ask polly

I always daydream about being an advice columnist. I love giving advice, but this woman really puts my feather-light dreams to rest because I couldn’t pull off what she does. Heather Havrilesky writes an advice column for New York Magazine called “Ask Polly,” and the people writing in usually embryos, like they just got out of college and are panicked about not being special, but sometimes they are not so embryonic. Sometimes they’re my age. Sometimes they’re battling acute illness that has disfigured their face and they worry they will never find love. Sometimes they want to break up with their perfect partner because they crave chaos. Heather Havrilesky takes each letter that gets published very seriously, and her thorough answers feel empathetic and the result of deep, deep consideration. She always is quit snarky and sprinkles Kanye lyrics generously throughout her copy. Mostly, i agree with her advice, though I’m sometimes shocked at how bossy she can be like “break up with him.” I’m like really? Just straight up break up with him? But how can you be sure? I greatly enjoy reading this column and if you google her, she’s made an enormous splash with this feature. But mostly I love this column because it reminds me on my worst day that everyone is suffering, everyone is going through something, and the tender, and sometimes hardcore tough, care this woman shows these readers seeking help is very moving. We’re all just a wisp in the universe going through the same thing. (Cue: All we are is “dust in the wind.“)

we were eight years in power

I really like the writing of Te-Nehisi Coates, and one day, (one day, like next week for real, because I am practicing) I will get the pronunciation of his first name right on the first try. (“TEH-Nah-HAH-see COATS.” I got this, I got this.) He writes a lot about the contemporary African American experience, and explains how history is still alive and a tremendous factor in how they experience life. It is the kind of overview that I find very helpful. I found two articles compelling in “We Were Eight Years in Power” (some of it is kind of boring, sorry) — “The Case for Reparations” and the last piece profiling Obama.

The first article, wow, really talks about how our country has generated tremendous wealth off of African-Americans. There is slavery, of course, but taking advantage of African Americans didn’t quite end with the Civil War. There were all kinds of post-slavery shenanigans, eg how the KKK terrorized with physical violence and psychological stress, lynchings (and wait, um, David Duke is still alive, speaking at demonstrations, etc. WHAT) And even when African Americans moved north to escape the repression, it didn’t quite work out. If owning your home and voting are key factors in raising your socioeconomic status, they have been denied. In Chicago which Te-Nehisi Coates profiles, he talks about housing practices where real estate middlemen encouraged white flight by hiring young black women to walk down the street with a stroller, spreading rumors that new neighbors were definitely more ethnic. With this fear tactic, they could purchase the homes at a discount and turn around and sell the homes to African Americans a stunning profit. Banks denied mortgages in certain neighborhoods, like predominantly African American ones, so these former Southerners just sucked it up paid these corrupt real estate middlemen who owned the homes towards the day they would be able to own their home. Sometimes were able to pay off the debt, sometimes not, since the cost could fluctuate for no reason and was beyond their control. (It’s still happening if you want to look to the 2008 subprime mortgage fiasco. Not so rich African Americans were definitely explicitly targeted.)

Anyway, I cannot regurgitate everything in the article and you can check it out on your own if you are interested. You guys may already know all these things, but this article in particular helped me feel like I could begin putting my arms around the influence of slavery and the Civil War on contemporary American life, to begin to understand the through-line of history. He’s kind of one of my gateway nonfiction writers.

There are people who refute this piece and as my friend B says, Coates is not the first to make these observations. The fact that he comes across as if he’s the first to think these thoughts, I attribute to his youth. I agree with but it’s sometimes helpful to have a new face, a young person to present the facts — almost like a new brand in order recapture the people’s attention.

What I really want now is to find the Asian Te-Nehisi Coates. Is there a writer out there who has created a cohesive portrait of the entire history of Asians in this country so that I can process my own identity and the context of my experiences? Of course, some people, when they see a need, they step up and fulfill it. I don’t want that gig. Being a full-time freelance writer who generates think pieces — it sounds terrible. I picture myself sweating constantly in the apartment, power eating power bars, jogging in place, paralyzed with inaction. Writing is hard. It’s a job that requires bone marrow.

Luckily, that same friend B. had an Asian American scholarly writer recommendation me: Viet Thanh Nguyen. I’m going to check him out and report back.

The other article I liked was the portrait of Obama. Obama’s central premise of hope is genuine — he is a black man raised by a loving white mother and loving white grandparents who raised him with unconditional acceptance. In Kansas, he got jello molds. In Hawaii, he enjoyed an environment that was genuinely multiracial. Te-Nehisi Coates, not so much. His father was a Black Panther who was murdered by fellow Panthers, after the FBI planted forged evidence. Coates talks about being beaten by peers (ugh, I never want to take a punch), being raised to expect that no authority figure would come to intervene and save the day. He frequently cites his friend Prince, the only son of an African American doctor, who was shot by cops in his jeep shortly after his graduation from Howard. He also mentions a psych study that demonstrated racial bias in hiring practices by sending out test subjects to apply for jobs with identical resumes, the only difference being the white male had a criminal record and the black male did not. The white guy with a criminal record actually got more calls! (This was a seminal study conducted by a gifted young, white woman, Devah Pager, who was teaching at Harvard til this year, when she died of cancer at age 46 [my age, f.] leaving behind a husband and child. Coates sometimes mentions her race in articles, sometimes just the remarkable findings of her work.)

Obama, not having to learn the anxiety and caution you need to live in society as a black man, does not possess the distrust that Te-Nehisi Coates and maybe Michelle Obama greets life with. I found that contrast wildly fascinating — that your experience shapes your philosophy on life (of course it does). Obama, raised in such an unusual way, is an exceptional president and person. He genuinely believes in the goodness of people because the people in his life were good to him. He did not have to be suspicious, wait for the other shoe to drop. And Coates, as I mention early, still feels like a young man to me. Sure, he’s successful, married, a dad, but there’s this definite anger with Obama in his pieces, and the anger seems to be about the fact that Obama has hope, and yet if Obama were to lose that hope, I sense Coates would be devastated. He needs it so much. Man, people are complicated.

Here are two passages I liked:

From “My President was Black”
“I had never seen so many white people cheer on a black man who was neither an athlete nor an entertainer. And it seemed that they loved him for this, and I thought in those days, which now feel so long ago, that they might then love me, too, and love my wife, and love my child, and love us all in the manner that the God they so fervently cited had commanded.”

From “The Case for Reparations”

“Yale President Timothy Dwight, 1810

We inherit our ample patrimony with all its incumbrances; and are bound to pay the debts of our ancestors. This debt, particularly, we are bound to discharge; and, when the righteous Judge of the Universe comes to reckon with his servants, he will rigidly exact the payment at our hands. To give them liberty, and stop here, is to entail upon them a curse.”

xmas (first son)

I notice that I post more online pics of Wonder Twins and First Son, which is too bad but it’s only because they are maniacal stunt people and First Son is like a AARP member, like me. However, I wanted to post some minor notes. He’s been really into Pig Latin lately (and just to explain how to pull that off, you take the first letter of the word; tack it to the end of the word; and add an “ay” on it. So like if you say, “good night” in Pig Latin, it’s “ood-gay ight-nay.” It’s horrible.) and the kids are all beside themselves over Christmas. They can’t handle it. On Christmas Eve, they woke up at 5 a.m. Just wrong. And on top of that, they come and talk to me while I’m asleep at 5 a.m., and First Son has been doing it in Pig Latin. When he first did it, I just struggled. Like I couldn’t understand what he was doing at all. I was like, maybe I’m having a stroke? And then, oh god, no, he’s talking to me in goddamn Pig Latin.

The other part that makes me laugh about that guy is that he’s pretty basic in terms of a Christmas wish list. He is currently obsessed with the Beatles, so everything is Beatles-related, and then he writes “virtual reality glasses.”

Ha ha. Good one, First Son. Good one. In your dreams, big guy.

thirsty

Young people vocabulary is the gift that keeps on giving. The first time I heard the word “thirsty,” it was used by the character Molly on the show I love “Insecure,” describing a guy trying too hard to capture her interest. The try is unattractive. What a creative, wonderful word! I knew exactly what the character meant when she uttered “he’s too thirsty” with utter disdain. I so relate, not so much in drawing male attention but I get a needy vibe from a lot of acquaintances, like colleagues and other parents. Sometimes, people who don’t know me project some obscure quality on me that has nothing to with me and long to be my friend. To which I say to my inner circle friends, “I can’t be friends with her. Too thirsty.”

I sound like the biggest snot on the planet. So be it. It is a terrific word. Here are the top 30 thirstiest celebrities according to Jezebel. Hilarious.

wow moments

I got nothing. Earlier this year, there was a hostage situation at Trader Joe’s in L.A. I happen to know that particular one because we went shopping there a lot right before my childhood BBF’s wedding. If you care to read it, it’s about this remarkable artist who was one of four people in the store who talked the gunman down. She introduced herself, she got to know him, and she advocated for him. At one point, she could see a sniper take aim at the gunman’s body and she blocked his body with hers. When her husband texted asking if she was okay, she said, yes, but was busy. What she said in the article was she did not blame the police for their actions at all, but at that point, she had gained his trust and had diffused the situation. When he said he wanted to speak to his girlfriend whom he had shot earlier, she insisted upon it with the police. She talked him into turning himself in and she promised him she would visit him in prison, that he could still lead a meaningful life. When there was an opportunity for one of the hostages to leave when they were getting equipment from the police, that hostage chose to return to the supermarket. In the end, four hostages walked out surrounding the gunman, and they all survived. The next day, the woman said she went and got ice cream with her family.

Like I said, I got nothing. I’m floored by this woman. Should a time like that ever come my way, do I think I can handle it with so much patience and kindness like this lady? I doubt it. I think she’s amazing and deserves AN ACADEMY AWARD FOR BEING A HUMAN.

I’m just going to start doling these out.

modern day saints

The more I read about Michelle Obama, she comes across as warm, thoughtful, and normal, which is part of her genius because she has navigated some arduous obstacles and was in the eye of the storm for eight years. Here is someone who is not remotely interested in or all that comfortable with fame, but she did the personal work (therapy?) in order to exist with it, so she could tour the world and inspire us. She knows we need her as a feel-good symbol; she knows we need to amplify the energy of her generous spirit, and so she leans into a role that she never really aspired to in order to uplift others (me!!!!). She’s also a gifted public speaker with a brilliant mind, but I feel like she is so relatable that you forget you’re dealing with one of the top minds of the country. (This is the Michelle mythology I’m just making up, but it feels right.) On another note, she’s the cutest dresser. I love her clothes. I read this fascinating piece on her stylist’s work in preparing her wardrobe, and the article details how they were always thoughtful to choose designers of diverse background, US-based. You can look at color and cut to support the event, and find that balance to be attractive but not so loud that it calls too much attention to itself. This is a job I would be TERRIBLE at, but it was a wild read. (I know one mom who dismisses fashion and always wears sweats, and I’m like dude, your clothes telegraph your identity to society and I’m no fashion head, but I respect that there is craft that goes into it. And now I ALWAYS compliment her sweats.)

I see Ruth Ginsberg as being similar too — someone normal going above and beyond for the sake of the rest of us. Not that that there is anything ordinary about serving as a Supreme Court justice (Kavanaugh aside…ugh),but the woman is like almost a hundred and she still goes to work, never mind showing up after three broken ribs. She should retire and go sailing, but she’s determined to outlast the current Presidency. That is bloody remarkable. (Incidentally, my high school teacher Mrs. G. went to high school with Ruth Ginsberg and used to talk about how she was smarter than Ruth. Of course, I wonder now if she always mentioned because she didn’t feel like she quite measured up. I can so relate to that.) While Ruth Ginsberg is not known for her sartorial choices, she does discuss the elaborate lace color around the Supreme Court robe. Maira Kalman painted a beautiful version of it. (Scroll through the story til she gets to R. Gins.) The robes all come from Paris.

The Parkland kids are another set of people who make me feel it’s not all crud out there. The way they call adults out on BS and hypocrisy is amazing. They remind me of being young in the way Lorde’s first album did–that sense of invincibility (though that may not be the right word when these are all terrorism survivors), that absolute belief in their point of view, their raw honesty. Their passion and organized protest gives me tremendous hope for the future (I do not wish to discuss gun violence in this post because it’s a whopper. Our society has gone insane to think this is okay. This collective amnesia makes me mental and I I wonder if I should just not send my kids to high school.) I no longer think the next leader is from my generation. I think they’re among these children, young people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Desmond Tutu gave the Parkland kids and their March for Our Lives organization the International Children’s Peace award recently and said that he is in awe of these children, and this moves me so f*ng much.

I see these individuals as modern-day saints. They remind me it’s not all completely hopeless out there, and we do have some good people around.

PS
Also I found an old bag of apples in Wonder Twin Girl’s backpack. Fermented, acidic. Thanks girl! What a treat!

waiting

I read “The Changeling” by Victor Lavalle a few years ago and I so enjoyed it, I wrote him a fan email. I talked about how great it was, how I was also hoping to be published myself one day but that regardless, I would never be as good of a writer as him. His writing is exquisite. I have a handful of writer friends. They write like the Bohemian Rhapsody of prose. I am dazzled by their technical prowess and then when I got back to my manuscripts, my stories kind of feel like a bagel. Like not bad, but not that exciting either. Mr. Lavalle wrote me back the nicest email. He said that he appreciated my kind words, that it was nice to hear, but to also remind me that “The Changeling” is his ninth book and that his prose did not begin at that level. He also wished me luck with my writing.

I have a novel I have been shopping around to agents and I came very close to signing with one. She and I went back and forth for six months, and we developed a rapport. I liked her! She was extraordinarily shrewd yet supportive with feedback. I rewrote the outline, the first fifty pages, then the whole book to try to make it something she could sell and I really thought it was going to work out but she disappeared. And then I felt like, should I give up? I mean this book, this YA book, I started it years ago in my dad’s hospital room when he was first sick and I needed a light story to distract me. I have revised it off and on in ten-minute scraps of time here and there until I have written at least twenty drafts. I have wondered many times about giving up writing. In fact, I have quit but always end up coming back. I have been writing for years, since the third grade, and have always wanted to be published (and I have been, but I mean, I want an entire book with my name and title on it.) I have been writing and waiting for such a long time. Perhaps it is time to give up my professional aspirations for it. Perhaps I simply don’t have the talent necessary to get to that level.

Me: Husband, how do I know when it’s time to quit?
Husband: Is it still your dream?
Me: Yes.
Husband: Then never. The answer is never.

And his answer fortified me. It made the question of quitting, of being good enough irrelevant. Other friends, writer friends too, have advised the same thing. Never, ever, ever, ever give up (said Winston Churchill). The agent reappeared, apologizing for her long absence. She was battling an illness that was taking more time to recover from than she thought so regretfully, she needed to pass on my project to reduce her workload, and she said she greatly look forward to reading my work in print (such a nice thing to say). And her rejection did not sting so much, since I figured with her lack of response to me, I was being ghosted.

Another writer friend (mad successful writer friend) posted a link about Deborah Eisenberg saying that people don’t realize to get a piece of writing really good, it takes a long, long time. I haven’t even read the piece yet, but the headline alone was startling and has shifted my sense and understanding of time. What is my true goal? Is it to be published? Or is it to become a master? I am choosing both. And that is going to take a great deal of writing and working and sweating, and a lot more time. But what’s perverse about my nature is that if I’m told I should want something or I’m told I can’t have something because the obstacles are too hard, I go the opposite way than requested. I dig deep and drop down to a different level of patience. I am ready to wait.

school candy sale

Every year, I bring my kids’ candy sale catalogues to work, overcome my discomfort for asking for help, and visit all my co-workers. As one said to me this year, “Tina, I’m so sick of all you moms shaking me down. Get away from me.” (She bought peanut brittle. Correction: she bought an $8 bag of air with three pieces of peanut brittle in it.) Sometimes, I will have wine and order jewelry from the school candy sale (don’t be jealous.)

When that stupid day comes where all the goods arrive, I schlep the orders from all three kids. I’m like a professional mule. I pick up three bags/boxes/albatrosses from school along with kids, schlep home, then schlep the gigantic bags to work the next day. And just to encourage someone reading to get out the world’s tiniest violin, I take these giant, unwieldy bags during rush hour, with a Hunchback of Notre Dame style of walking, apologizing to strangers as I hit them in the back with gift wrapping paper when I don’t quite clear the landing. But I get ahead of myself.

Last night, when I got home and dumped the items, the kids were pumped. Nothing makes the kids more wired than the unexpected arrival of candy (only second to unexpected toys). Once they understood none of the candy was staying, they burst into tears. Long, agonized tears. Open-mouthed devastation. They needed to hold each, to give comfort, to give succor, so great was their sense of loss. It was like Carmina Burana.

Kids: What do you mean we’re giving all the candy away!
Me: We’re not giving the candy away. We are giving the candy to the people at my office who paid for them, who want to support you and your school.
Kids: I knew! This happened last year. Don’t ever do this to me again!

Fresh round of inconsolable tears and need to comfort each other for ten minutes.

Sigh.

kit kats from japan

I love all the random articles on Japan from the Times. They just pick out specific obsessions and casually point out the radical differences between their culture and ours. First, you think, “wow people in Japan are weird,” until you get to the point of, “oh my god, Americans are so weird.” For example, apple picking is an enormously popular family activity in the New York area. Every fall, I see all these pictures online of happy parent units with their descendants smiling in a field with a bag of apples, or apple doughnuts, or whatever apple product. And I was always hoping I could add this to our family repertoire, but it’s only happened once (and this only happened because my friend Nancy drove and organized me, First Son as a baby, and my parents, and I have officially let it go).

In Japan, they have something like apple picking, but not quite. What happens is you travel to a fruit area like say in Yamanashi, pay for a ticket, and eat for an allotted time. You don’t leave with a big bag of product. At first, the writer thinks the practice as bizarre, but upon further reflection, sees it as a profound living out of a life philosophy:
Unlike apple-picking in the fall in the United States, the fruit doesn’t really function as a “It was practical, it was beautiful and it acknowledged that souvenirs were, like memories, at best only approximations of the moments they represented. That it was, in fact, completely impossible to remove a taste from its origin without changing it in the process.”

Anyway, loved this piece, but mostly what hooked me was the focus on Japan’s obsession with Kit-Kats and the hundreds of flavors that the market makes available, from ones you’d find in a typical Western market (varying degrees of chocolate) to ones more in Asian markets (fruit like cantaloupe and mochi. the article detailed how this food scientist worked meticulously in trying to capture the spirit of the mochi in a Kit Kat, experimenting not only with different flavorings but also texture in order truly capture the spirit of this dessert. I found the whole pursuit completely wild, and tried to pitch food scientist to the kids. “Isn’t that cool? Someone’s job is just taste candy all day and make it more delicious?” No takers as of yet, but that’s fine. They may not possess scientist brains and the only reason why I’m pitching this path is for access to free candy.

glenn on “the walking dead”

god, there was a time where I was so fond of this show. Of course, I love zombies, stemming from my belief that most adults are dead inside. There was a great deal of diversity on that show without comment. There were multiple scenes with white actor and three to four African American actors. I never see that on TV or film. Usually, it’s one of every color; or a white ensemble with one actor of color, so I just loved, loved, loved this show forever. Excellent zombies! And although the show narrative is just running in place right, there is still ingenuity in location/set design and zombie stunts (like a shot of zombies rolling down a hill cracked me up. I had never seen that before. Who can forget zombies walking around with their unfurled large intestines dragging behind them like the tail of a glamorous gown? Such witty sight gags.) Back in the show’s hey day, it was absolutely a water cooler show that me and colleagues gabbed about. For some reason, it was only a handful of men I’d yell at about it, and every time a major character die, I’d yell through the office “I just have the one Korean! Leave my Korean alone!” (Glenn was the Korean, and of course he died). Anyway, I was just thinking today how two of the major actors on the show are from England and do these insane, crazy southern accents (the story takes place in Georgia) and my lone Korean sounds like he’s from New York. What gives, Glenn, what gives.