don't fill the yawning chasm of pandemic time by doomscrolling on Twitter, Cuties is a movie about French pre-teens in a dance quartet, focusing on an 11-year-old French-Senegalese protagonist from a traditional Muslim family who turns to dance as an outlet amidst family crisis and the general misery of adolescence. Their dance style, heavily influenced by music videos, is suggestive in a way that belies their youth. Netflix used an unwise picture from the movie, in which the girls are scantily clad, heavily made up, and twerking, and this subsequently sparked an online furor about the sexualization of children.

I've written previously about the topic of young girls being sexualized, like in a Huffington Post piece 9 years ago about pushup bras being marketed to teens. So it may surprise you that I am not particularly outraged about Cuties. I found it to be a thoughtful movie that engaged with the difficulty of coming of age in a world that teaches you sexiness is your only form of worth and also that actually having sex, or wanting it, makes you worthless. It shined particularly where it depicted the capriciousness and tenderness of friendship: two girls braiding their hair into each other's, the four of them racing gleefully through the street wearing newly purchased bras and underwear over their clothes, crowding around a laptop to flirt via text with a man on the internet. Perhaps it is the latter kind of moment, along with the actual dancing, that creates the most unease for viewers, some of whom went so far as to title the movie "child porn" (US Representative Tulsi Gabbard).

If you think that Cuties is child porn, then you think my adolescence was too, and probably millions of girls'. Okay, I wasn't in a twerking dance troupe, but growing up in the halcyon days of early YouTube, when you could make an account and upload a grainy webcam video (as long as it was under 10 minutes!) my sister and I entertained ourselves on countless long afternoons by glossing our lips, singing and sashaying along to "Apologize" by OneRepublic and the Numa Numa song (actually "Dragostea din Tei" for anyone who's fact-checking) -- remember that earworm of "Mai-a-heeee / Mai-a-huuuu?" And then, of course, there were such kid-friendly standards as "Hit Me Baby One More Time." I tied my shirt up like Britney, but maybe I think it was actually our friend Katie who taught me how to do it, when we were playing in the backyard. Kids do things like that. And they go on chatrooms for no reason and pretend to be older than they really are and talk to strangers. Girls I knew would go on Chatroulette for kicks with their friends during sleepovers. There's probably a 15-year-old girl somewhere this minute (well, not this minute -- let's say the pre-COVID era) on Tinder trying to get a rando to buy her and her best friend McDonald's, and when he does they will show up, take the food, and run, laughing the whole way.

Of course this is a little terrifying. And I felt that portions of Cuties were a little terrifying. There are so many moments where you want to ask these girls to stop feeling like they have to act like grown-up women, with their innocent simulacra of expressions they learn from music videos. But of course children have mimicked what they see adults doing for ages, especially those adults portrayed as especially glamorous and successful. The real terror, more than twerking 11-year-olds, is that some people take a girl dancing like Shakira or Beyonce or Britney as an invitation to harm them. That is 100% on those people and not on those girls. In Cuties, a boy in the protagonist's class slaps her butt as she walks past and when she yells at him, he says "You're the one who's been posting nude photos of yourself online." She grabs a pencil and slams it down into his hand. I was glad to see that anger depicted, her refusal to accept the shame he so clearly thought was owed.

Shame is never protective. Let me be clear: it's worth discussing what drives the specific forms of self-fashioning young women feel attracted to, why they are so often appearance- or sexuality-based, and how we can amplify a broader range of role models so a middle schooler doesn't feel like she has to be a TikTok star. But that conversation needs to be supportive, not punitive. I think that's the conversation this movie was intended to start. And especially after seeing that scene when the protagonist snaps back at her classmate, I realized if I had a daughter growing up in this crazy, burning world, I would want for her less fear and more audacity.

I deleted the YouTube dancing videos a long time ago. In later adolescence they were just embarrassing to see. But I hold the memories quite fondly from that time when we weren't quite young women yet, reenacting movements whose etymology we couldn't understand, jumping in and out of frame. Our flying hair, our unadulterated glee.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Dear Neighbor

I wrote this in response to the Day 32 prompt, "Dear Neighbor," from Suleika Jaouad's "Isolation Journals" project. 

No neighbors were harmed in the making of this (unsent) letter.

Dear Neighbor,

I'm not sure what it means to be a neighbor. The "rootless cosmopolitan" is made straw man of God knows how many NIMBY groups -- the untethered, probably highly-educated, clad head-to-toe in direct-to-consumer startup threads, upwardly mobile and geographically promiscuous person who moves in next door for a few months, maybe more, and never introduces themselves. That's me, I guess, although I did want to; I thought about baking cookies, in fact, but then considered that someone might be vegan, or gluten-free, or have some allergy more nefarious than I could divine. So I never did, and we remain strangers. I know some of your names, only by the packages you order: Melissa, Sergei, Jeanne. I've heard the thumping upstairs -- jumping jacks? -- and the vacuum. Proximity produces this strange intimacy that is also anonymous, like a gloryhole. Probably people don't talk about gloryholes with their neighbors. Whoops.

The first neighbors I really remember were the boys next door, Daniel and Nicholas, and their parents who sometimes let us watch TV (they had channels that we didn't) and eat snacks from giant Costco tubs. Licorice, animal crackers. We played so frequently with Daniel and Nicholas that they sometimes just popped over to our house and banged on the living room window to beckon us outside. After my family moved to Redmond, we hung out with the preacher's kids across the street in their palatial treehouse, or the girl a few houses down with lustrous straight golden hair. Sometimes, grudgingly, we spent time with two younger girls who we described as -- forgive our language, these were the days before Sheryl Sandberg's book -- "bossy." The only kid who we didn't really play with was Sam, whose backyard bordered on our own, but his family had the fanciest house and the nicest things: a blow-up outdoor movie screen, TVs in every room. They threw the block parties and movie nights.

I realized my family was not quite like all of our neighbors, or at least most of them, when the Bush yard signs went up in '04, and McCain in '08. All the same, I didn't feel alienated too badly or unsafe there. Maybe things would have been different if I had been out as bi then, or if I had been a different race, or if it were 2016. But as it was, our street -- awfully white, awfully conservative -- was still a nice place to be.

Which brings me back to you, neighbor. I'm not sure if the point of neighbors is to throw block parties, as Sam's family did, or to find playmates, like Daniel and Nicholas. Perhaps it's more this: on really windy nights, when the power would go out, my family would congregate around the dark living room window and look at the street to confirm it was out for all, down to the red house on the corner of 89th. Then we would open the door and go outside, and all the adults would chatter about whether the utility company had been called, if they were on their way. And then we'd go back into our houses, feeling comforted by the unlit windows of others. In such times it is good to have neighbors.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Before / After

After, we sing "Happy Birthday" like a dirge. I hear it in my head with Dr. Bronner's castile soap frothing up between my fingers. Returning from the outside, an obstacle course of high-touch surfaces, I wash my hands and Clorox my phone.

What I miss from before: touching my eyes, which was always bad to do but brought so much satisfaction. That moment of rubbing away the film of sleep from the eyelids, like the lifting of a veil.

Also, the library on university campus I haunted like a ghost, the alum overenthusiastic about her library card. I went there to check out the maximum number of books before six Bay Area counties announced shelter-in-place restrictions and the library shut its doors. The jovial young student working behind the tall wooden desk wore a sweatshirt printed with a sprawling image of Kim Jong-Un. We talked briefly about how he wasn't sure yet if he'd have to keep working or if he could go home to L.A., and then I remarked, "Interesting shirt."

"Yeah, you know, I tell people, my grandpa fought in the war, I still got family in the North that I've never met because of it, so, like, my oppression beats yours," he said, with the particular bravado of young Asian-American men whose path to social capital in high school was being funny, pulling comedic fodder from parents and grandparents' ethnic idiosyncrasies. In college for maybe the first time boys like him had to defend that MO -- all the joking, no sacred cows. That was why, I thought, there'd been a slight edge to his response.

"Gotcha," I said. I'd grown up with boys like him, their own permutations of dictator sweatshirts. Sometimes it annoyed me but here, the familiarity was comforting.

I miss a coffeeshop in North Berkeley, warm and buzzy and filled with light. One Saturday I came here to nurse a latte and read Hardt and Negri's book Commonwealth. I sat in place for about six hours, flipping pages as the color of the sky outside changed. Next to me two men in their 60s talked at great volume about politics with some companionable aggression in the timeless way I imagined there were other men in their 60s talking about politics in coffeeshops around the world. Every so often, a new entrant to the cafe would forget to close the stuck door behind them and cold drafts rushed in. Each time, the two men complained volubly until one would grudgingly rise to close the door. The third time I decided to go myself. I shot them a comradely smile on the way back, looking down at my book before seeing if the smile was acknowledged or returned. I like to be on the periphery of people, sometimes.

What I miss is also not being on the periphery of people. Hugging and being in the same room with less space than 6 feet between us. The last time I shook a hand was the first week of March, a Shabbat dinner filled mostly with kindly people who I didn't know. I felt conflicted about the shaking but fastidiously washed my hands, and didn't touch my face, and ate white jackfruit wedges from a bowl. Scanning everyone's face around the long table I tried not to think about if anyone had COVID-19. My chest felt tight, as it had before at work in meetings sometimes, a feeling I ascribed to bad posture, sitting too rigidly on a backless chair; the feeling made me fidget uncontrollably, trying to configure my body into a more comfortable position. I felt warm and ungainly and wished I'd taken off my sweater, wondered if it was possible to slide off my black fold-out chair and onto the floor.

Before: not thinking so much about breathing. After: bounding up steps at the end of runs with the thought pounding my temples that This is a gift. Gratitude is good, I know, but not its cousin in my head: If my lungs turned to ground-glass opacity I couldn't walk across a room. 

Before: going to the doctor, casually, as good preventive medicine. After: risky exposure. That tightness in my chest didn't go away. A day or two after the Shabbat dinner, I was folding laundry in my bedroom. The sense that my lungs were being gripped and squeezed shut became so strong that I drifted into the kitchen and sat on the wooden bench at our dining table with my knees clutched to my chest. Thankfully, I had no cough or fever. There was no field on WebMD to put in the other symptoms: late-night doomscrolling on Twitter, my puffy eyes bathing in white-blue light, jerking awake with guilt about not messaging my grandparents on WeChat more, regarding texts from my mom -- always about COVID-19 -- with abject dread.

To the symptoms I could enter -- the chest tightness, the feeling of not being able to take a deep-enough breath -- the internet told me (famous last words) that it could be anxiety or an aneurysm or an angina or a host of other things, on webpages that all ended with "See your doctor."

I saw my doctor. She looked at me with busy sympathetic eyes and said, "Your oxygenation's 99%, that's pretty good, no one really gets 100%," and pressed the stethoscope against my skin. She spoke vaguely about trying yoga and meditation and prescribed a frightening pill, saying, "This isn't a solution for anxiety, it's more to see, you know, if it helps make the physical part go away. Take maybe half a tab -- a quarter, even -- because these are really strong." At home when I took the medication out of the wrinkled paper pharmacy bag, I marveled at how tiny the pills were, resting like breadcrumbs at the bottom of the orange prescription canister. I called my sister in a celebratory tone: I wasn't going to die. I pushed the breadcrumb pills into the bathroom cabinet, stacked alongside all the other things I've never used. Like a month's supply of ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic they give you in case you get the runs while you're jaunting around abroad. The first-aid kit from Costco that was a Christmas present from my parents (pragmatic souls), still shrink-wrapped.

I miss not inventorying the medical supplies in that bathroom cabinet to evaluate readiness for potentially recovering from a respiratory disease at home. But what I miss most about before is probably every other "before" I missed then: once, roaming the hills at night with whatever walking companion that heady year had delivered; once, tossing back mojitos in expat bars in Beijing with girlfriends from a language program; once, tearing around a friend's opulent house fueled by goat cheese on oven-toasted baguettes, making movies and binge-watching MacGyver; once, lying on Capitola Beach with summer camp friends licking a single ice cream cone, gleaming and turning sticky in our hands. Orpheus, in looking back, loses Eurydice a second time.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Staying in place

The provincial joy of a sunset sky, Berkeley, CA

I read an article about acknowledgements in academic papers. Through the lens of the acknowledgement the article illustrates, and critiques, the kind of person held up as the ideal scholar (at least, in the social sciences) -- mobile, cosmopolitan and rootless.


When I go see an old professor I admire to ask for advice on maybe applying to graduate school, he tells me, Go live somewhere else for a year. Move to Afghanistan and learn Dari or something. Or Indonesia. Have you ever been to Indonesia?

No-oo, I say, feeling the failure of it hot in my veins.


In high school I travel a lot to give speeches at distant conferences, missing 53 days of class in senior year of high school. I like a line from the movie "Up in the Air," in which George Clooney plays the frequent flyer protagonist: "Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over."

The point of the movie is that the character is unhappy, but I try to use it for my senior quote in the yearbook anyway.

Sometimes I resent the traveling, like when I miss school dances, and other times I appreciate it, like when nobody asks me to the dance, or I can't work up the courage to ask someone. Why didn't you go to Tolo? I was in Denver. I was in New York. I was in --

It wreaks havoc on my AP Bio grades, but not being around means I don't have to do the work of being a person my age around others my age, which is both harder and more joyful than the speeches.


My friend flies in from New York to stay with us unexpectedly for a couple of days because of a memorial service for a schoolmate, whose passing has put us all in a morose and reflective mood on the subject of friendship and staying in touch.

The New York friend left the Bay for a plum job after college. He does a good job of Getting Out and meeting people but when I tell him about the acknowledgements article and the characterization of the ideal scholar, he says vehemently, That sounds depressing as hell.

Standing in the sylvan light filtering through the branches framing the kitchen window, musing on our respective locations, I think both of us wonder if we have made the right moves: his, to leave, mine, to stay.


Sometimes, I want to leave home for someplace far and difficult to reach to make people miss me, a petty desire. In truth I know people respond to people leaving the way quicksand does to perturbations: closing ranks, filling the space.


Do I know less because I've stayed in the same city for almost six years?


The old professor and I talk about how I don't really know what I want to research but would certainly depart from the subject of my undergraduate thesis because its research question interrogated something too -- I fish for the word for a moment -- proximate. Close to me.

Exactly, he says, and he jolts forward in his chair. You don't want to do proximate.

Proximate is clinical, euphemistic really. The word that haunts our conversation, my insecurities and his enthusiastic directives, is another 'P' one: provincial.


Why is it worse to study nearby things?


I wonder if it's a strange American predilection to dismiss what's proximate.

In the dimly lit Belgrade hostel den, a Canadian in John Lennon glasses and an Australian with her blonde hair pulled into a sporty ponytail talk about going to uni near where they'd grown up.

In the States you travel for school, don't you? they say, and I say yes, at first, but then disclaim that actually, the majority of people actually stay close to home, but there is a culture of applying to far away places in the upper socioeconomic strata, and among more competitive students...

I struggle with description here, not wanting to describe myself as a member of the privileged class while also facing the fact that I went to school states away from my childhood home, that I almost went to school on an opposite coast.


Without travel, how can we know that our own is not the only way to live?


The Mosuo minority people in China live in a matrilineal society and practice a form of polyandry known as the "walking marriage," in which men visit women's houses at night (at the women's invitation) and children are raised communally.

I learned this from a book or maybe an article I read online.


The Chinese girl from the hostel asks if she can join my morning of aggressively touring museums (two down by noon, followed by the sprawling National Museum). In the middle of the Ethnographic Museum, she asks Is your mother a military? which confuses me until she clarifies in Chinese, shaoshu minzu, and I say, A minority? Oh, no.

Because of the length of time we've spent together talking about our families, slogging through halls of paintings, and even painstakingly piecing together a puzzle of a vase of flowers in the National Museum, I think it appropriate to give her a hug goodbye. She seems nonchalant when we part. I realize later I never got her name.

The completed puzzle

I spend hours sitting around a wooden table with the others at the hostel, drinking cheap beer and lightly rebuffing the persistent offers of strong rakija, fruit brandy, from a beanie-wearing man with reddened eyes. Was he on something? the girls around the table ask after he's left.

When people start peeling off from the table one by one to go to sleep, I marvel at how nobody reacts by attempting to tether onto any means of connection that might outlast our conversation. There is no exchange of contact information on WhatsApp or WeChat or Facebook Messenger, no blithe "Come and visit me when you're in [city]!" only that kindly "Well, I'm going to bed. Have a good night!" I think, any of us could be gone as soon as the next morning (thank either geography or mortality). So be it: we live in the present. Whatever community we form that night is ephemeral.


"And what should they know of England who only England know?"

We resist provincialism to resist self-indulgence, self-obsession, self-centeredness. So much resistance against the imposition of the self.

But during that best performance of rootlessness and mobility -- travel -- I am hyper-conscious of my body, the placement of my limbs, the space I take up in a security line, the smell of my denuded feet as I step gingerly into the towering full body scanner, my belongings. At the gate I slouch into a protective huddle over my backpack, sitting on a hard black chair. Walking briskly over the paving near Republic Square fallen into disrepair I keep one hand close to my wallet.

At home, where I embrace friends and on some days loll around in easy communion with the grass, the trees, the stars, then those borders between my self and everything else begin to feel less solid.

There is no glamorous fellowship named after a rapacious colonialist or robber baron or wealthy technologist for staying where you are, for organizing groups of people to meet over snacks purloined from the work kitchen to talk about books together, for practicing what the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing called in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World "the arts of noticing" as you walk down the wending path to your morning train, for stumbling through the woods of a nearby park and seeing for the first time what they look like in the dark.

All the same, can't that be a kind of intellectual journey, too?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


I thought about him on the subway. The things he liked--that bright yellow book he left on our kitchen table, Watchmen, that I read and half-understood. Running, his face contorted with effort and hair blown back by the wind. The Beach Boys. Adrianna and I both expressed horror at that one, but eventually the notes of "Good Vibrations" came seeping out from under her bedroom door.

Before we left Redmond for good he invited us to hang out, joining a bunch of other teenagers made shiftless by those summer nights to sit on camp chairs around a fire in the woods. How she perched on his lap and looked so happy in the flickering light, and after, when we were stowing liquor bottles back in the trunk of his car, I made a motion as if to swig from one. My sister shook her head disdainfully. He tossed me an egging-on grin. Said something like, Let her have a drink. 

At the end of high school I was just his girlfriend's kid sister. Now I am older than he was then.

As grown-ups we revisit places from childhood that seemed enormous and feel discomfited by their real scale. What happens when the place is gone? Then it's just stuck, towering in your head, not quite right. In my head he is old and I am small, but really I'm swaying on the subway coming home from work, sort of an adult, bills to pay and my name on a lease, almost 2 years older than he was when he died, this unfixable discrepancy that will never quite stop twisting my heart around, in the remembering.

Thursday, May 09, 2019


The news of the "heartbeat" abortion bill in Georgia filled me with a peculiar sense of rage. Peculiar because it felt more like sadness. Sometimes it's easier to shiver in the cold than keep a fire going. I don't know if there's a point to writing another abortion essay. Others have done it more skillfully and with more personal stories, yet here I am, remembering something a high school teacher said once, that "some issues, like abortion, are so personal and contentious you'll never change anybody's mind."

If you're reading this, you probably agree with me. I'm writing anyway because to demand an ear for my feelings as an adult woman feels like a small way to resist the notion that these feelings are trivial, secondary to serious, manly, discuss-over-steak-and-cigars-type issues, like The Economy.

Fuck the economy. I know people's fates rise and fall on those green lines shooting across CNBC screens like EKGs, but but there will always be another day for writing a hot take on finance capital. Focusing solely on economic issues at the cost of reproductive justice is a smoke and mirrors show that distracts from the denial of bodily autonomy as a threat to our equality. That's why it bothers me so much when progressive men dismiss abortion as a "women's issue," or say the problem with the Democratic Party is that we've failed to widen our tent by sticking to our guns on reproductive justice.

Next time someone says that I will ask, Do you think I'm a person? 

I'm one of the lucky ones. I haven't ever needed an abortion, and I've had access to inexpensive contraception. In college I got a small piece of plastic shoved into my uterus in an outpatient procedure widely described as "blindingly painful." They told me to take two ibuprofen pills. I lay back stiffly on crinkled paper, gripped my partner's hand, stared at the white light above my head, and took jagged breaths. It was searing for three seconds, my whole body transfixed with the wrongness of having something pushed in that place, and then it was done. The nurse practitioner left me with a maxi-pad and a juicebox. The second time, I was about to graduate and keen, after Trump's election, to get an IUD that would last 5 years. Bracing for it made it hurt less; later I nursed a crust of bread while curled up on the carpet groaning, and then I played a bad game of squash. It didn't matter; I felt victorious. The IUD has a 99% effectiveness rate. It is the gold standard of contraception. It could have hurt worse and I would have done it again. This was worth it to avoid pregnancy.

I asked for an IUD because of the effectiveness rate, but also because I wanted this physical investiture of my reproductive self-determination somewhere nobody could touch it. It provides me some comfort when I think about rape. I think about rape every day. That sounds terrible but feels ordinary. There were all those crime report printouts in my freshman year dorm lobby: "Sexual Assault at Fraternity," "Sexual Assault at Dormitory," "Groping At Student Union." The specter of latent violence has perched on my shoulder since I was three, when my mother taught me both my address if I got lost and to scream if someone tried to kidnap me. Later: "Let them rape you if they'll kill you otherwise, because the only thing you can't undo is death." There is no undoing rape, either, but our society is very good at letting silence masquerade as reversal. Better to be raped and alive than un-raped and dead. Women have thrown themselves into wells en masse over a different equation being drummed into their heads. It's about to be Mother's Day; should I tell my mom that this is the advice she's given me for which I am most grateful?

The hypothetical rapes play in my head, briefly and matter-of-factly, like natural disaster drills. Just as I don't vividly imagine the earthquake or the fire, only the before and the after, I mostly think about who to call after getting to the hospital and medical care (e.g., a rape kit that will probably go untested, prophylaxis against HIV). I wonder if it would be someone I know (3 out of 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim), and if so, if I would report. I worry much, much less about pregnancy, because of the IUD.

In this sense, I am lucky: I get to think about rape separate from pregnancy. It may be the closest I will ever get to feeling like a man. I wonder what it must be like to have your identity forged outside of constant reminders of your own violability. To walk down a dark street and think, maybe, about someone mugging you but not someone hurting you inside of yourself. I think of both things when a car drives too slowly beside me on the street. There's not much I can say about that except that it makes me feel small.

I was 15 when I started having sex. Too young to buy Plan B when a condom broke: where I lived, you needed a prescription if you were under 17. It would have been an awkward conversation with liberal parents (even then, I would have been luckier than most) and a last-minute doctor's appointment, but my then-partner was old enough. What a classic high school scene: a dark bend in a rural road, a backseat cacophony of "Wait, shit, shit, shit," driving in silence to a pharmacy and waiting in the passenger seat. Hands folded in my lap, I watched him out the window, Nikes tap-tapping on the asphalt of the parking lot until he was a drop of ink between automatic doors that slid open and let light pour out like water. When he came back I took the pill, and then I thanked him for not charging me.

So much could have gone wrong. I could have been with someone abusive; women are less likely to use contraception in violent relationships (Pacific Standard), often because their partners see reproductive health as an arena to exert control. I could have had parents who stigmatized sexuality, threatened punishment, and blocked my access to healthcare. I could have thrown up after taking the pills, too soon for them to take effect. Instead, I got a period that lasted two weeks. I went to the farmer's market and wrestling practice and stared down my AP Psych teacher's inspirational poster of Steve Prefontaine in a last-ditch effort to try not to fall asleep in class. Every one of those mundane moments a gift.

That's what choice is about: having the reins of your life in your hands. But I didn't. I was just lucky. And luck is not good enough when we live in a country where it's unevenly distributed. Not everyone has the means to fly to another state for an abortion (and if that's prosecuted, even rich folks are screwed). We talk about rape when we talk about abortion, comforting ourselves with the idea that maybe the restrictions are not so horrible: "Exceptions in case of rape or incest." But we know even that line is a movable one. Remember Missouri's Todd Akin: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." With the intense stigma surrounding coming forward about sexual assault, plus behavior by police that can further victimize survivors, many people may not have their assaults documented as "legitimate." Subsequently, they'd be denied access to abortions.

We cannot pass laws that make every person with a uterus as helpless as that 15-year-old girl I once was, waiting at the window for him to come running with a pill.

It's not an accident that I'm thinking back to 15 now in such clarity. Restrictions on reproductive choice anywhere make me feel small. To the politicians who seek to control us: know that I am already scared enough. Know that living under the cloud of the constant possibility of sexual violence is like having a low-grade fever you can never cure. We give up so much, trying to wend routes around this shifting threat we can't contain: staying in at night, developing elaborate sets of precautions, leaning on safety in numbers at the cost of time spent blissfully alone.

Forced pregnancy is yet another violation of bodily autonomy that sows terror and limits our lives.

If you would protest in the streets about state-sponsored violence in the form of bullets, protest state-sponsored violence that seizes a person's womb and locks their hands behind their back. Across the United States, there are legislative proposals to effectively ban abortions. It's on all of us to fight for a day when this is the "land of the free and the home of the brave" for people with uteruses, too, liberated from the shadow of fear that our bodies are not our own.



Guttmacher Institute
Planned Parenthood
More listed on Wikipedia: "Pro-choice organizations in the United States"
If you're at Berkeley: Students United for Reproductive Justice

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

French Polynesia and some thoughts on travel

I capped off 2018 with a spontaneous solo trip to French Polynesia (which you may know as "Tahiti" or "the islands of Tahiti," though Tahiti is the name of one of many islands that make up the country). It's a land I first encountered in the pages of my high school AP Art History textbook and the paintings of French artist (and all-around sordid dude) Paul Gauguin.

Tahitian women on beach, 1891 - Paul Gauguin

Many friends know that I have a complicated relationship with traveling. I did a lot of it, especially as a kid, for speaking engagements at conferences. Airplanes to sleepless nights before speeches, spent in gleaming hotels. I used to love the hotels and remember the name of each one until there were too many and then I didn't anymore. They started to blend together: the same smell (Eau d'Generic Clean Room), the same sounds. Sometimes there'd be a woman's voice when I walked in the room. I'd realize it was the hotel channel on the TV. Have a pleasant stay, on an endless loop. I'd write my speech last-minute, fly out the next day, and try to get what I could out of the city I was in from the ride to the airport. A backseat window view of the world: that was how I saw Newport News, Green Bay, Wichita, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, and some other places I'd have to search in my Google Calendar to recall.

Given all that, maybe it didn't make sense that I decided I would go somewhere by myself for fun--I clearly didn't have the best track record. But travel is cast as introspection and self-discovery and liberation in so many narratives. Wild; Eat, Pray, Love; every Instagram post in a foreign destination by some well-traveled friend. Meanwhile, I religiously maintained a moratorium on going out of town during major holidays. Spending time at home seemed like peak relaxation. Seeing all these people who really liked to travel made me wonder if some mechanism in me was broken.

I reflected on this in fiction and poetry. In 2016, shortly after I got back from spending two months in India doing an internship in corporate social responsibility, I wrote a monologue for a "Creating Character Through Dialogue" workshop. It was from the point of view of a young Asian-American woman complaining about a travel companion named Elli. After a stream of invective, she says,
"OK, I know you think I’m overreacting, but there’s this part of me that just cringes every time she acts like THAT American. You know the type, right? Drinks PSLs, cheer in high school, hundreds of dollars in Lululemon apparel. They make up for their lack of personality with copious drugs and trips to poor-ass countries where they can take pictures of everything and rack up the social media likes while they marvel at how exotic and mystical everything is. Frankly, I can’t do that. I’ve read my Edward Said and the canon of thinkpieces about How to Not be a Basic Bitch in the Third World. But mostly I can’t be Elli because she actually…well, she actually likes to travel. She finds something genuinely magical—no matter how problematic the language she uses to describe it—about everywhere she goes. And like, I dunno, I kind of wish I had that. I don’t think I ever have. Growing up I joked about going to visit relatives in China the same way all our other Asian friends did. Going was not a treat. It was the sort of thing you were condemned to do until you went to college and got to decide where you went during your summers. We didn't get "exotic" and "mystical"; we got pollution, no Facebook or Wikipedia, taxi drivers filling their cars with cigarette smoke, endless diarrhea. Relatives complaining about corruption, how they’d have to pay bribes to get a doctor to do some uncle’s open-heart surgery."
No place is experienced in the same way by every person who visits. The subject position of the traveler--age, gender, class, race, nationality, linguistic ability, disability, sexual orientation, and much more--may all affect the experience, something I thought a great deal about in one of my favorite seminars in college. In "Travels to the Lands of the Indians," we read writing by visitors to South Asia (as well as Indians traveling abroad, as in the case of Amitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land). I remember European writers who marveled at flora and fauna and foreign peoples, writing with a sense of magisterial authority about things they had only just encountered. Those early Orientalists, trying to document, categorize, and catalogue everything they saw, put knowledge production in the service of empire.

The narratives that European armchair adventurers eagerly sought out had in common protagonists who were paragons of normative masculinity—strong, adventurous, and bulwarks of Empire. Men who could, in the Kipling vein, keep their heads, “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” These men gallivanted around the subcontinent getting into scrapes and emerging unharmed. It's harder to sell books where narrators speak from a place of permanent vulnerability, easier to promote male heroics and a promontory gaze that makes the narrator “the monarch-of-all-I-survey” (Mary Pratt in Imperial Eyes). Pratt goes on to write that many female travelers “do not spend a lot of time on promontories. Nor are they entitled to. The masculine heroic discourse of discovery is not readily available to women." Mrs. Meer Hassan Ali, writing about her time in India, begins her first letter with a disclaimer: “I must entreat your kind indulgence to the weaknesses of a female pen.”

When I've traveled alone, various people have inadvertently made me aware of "the weaknesses of a female pen." In Atlanta one night I ate at a hotel restaurant with my orange journal in my lap instead of my phone and the waiter said with a half-patronizing, half-pitying expression, glancing at the unused place setting opposite me, "Writing the next great American novel?" In other countries I have heard phrases like "be careful!" and "stay safe" and "don't go out after dark" more than any of my male compatriots, and I am sure that abiding by those well-meaning imperatives means that I am losing out on some stories to tell. The truth is that I don't, and probably never will, gallivant around continents veni, vidi, vici-ing; I am a little woman, no one's stock photo idea of what an American looks like, certainly not a Hemingway or a Gauguin. (Given the former's famous misogyny and the latter's penchant for marrying underage girls, I think that's a good thing; art be damned.)

All the same, traveling by myself helped me realize that I was stronger in ways I didn't know, that I could be really scrappy when I needed to be, and that things would work themselves out. My first day in the country I jumped off the plane and onto a ferry, walked about 15 miles on the island of Mo'orea in my sandals, accepted rides from kindly women who screeched to a halt by the side of the road when they saw me, and accidentally swam with stonefish (the beach had a sign with a warning, but I figured whatever stonefish were, they couldn't be too bad if local families were swimming with their kids. Then Google told me I could die if I stepped on one). Back on Tahiti I accepted a ride on the handlebars of someone's bike and then had to extricate myself from an extremely uncomfortable situation when he persistently hit on me. It was scary and I found myself wondering if this whole going-to-Tahiti-by-myself idea had been a bit stupid, but then I learned how to say "Je veux être seule," or "I want to be alone"; the next morning when he wheeled up beside me, I looked him in the eyes and said it out loud. 

I learned that traveling alone doesn't have to mean traveling lonely. I met two guys at my hostel who grilled up swordfish filets and made salad and lent me a biography (of Paul Gauguin, whose ghost really followed me around this whole trip) to read by the pool as the day grew dark. On my last day in French Polynesia I tagged along with two Nebraskans who let me join them in a rental car adventure around Tahiti Nui and Iti. We blasted Polynesian tunes from the radio of a jank little Fiat and shared taro chips and caramel M&Ms. We took a boat out into the Pacific and watched surfers catch waves, then watched the sunset from a black sand beach. 

Like the blind men with the elephant I piece together impressions of a place in fragments. Here are a few: people blasting music from boomboxes on the street and dancing by food trucks in downtown Pape'ete. A tour guide mentioning as we jounced along in his Jeep that the country had a high unemployment rate. Brightly painted murals on buildings in the capital, the gleaming windows of the National Assembly, pineapples looking prim and fully-formed sitting on their plants. My favorite image: seeing land crabs scuttling into their holes, the way moles do here. The sand coming alive with claws that disappeared in an instant, quick as a wink. These dueling twins of ripeness and rot--mangoes sunset orange and soft to the touch, little crabs' translucent shells smashed by the side of the road, verdancy spilling out over mountaintops, piers rusting into the ocean. 

As I was leaving Tahiti, I saw an exhibit of Polynesian art in the airport. I stopped to look. Under all but one of the approximately seven figurines displayed were notes like "Original at the British Museum" or "Original at Museé d'Orsay" or "Original in Wellington, NZ." It made me recall how I first saw French Polynesia through the paintings of Paul Gauguin, and how so often the first--sometimes only--view that we get of a far-flung place and its people is refracted through a colonial prism. Travel and travel literature by Westerners have often done little to challenge those views. I hope to get better at it--undoubtedly, a work in progress. I'm grateful that I had the means to visit Tahiti and Mo'orea, meet incredibly kind people, eat tropical fruits and bask in the shallow waters of the Pacific in the middle of winter. Most of all, I'm glad that Gauguin didn't get the last word on what I thought the islands might be like. There are wonders out there, both near and far, that beggar illustration. May we all have chances to get closer to them in this new year.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Teach your kids to be more than just "nice"

My friend J., a scion of that kind of enlightened Berkeley family with beautiful décor in the living room and magic mushrooms in the freezer, told me that his mom had taught him in no uncertain terms not to rape. Oh, like to be careful, I wondered?

Not just that, J. explained. She had literally sat him down and talked about consent. No Means No. I was impressed—California universities moving toward a “yes means yes” affirmative consent standard notwithstanding—because I hadn’t met any other guys who had told me about receiving such a direct, pull-no-punches lesson.

I’ve been thinking about that lesson a lot more now in the wake of the whole horrible Kavanaugh situation and the allegations of serious sexual assault that took place in high school and college. Some have responded by claiming that young men, or drunk men, can’t be held responsible for their actions, even though our society regularly chastises women for drinking too much or acting “provocatively” as if they are to be considered more agentive in the violations of their bodies than their violators.

The Kavanaugh assaults hid in plain sight, in carefree high school and college parties largely thrown by and for the benefit of privileged white boys. We’ve seen the yearbooks, the smiling faces, the prestigious names of their expensive prep schools. If we’ve learned anything from this cesspool of elites, it’s that becoming an ethical person is not as easy as looking like one. Your good name is not enough. Your good school is not enough. Your scouting badges and your volunteering and your church on Sunday—if all this “goodness” is just smoke and mirrors, a show to distract from entitlement and rapacity and avarice, fuck your goodness. Stop telling your kids to just "be nice" if that quality is so vague and general it elides the very real differences in power that affect all relationships.

Here’s what I mean: one generic piece of advice we frequently tell kids is “Be a good friend.” What if they’re the guy (or girl) in the room when their friend jumps on another person and tries to claw their clothes off? Loyalty might dictate silence: that was certainly Mark Judge’s take. “Bros before hos.”

Eschew the simple story. Teach your children that there are values more important than loyalty to friends and its attendant code of silence: compassion for the vulnerable, rejection of physical force to compel the submission of others. Tell them, early, that sometimes your friends will do things that are wrong. Sometimes it will fall on your shoulders to call them out (or call them in), sometimes to intervene and stop it. This is a harder conversation to have. But it’s a necessary one.

This conversation, or ones like J.'s "Don't rape" talk, are all too rare right now. When we talk with and about children, I think we want to imagine that they're in this realm of innocence immune to our grown-up problems of racism and classism and sexism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kids can say horrible, bigoted things to each other, and imposing silence in the name of innocence just makes it harder for children to come forward and confide in parents about their experiences. What would it mean if parents looked at their children differently: not just as potential victims but as potential aggressors? 

There are so many different meanings of “the Talk,” depending on which parents you ask. For some, this hardest conversation of all is explaining the mechanics of sex. “Where do babies come from?” For others, it’s a dispiriting conversation with children of color, particularly black children, about how to interact with police. In all its stripes, we are used to seeing “the Talk” as a conversation we have with the ones we love to keep them safe. It’s time to see it as something more: the conversation we have to make sure they keep others safe, too.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Friendship now

Omnibus; Anders Zorn 1892

The other night coming home on BART I reflected that I did not want to write, or read, or do much of anything really. I imagined the tantalizing possibility of unintellectual pursuits. Maybe I could watch something on Netflix. Netflix! It had been ages. I had a running list in the Notes app of things to watch when I had time. It had never been true that I didn’t have the time, just that other things had seemed more important.

Now, facing down this gaping expanse of time that belonged to me and not my ambitions, I realized that I wanted to spend it with someone else. Two friends who I might have asked automatically lived across the Bay now. Others had partners who they’d be curled up with; mine would, in two hours, be asleep. There were friends still in school, but I remembered how my weeknights had been not so long ago: frantically finishing assignments, collapsing into bed.

Who, if I reached out to them, wouldn’t see it as an imposition? Who did it feel effortless to spend time with, like our time together demanded no performance?

It was the kind of space that in the weeks of late June, with so many school friends gone, I might have filled with N—. Tempted curiosity turned force of habit. A 9pm muscle memory. Opening Facebook Messenger on my phone and sending something insouciant, the kind of language you use when you’re aspiring to an attitude like Melania Trump’s Zara coat: “I don’t really care, do u?” The therapist listened patiently when I mentioned hanging out frequently with N— and then remarked that it sounded like I needed to push myself to reach out more, or get better at being alone. In the moment I felt a twinge of resentment at this advice, but then time passed. N— became more familiar and less shiny. If once I’d wanted to see them because it had been uncomfortable in a thrilling way, now I wanted to see them because I felt lazy and un-daring. Because I wanted to ask somebody to do nothing in particular with me, and this smallest of requests seemed most intimate of all.

When you're little, you can run across the street to knock on someone's house and demand they play with you. Suddenly puberty happens. The ask becomes "Do you want to hang?" The ask becomes nerve-wracking. 

It was only when I was sixteen, on the cusp of leaving my hometown permanently, that I was daring enough to ask people I didn’t know well to spend time with me for the sake of it—no pretense, like a meal, a concert, or a movie. In the face of impending departure, I thought every night spent alone was a missed opportunity. One night I thumbed through contacts in my phone. I saw the name of a classmate I’d nursed a minor crush on for months. M— liked Camus and came tardy to our first-period class so many times he’d racked up enough absences for administration to warn him he might not graduate. I’d always wanted to talk to him more. Impulsively, I called him. 

After a couple rings, he picked up. “Hey?” A question.

“Do you wanna go on a walk?” I blurted.

M— sounded surprised. He said yes and then messaged an hour later saying that something had come up, could I take a rain check? I haven’t seen him in five years, but I like the memory. Later I called a different boy, who came and sat with me on the roof of my house as the stars came out. Calling people to hang out with no prior planning—it feels quaint, like it belongs to another time. Something out of an 80s high school movie where a girl with crimped hair in a high ponytail reaches for the pink telephone on her bedside table. 

Moments that come to pass with no preparation: these are the ones I remember most fondly, more than the meticulously planned trips or the group hang organized by some long-suffering friend who has to coordinate everyone's schedule with Doodle. Maybe my gratitude for spontaneity reveals its rarity. I'll cop to being clumsy at some of the mechanics of friendship, the kinds of little things that other people I know both intuit and take for granted. At a concert, listening to a folk singer, the friend I went with asked if she could hold my hand--a sort of novelty to me, but maybe not to her. We interlaced our fingers. When the song ended and we clapped, I realized that I missed the warmth of her palm, that the simple touch had been a balm to something I hadn't realized before was raw. There was a friend who delightedly threw his arm around me when I was ridiculously using a straw to forklift whipped cream from a Starbucks drink into my mouth, said something outsized for that moment like "I love you." After speech and debate in high school I got a ride sometimes with a friend to his house, and we'd look for something to do--play Halo on his massive TV, eat dosas and sambar his mom made. My mom would call. I'd decline, wanting to extend my stay in this place where time didn't seem to matter. There was the all-night hackathon where my friends and I didn't do much (any) coding but snuck out to a skate park at midnight to play Truth or Dare; later, we walked up to our high school track, sitting on the ice-cold bleachers as the metal shone orange in the rising sun. One New Year’s Day I lounged on a friend’s couch, sunlight dripping in like maple syrup through the living room window. I half-disbelieved that this idleness, this glorious lack of motion, could be allowed. When I think hard many more cherished moments come tumbling forth, most the fruits of spontaneity, not planning--premeditation, I think, would almost stop such things from happening at all.

And there I was on BART, wondering who might want to be my accomplice in killing time and coming up empty. I guess that's part of growing up, this slow contraction of the circle of friends who you spend time with doing nothing. God knows my parents, responsible adults, didn't have people over to our suburban house to just aimlessly watch episodes of Bob's Burgers and lie on the floor in the dark, looking at glow-in-the-dark stars stuck on the ceiling and talking about mortality. If losing these long stretches of unplanned time with friends is the price we pay for adulthood, I have begun to clear my debts. I set dates with friends over Facebook Messenger. We plop appointments two weeks ahead for brunches and coffees and dinners after work into our Google Calendars. Everything is planned because nobody has any time, except, of course, when we do, and in these years those moments still catch us by surprise: standing with strangers on BART, watching the still necks of cranes in the Oakland harbor through blemished glass, drifting back to the wooden embrace of our silent homes.