Wednesday, July 27, 2011

big two-hearted river

I woke to an email early and read it in a hurry on my phone before running out for a class that turned out was not being held. So I walked home past all the people who either grimaced, smiled, or expressed nothing at the short-haired girl in sneakers without socks and a bright yoga roll under her arm. Yoga nixed, wanting a workout, I drove to Aquatic Park with my wetsuit next to me for a twenty minute dip in the freezing bay.

It was overcast. I left my shoes on the stone steps beyond the beach. Just as I waded in, another swimmer, standing in the shallows, said to me, "There's a seal over there." I asked him the risk. He said that last year a seal had been out biting swimmers.

(This is the face of terror.)
For the first ten minutes, I paddled breaststroke and refused to submerge my head into the water, lest my last view be a fatty, black shape materializing from the green murk to take a nibble out of the floating, flailing steak before it. Not that I could, anyway. The cold of the water was so shocking at first that putting my head into it made me breathless with alarm and fear. After a while, my limbs warmed. My fear subsided, and I was able to coax myself to swim five sets of freestyle for thirty strokes, ten breaths, before I called it a workout and swam in a diagonal line to the spot I had left my shoes. Earlybird tourists gawked at me when lifted myself from the water. I smiled in a manner that I felt to be inviting. This is an ordinarily early morning in my city, I wanted my face to say. And we are sharing it today. Some smiled in return. Others looked away quickly. I suppose my face was also saying, I am a soaking lunatic in a rubber suit walking barefoot on a city sidewalk. I will nab your footlong camera and run for the hills. Only on the drive there and back, in local traffic along Van Ness, did I let thoughts penetrate my mind. The noise of these I drowned out with a mixtape from 2008.

It's the drives that get me. I'm okay when with other people. Kevin asked a chimney sweep to come in and tell me about the condition of the fireplace - needs at least $350 in repairs, more if you account for the stacks on the roof. We stood near him and spoke about the upcoming appraisal in Chinese while the sweeper made clouds of soot with his industrial vaccuum cleaner and primitive scraping tool. The seller complained to me about something, and his freshly washed mini mutt danced all around our legs. ("Dr. Bonner's," he kept saying, "The suds are much easier to wash out.") All this time I was all right. There was a living room to consider, a window lock to be tested, papers that needed attending to.

But once I got back into my car for the long drive to Palo Alto . . .

It may just be my mood today, or this week. I've been looking backwards. Yesterday I had a Proustian moment applying a bright yellow highlighter to a page: neon shorts, mini-golf, dark arcades, riding in cargo bay of station wagon, dry California heat, mid-1980s. In the car home last night, after another grueling late night of uncertainty and zero communication from the partners and then sudden floods of work, Rihanna came on the radio and reminded me of the sharp tack of a woman who exited my life right around when that song was in fashion. I remembered sitting in Astor Place in late July, a house party, a peridot Monroe that I loved to kiss. And then this morning, just the memory of a seagull with a pine cone, a playground slide, the wooden interior of a tram on Market Street can do so much. It's like my brain cannot decide what era to settle down and cry in, so I swing between years, sniffling at everything.

(Once upon a time, a stranger gave me a dollar on this tram!)

Today's mantra, which I repeated over and over in a message to myself last night, is this: Find your spine. I meant it in the context of toughing out the stressful work/extracurricular week, but it applies equally to my weak heart. The MRI says there is foraminal narrowing in the C3 and C5-C6 area, but what I cannot see I don't believe, and so I know only that when the overstretched balloon of my heart temporarily deflates, the structure that keeps my body upright is my long, trustworthy backbone. The most private thing I am actually willing to admit is that I abhor weakness in myself, even though it is everywhere.

(The thing that ails me.)

So I turn the radio off. I don't need the falter in the singer's voice to send me on another trip. So I put the email away. I am not ready for this. So I look out the window. If the perspective is not in front of my face, find another view. So I put the memories away. I listen instead to a voicemail from Stern: twenty seconds of her meowing to the tune of "Let's Get Physical." I laugh. There. Better.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

孝顺 (a.k.a. filial piety)

Just yesterday I was literally unable to tell my therapist* how warring parts of me craved but felt oppressed by my parents' approval because my throat was too choked up to express how craptastic it felt when my dad sat me down on a bunk bed in Zhong Li and suggested that I was a prostitute for performing music live in front of other people. "Somebody's daughter sings and dances in front of other people," Somebody said. Made me performing my sexless country music compositions sound like Mata Hari. Angry words, slammed doors, tears on my pillow - oh, you know the drill.

Then today I get this email that kind of illustrates my point. My mom congratulating my parents' tenants on a new baby:
Dear H____ & T__!! Congratulation new parents!! We are so happy to see your baby’s picture. He is a healthy and handsome boy. Also he is the 8th baby born in this house. The first one is our daughter. She graduated from Harvard University & NYU Law School, she is lawyer now. Your son will be a doctor too!!!Thanks so much for sharing your happiness with us. Best wishes for you and family. Regards!!!
On the one hand: they seem so proud of my accomplishments! Yay, I'm loved!

On the other hand, my identity as their daughter is described as "She graduated from Harvard University & NYU Law School, she is lawyer now."

Laugh, or cry, or both?!

*A new development in my adulthood! She's queer, andro, empathetic. I think she gets it! It feels therapeutic!

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Big changes recently, all for the best, but things that make me think, Oh, yes, I'm thirty. I'm separating needs from wants from aspirations. Taking self and community surveys. Deciding what I need in an apartment, a job, a relationship, a community, and how much I can give to each. Figuring exactly how short I can wear my hair before I go past the point of androgyny.

I prefer not to think of what I'm doing as being lost but as being in transit. It’s not that I don’t know where I am, it’s that I am getting to where I want to be.

(The map of my travels.)

So I'll get to writing down this story when it's reached a destination. But sometimes in the middle of the journey it's nice to look back at where you started.

Here's an unsent letter I wrote about six months ago, when I first moved to San Francisco:
Tonight I went to a bluegrass show at a club about one mile from my house. I drove there straight from work, mostly because Elyse had parked in the spot in front of the house and I didn't feel like hunting for another spot just to change out of my work clothes.

It reminded me of how I used to spend my time when I was learning another city alone. In total I didn't do it more than ten times, but it felt like I often went to shows alone in Chicago, just to get out of the house, hear some music, try a new beer, look at some people. It never fails to make me feel lonely and alien. Even though I was just about average age in that bar, I felt so much older, older than even the wrinkled ladies in front dancing with each other, older by decades than the taut-fleshed young people wearing all manner of fashionably dull button down western shirts or horrifically unfashionable clothing - I forget sometimes that San Francisco built its modern wealth on the backs of khaki-clad nerds - God I just spilled hot herbal tea all down my mouth and pants, and I can't even remember what I'm talking about. Oh yes, how alien I feel.

The music was nice. The first band, The West Nile Ramblers, played old time country western music that veered oddly toward eastern European party music. Lots of minor chords and upbeat oompa sounds. I was reminded of Tetris. The second band was musically duller but lyrically more exciting, more traditional country themes with a wry, modern (but not too modern) twist and a weary, conscientious sensibility. Lyrics like, "I like my Mustang, but it's just one more thing / I like my flat-screen but it's just one more thing," if that helps illustrate anything. I liked them a lot. Mostly they just seemed like they were having a good time onstage together, and they appreciated the audience. In contrast, the third band was all frowny face and then guitar face from the lead singer. Apparently he was pissed that he wasn't getting enough sound out of his monitor. But really though, must you look like you sucked on a lemon? I left after one song.

What especially caught my eye was this pair of women who kept dancing together. They were the only pair brave enough to attempt real western swing dancing, square dance style, rather than just half-hopping in place like the unrhythmic young people seemed to prefer. These two women were probably late-30s or early-40s. The woman who led wore her hair short and the woman who followed wore slightly longer (but still short) hair, but otherwise they were dressed similarly. Discreet cowboy boots, trim bootcut jeans, tight cap-sleeved t-shirts. Both were fit and athletic, poised, and smiling. I found myself totally captivated in a way that I might have been if I had been thirteen years old and seeing two women dancing together for the first time. I could not stop staring. They were polite to me - the slightly butcher one looked over a few times and smiled at me, and I looked away, aghast. But then I returned my gaze. I could not stop staring. I admired how trim they were, how nicely the short haircut offset the leading woman's neck, how they seemed fearless before the crowd - but mostly I could not stop watching how they looked at each other. They held each others' gazes and looked at almost nothing else, as if there was nothing in that room but the two of them and the sound of country music. I thought about my earlier experiences with country music - in Santa Fe, in Nashville, in Chicago - and only then realized that I had been thinking of country music as only something for straight, white, conservative people - I still have that feeling despite having played country music myself and declared that it was for everybody! I guess I really didn't believe it. Hate to admit, but there was part of me that year living in Chicago that desperately wanted to fit in, and somehow I felt country music would make me more normal.

Part of my alien feeling was due to standing next to presumably straight people, or at least women and girls who wore the feminine articles of the day - high boots, jeans, tight long scoop neck shirts, etc. - and swung their hips side to side. I was half cynical, half generous. The first half thought these women pathetic for wagging their asses in front of men, so obviously seeking attention, so obviously performing a tired (universal! many girls wore the same girly girl outfit!) expression of femininity but attracting the boys anyway. The second half thought, how wonderful, these lovely girls are moved by the music and they just need to dance! The first half was winning until the butcher of the two in the all-woman pair smiled at me, and made me feel like a curmudgeon for begrudging anyone their happiness while dancing.

I spoke to nobody in the bar, even though I looked around rovingly a few times in hopes of catching somebody's eye. I stood next to a single man for about half an hour, trying to think of entrees for conversation - like "Hey, do you know what the name of this band is?" or "How come they asked everyone to record this song on their phones?" - and wondering why he wouldn't look over at me, another single person, and attempt conversation himself, and feeling so neurotic that eventually I just fixed in a spot six inches behind him and focused on the musicians, saying nothing. I wasn't looking for sexual attention, just any kind of attention, though of course I admit that because he was alone and I was alone any kind of attention between the two of us would feel to me to be sexual. Or maybe not - maybe I can't make presumptions about San Francisco like I did about Chicago.

Anyway, feeling like a loser, but having enjoyed the music, I headed out to my car. On the way out, I caught the festival producer standing alone and decided to thank him for organizing the show. We made some small talk. I told him this was the first I'd heard of the bluegrass festival. He said, "Oh yeah, did your friends drag you out to this?" and I said, "No, I came alone." He said that was really unusual, and I said, "Because nobody goes out alone?" and he said, "No - " he seemed a little embarrassed - "but nobody admits it." I said, "Well, I just like the music." Which is what Harry would say, which made me feel extra pathetic. But I guess it's true. None of my friends wanted to go, and I wanted to hear the music. And more than the music, I wanted to stand in a bar crowded with people and watch a few people and try to make eye contact. I felt validated when that handsome butch woman looked over at me and smiled. I wanted to run up to her and ask her and her partner to adopt me. I think this would have been an awkward conversation.

Being around all these single women and single men today also made me really resent you. I projected you right on the woman standing in front of me, and I thought all sorts of insulting thoughts about her. I resented you for my feeling inferior to men, so totally foreign to me until I started dating a girl I worried was straight. You know where my imagination goes. Like even though you had all the attention I could give you, it still wasn't enough for you, and you wanted men to pay attention to you too. Maybe only a man, not just somebody playing up masculinity, can make you feel wanted or give you the whole package of gifts - status, validation, universality, acceptance - that goes along with coupling with the opposite sex.

I don't know, X. It makes my head hurt to psychoanalyze us and I wonder why I even waste my time. There are plenty of hot, confidently gay women in the world, it turns out. I wanted so badly to be part of that pair on the dance floor. I really hated you then. I really missed you, and I hated you too. How the hell do these feelings all get wound up in my head?

That is all the bullshit from me tonight. It's 3:30 in New York now. You're probably asleep. At home? At J's? Have you found somebody else already? Have you called R? Are you dreaming? Are you snoring? There's that ambivalence again - as much as I resent you and imagine you in places that only hurt me to imagine, I wonder what your hot baking body feels like under your pile of sheets. I wonder if I might not fly to Brooklyn with a rocket pack in time to let myself in with your extra keys and slip into bed with you and feel the warmth of your body in person.

I wish you had not let me love you so much. I wish you had let me cut this off a year ago, when the pain of losing you would have been much easier for me to bear. But now I love you, and I miss you, and I hate you.
Harsh words, but my feelings were what they were. Now I don't read it as evidence of horrible things that horrible people did to me, because the things weren't that bad and the people were adorable. I read it with a sense of curiosity about myself: how did I let myself go astray from the things that I wanted? Or feel that level of self-doubt? Or endure this quantum of negative feelings before making a change?

Things are changing. There was a spell between May and June where I could hardly sleep. I'd wake up after four hours of rest with my heart ready to lace up and run out the door, even though my body and brain wanted to be back under the covers. I described this to anyone who cared as feeling too excited about life to be patient enough to sleep. Every day felt like the first day of warm weather.

This extreme zest for life also had its consequences - e.g., exhaustion-related physical and mental deterioration - so this month I have tried to break my feast-or-famine pattern and find what is referred to in Northern California as Balance. (That's another thing I am learning about myself - if you said any sentence containing the words Healing, Garden, Wellness, Balance, Community, Kindness, Organic Produce, Non-Human Animal Friend, Cisgendered, Spirituality, Self-Study, Empowerment, or Nourishment, chances are high I would nod in agreement! I am serious! I love San Francisco!) That story is for another blogpost, TBD.

Until then, I leave you with my latest journal entry, to counterbalance the heaviness from February:
I saw graffiti on a Palo Alto overpass that said simply "B♮." Took me a minute but then I laughed out loud. The symbol after the B is an accidental. The tag reads "Be natural." Excellent advice in modern times.