Monday, September 08, 2014

In another life this was my problem

Last year, This American Life did a two-part series I was skeptical about.
We spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot. 29. We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances.
The high school where I taught in LA wasn't that bad -- or maybe it was if anyone was counting, all I know is it wasn't unusual for people to be taken out in ambulances and sometimes kids came back from Christmas answering "how was your break?" with "I got stabbed."

I shouldn't have been skeptical -- they got full access, people opened up, it was so familiar it was eerie. The broadcast came out in February 2013. I listened to part one and then I couldn't. I finally listened to part two last week, more than a year and a half later.

Last week I also flipped off someone in a car, yelled at a stranger, and bust out crying for a not good enough reason. (I guess now's a good time to say I did not do any of those things at work). I know myself well enough to know that's not entirely a coincidence.

If you don't understand why teaching in LA broke my heart and spirit into a million pieces, or if you'd like to get a better picture of what goes on in many American schools and the struggling neighborhoods that surround them, then take a listen. Don't read the transcript, it's not the same.
Part One
Part Two

So I swear I will get to The Wire soon. I know, I know, it's great television. But I'm sorry if it takes me a while to get through season 4 and I yell at a few deserving strangers in the process.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Post #1000

Pretty girls don't get enough time alone. They grow up with boyfriends and are never long without one. Only later do you realize this is not as fun as it looked.

Pretty girls never know if you like them or if you just like looking at them. That sounds confusing.

Pretty girls never know if they get the job because they're eye candy. You can't be both qualified and pretty. You can't be both smart and pretty. All the pretty girls are bitches. It has to be true otherwise life isn't fair.

Pretty girls are loudly mean to us in 7th grade and we are silently mean to them for the rest of our lives.

Ten or 15 years later pretty girls can't sit at the bar by themselves in peace and suddenly pretty starts to seem like a handicap.

Tell your high school self:
Someday you will buy your own clothes and they will all be baggy enough. You will be called "sir" in Connecticut and Kentucky and California. Your husband will have longer hair than you do. You're gonna drink and swear and wear men's shoes and and have a great time.

But you won't get the job because the manager looked you up and down first. You won't get the job because they stapled a Polaroid to your resume. You won't get the job because an average of once a year in Los Angeles someone asks you what happened to your nose. There are no Jewish noses left in LA.

You could play the game and get the nose job. You could play the game and get the boob job. You could dye your hair, get waxed, stop eating. Instead sorority girls call you "brave" for not wearing make-up and another near-stranger asks who broke your face.

You won't give a fuck.
You won't give a fuck.
You won't give a fuck.
Until one day you really DON'T give a fuck.

Your high school self won't believe you so don't tell her. Just tell her, girl, it's going to be okay. You and the pretty girls are all gonna have problems, big ones, and you don't believe me and it's going to be okay.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Insert metaphor here

I had a dream last night that I was back at the first elementary school I attended. In 1980-4 it was a modest brick affair, but in my dream it was a slick, multistory monstrosity. Rick was with me and we were the ages we are now but I felt lost and scared like a little kid.

I was freaking out about how much the school had changed and how big it was when I said to Rick, "You know, I've got this recurring dream that I'm in some school I used to go to, but it's big and different now and I'm lost. So this must be a dream. Let's see if I can fly." And I jumped off the top of a flight of stairs and landed at the bottom without incident.

I'm getting better at telling myself "this is a panic attack" or "this is a psychosomatic symptom you didn't have until someone mentioned it to you" or "you are depressed so you need to do the opposite of everything that seems like a good idea." I'm not as good as I want to be. My brain sucks. But at least every once in a while I tell myself "this is a dream" and it works. Thanks, brain. There may be hope for you yet.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Entitlement, ambition, or shut up and have a beer?

I believe you should never tell another person "at least you have your health" or "at least you have a roof over your head" because it's dismissive of their troubles and preachy to boot. Same applies for "first world problems" or "white people problems." I do think it's okay to tell yourself things like that so you keep perspective.

And I do. I'm grateful I haven't had major health problems in my life, especially as I get older and more and more of my friends deal with bullshit like cancer. I do sometimes lie there at the end of the day happy that I have a comfortable, warm bed to sleep in and no one in my house who wants to do me harm. I'm thankful to have a husband who can still stand the sight of me after all these years (just kidding, he actually loves me, the crazy bastard). I'm not big into making a lot of money or climbing a career ladder or having a nice car or a house in a zip code you understand. I may never make more money or have more prestige than I did as a 24-year-old imposter on the business writing scene. I write for fun. I don't mind that my job involves mopping floors. I like me. I'm good.

I like to think I don't ask for much.

It's an odd and foreign feeling to stomp around thinking "I DESERVE BETTER," but I've been doing a bit of that lately. I suffered from low self-esteem for so many years it feels weird to think I deserve things, especially since I know I have it better than most of the planet simply because my parents are white and raised me a place where no one was shooting at my neighbors. Where is the fine line between being thankful for what you've got and being happy eating shit? When do you stop shrugging and saying "don't sweat the small stuff" and decide that respect and support and room for growth may actually be Big Stuff? And after you decide you deserve more, how do you stay sane during the transition period where you do Annoying Grownup Things that involve settling for less?

To abuse Aimee Mann's metaphor: I'm watching the parade go by, and while I'm not sure I want to be waving from a float, I at least want a better spot in the crowd. There's a tall dude in a hat right in front of me and I'm getting a sunburn and I think I stepped in dogshit.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hello Richmond my new friend

It's been an interesting year adjusting to being a homeowner and living in a new neighborhood. Richmond is misunderstood in the Bay Area. Yes, the crime was off-the-charts bad a few years ago. It's still way higher than it should be. But we've got a similar/lower crime rate *and* a more responsive police force than Oakland, which is a media and real estate darling. Go figure. It wasn't my first choice, but when you live within 50 miles of San Francisco and you want to buy a house and you don't have family "helping" you, you do what you gotta do to get your piece of the American Whatever.

Here's the thing. There are parts of Richmond that are seriously troubled. Like, type-of-neighborhoods-I-used-to-teach-in troubled (for you 4 long-time readers). There are parts, like Point Richmond, that are solidly middle-class/affluent and, gee, what a coincidence, super white. There are parts, like Richmond Annex, that abut El Cerrito and therefore cost more but I see no tangible benefit. There's the hills, and the hills are always perceived as being where we put our affluent people. I do not live in any of those places.

People with a real familiarity with Richmond -- people who live here, real estate agents -- ask me what part of Richmond and I tell them and they say, "Nice neighborhood!" And I agree. But it's not "nice" by our obnoxious dot-com 2.0 Bay Area standards. It's not nice like Mountain View or Noe Valley or Rockridge or Lafayette is "nice." We have a burglar alarm and we need one. I keep my eyes open and my phone away around the BART station. If it's late, it's only a mile to home from the station, but I grab a cab. It's a city, and a city with a dropping but still city-like crime rate, and I'm neither naive nor stupid.

It's worth it. It's worth it to own a home because we're not scared of a place where the real estate is cheaper because people are scared. It's worth it to live in a neighborhood where my neighbors are every color and several socioeconomic classes. It's worth it because I love the food that's available when you have lots of immigrants for neighbors. It's worth it because even if I had a million dollars cash to buy a house in a neighborhood most Bay Area people would understand, I wouldn't want to live somewhere you need the HOA's permission to paint your house purple, or where you'll get judged for having a crappy lawn or a crappy car (we have both). I'm not gonna start Fight Club here but I'm not my fucking khakis either.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that I'm probably a gentrifier. There are plenty of white people in my neighborhood -- I sometimes see them walking their dogs -- but they're old. And I don't see them at the taco trucks or at the train station. I'm constantly told I look about 10 years younger than I am so I can't help but think people see me in my hoodie and think "Oh shit, the kids who can't afford Oakland anymore are coming." My life in LA gave me good training for being the only gabacha in a place, so I'm not weird about it, but I wonder if I'm welcome. Then again, my neighborhood mailing list occasionally talks about things like nannies and housekeepers so there have got to be some actual capital-G Gentry in this place hiding in their houses -- which makes me feel better about myself but maybe I shouldn't. And yes, I realize I'm conflating whiteness and affluence even though most poor people in this country are white. The Bay Area, however, in many ways, is not this country
As a homeowner, of course I want the value of my house to go up. I want the broken-down vacant houses to get fixed up. I don't want to get mugged and I don't want my neighbors to throw trash out their car windows. But I want this to continue to be the kind of neighborhood where big working-class families can continue to make a life, and that's economic. I want it to be a place professional people of color continue to live because it's predominantly not-white, and that's demographic. Rick and I not at all rich by Bay Area standards, but we're DINKs and we do okay money-wise and there's certainly no denying that we're white as hell. And how hard is the shit gonna hit the fan if I'm the one who someday puts a beer bar in this town? (I promise to have a full selection of Mexican beer no matter how much my beer nerd fans make fun of me.)

I figure all I can do is keep spending money in the community, saying hi to my neighbors (even the ones who don't reply) and living my life. I do wonder who'll be moving in as the old white people, one way or another, move out. I wonder what rough neighborhoods like the Iron Triangle are in for once the type of people who like "grit" and feeling like "pioneers" realize it's next to BART and costs practically nothing. (Me, I moved to the nicest neighborhood we could afford that had what we were looking for). I wonder about how to make a neighborhood better without changing its culture. (Picking up trash? Volunteering with the people who capture, fix, and release feral cats? God forbid, tutoring some kids? Just keep my lawn from looking like shit?)

I don't have answers. I'm torn between wanting to defend my new community against mass ignorance and wanting to keep it a secret so it doesn't get vultured by...well...people like me, I guess.

Ah well. As one of the three trillion blog posts on SF/Oakland gentrification put it recently, right now in the Bay Area you're either the gentrifier or the gentrified. Communities change and I'm not sure there's anything one honkey in Richmond can do to either accelerate or prevent it. All I know is I like this town. I hope it even remotely likes me.