Damnit, begonias, not again

I’m in a funk I can’t seem to escape.

This is the dread of writers: the ominous loom of The Block. It haunts our fingertips and drains our laptop batteries. Looking for the right words and puzzling out some semblance of order is a farce, and what does get vomited onto the page reads like the cardboard ingredient list of a box of neglected saltines and tastes just as stale.

Don’t cringe at the word “vomited;” it’s the most accurate descriptor.

And Athena forbid you read what you’ve written out loud.

To quote the cybermen of new: “DELETE. DELETE. DELETE.”



This is a piece written for the joint memoir AP and I have been working on. The topic picked for this memory was the tea dates AP and I had after school in high school. As a side note, we went to a performing arts high school.


“Tea” saved my life. Or, to be more exact, Tea saved my sanity. Everything had gone wrong the year before. AM the Elder had left for college. My mum had gotten into bed and not gotten out—until my father’s anxiety for her finally dragged her out to the doctor. LM the Younger was alone in elementary school, still dealing with the frustrating speech impediment that stumbled their words while their thoughts raced ahead.

And then there was me. I was not happy. I didn’t like myself. I was surprised when anyone else did seem to like me. For all the new friends I had gained freshman year, a part of me felt certain I had traded one friendless school for another. Even auditioning out of Tech to Theater did nothing for my ego or self-esteem—even though I believe I was the first (perhaps second… I’ve never looked into it) in the history of BSA to manage to do so. I was second best in a way incoming sophomores weren’t, because I had switched midway through the ninth grade, not followed the traditional, expected process. The natural order of things. I hated reading The Scarlett Letter in English class, not just because I found it obnoxious and annoying, but because I felt a bit of that mark trailing my every move. No matter how many extra private lessons I took in the mornings with N and the rest of the teachers, I would never be good enough for my ensemble. For anyone, for that matter. High school was forever. Life after didn’t exist.

I don’t remember our first Tea, not really. But I don’t really remember that first day you shadowed me. In some ways I feel like our friendship just always was. Just as it always is. A universal constant.

What I remember is the tables at Donna’s. The glass tea pots that bloomed as the leaves steeped. The small pitchers of milk and the large cookies we’d split. The ever-changing, not-always-good art work on the walls. The way you laughed with glee when I told you I liked R—and then never tormented or teased me after my every failed attempt to tell him.

I wanted to live in a dream those days. I wanted my life to be something other than what it was. At home, on Saturday nights—when everyone else was out experimenting with life and going to parties and catching up on all the too-sweet wine I’d already drunk over the course of my Jewish upbringing—was home. I’d turn on the old ‘70s color TV that lived in my room—its screen barely larger than the width of my two palms laid out side by side. And from 8pm to 2 or 3am, PBS would woo me and my desire of something else with British classic comedies and sci-fi. I would always clean my room, even if it didn’t need to be cleaned. Drink soda and eat zebra cakes. Sometimes put a bread in the breadmaker. Light candles and sit on my mattress on the floor (my choice not to have a frame) and look at my silvery white walls, midnight blue trim, and bamboo blinds and imagine I was somewhere—someone—else. Only at Tea with you did I ever feel as whole as I did those dark nights.

And even then, I was terrified. I was afraid you’d find me out. That I really wasn’t that interesting. (We both already knew I wasn’t cool.) But also that I wasn’t as talented or smart or funny or or or or … the voice in my head never shut up. I would shuffle and deal the tarot cards, and I could never convince myself that I wasn’t just making it all up. At any moment you might see all my cracks, all my failings. I cherished out Teas (and coffees) because I suspected one day they’d be gone. I never guessed we’d lose them to time and geography; I was always certain it’d be my fault.

But in the moment, there were the shoe-string fries and too many cups of coffee at City Café. The way the ivy curtaining the building across the street rippled in the wind when it stormed. Green leaves against brown crumbling bricks against the steely grey sky. You switching how you took your coffee to black. The rain pelting the shit out of the sidewalk. And me with my pen and paper and words that were never quite right.

Drive on, James

Growing up, the idea of writing or reading memoirs was boring to me. Autobiographies and biographies never appealed. Life is just life. Why not write something more fantastic than what I had for breakfast? Needless to say, I was never very good at journaling, either.

hannah's wedding 2009 29 copyThen, a couple years ago, I got the opportunity to live with my paternal grandmother as her caregiver after she broke her rotator cuff. I call this an opportunity because, for all that went with it, I was lucky enough to have her all to myself. My father’s side of the family is relatively large: she had four children and, including me, nine grandchildren. As a crowd, we’re rambunctious, loud, and jubilant. Gatherings inevitably end with my father at the piano, working his way through the song books, and there’s no question that someone will sing. And in all that, Grandma R was through and through the matriarch. Whether sitting in an arm chair or at a kitchen table, she held court.

Getting to live with her (just the two of us and my Phebe cat) was something my cousins and my siblings didn’t get, and it saddens me there wasn’t time for all of us to take up residency in her spare bedroom. To have that chance to spend months with her all to themselves. Grandma R was the ultimate social butterfly, who had a sharp mind and memory, and chutzpah to spare. Having the opportunity to sit with her in the evenings, fire roaring in the place, glass of wine in hand, watching Downton Abbey or whatever with her was fulfilling in a way I had never expected. We would talk late into the night, both of us sharing our life stories, philosophies, and dreams. In many ways, over those few months my babushka became my best friend.

Because of the broken rotator cuff, one of my main responsibilities was chauffeur, and goodness Grandma R had a lot of places to go. “Drive on, James!” she’d announce to me, struggling to get her cane into the car. Or: “Home, James!” Early breakfasts with different groups of friends multiple days out of the week. Lunches. Dinners. An international food dinner club she and my late grandfather had helped found decades ago. Library trips. Doctor appointments. Memoir group.

Memoir group.

Grandma R had been writing her memoirs for years. The group had started as a class at the senior center, but when the semester ended, they decided to keep going. By the time I started driving her, she had a collection of spiral notebooks filled with her wide, cheerful handwriting. And, most notably, she refused to share her stories with anyone in the family. None of her children, children-in-law, or grandchildren were allowed to read them until after she died.

But suddenly, there I was, escorting her around Annapolis in her bright red, hatchback, Cinderella carriage. And from day one, she invited me to come sit and listen. This is the gift I really wish I could share with my siblings and cousins. The chance to hear her read her own life aloud, sometimes editing along the way or adding details. The discussions that would happen after, or the times when something someone else wrote resonated strongly with her own experiences. It was magic.

The idea of starting to write my own memoirs followed me after she died from congestive heart failure half a year later, but I could never decide how to start. As a self-professed diary foe, it was a hurdle that seemed way too high.

Enter AP.

AP is one of my favorite people in the world. We’ve know each other since I was fourteen and she was thirteen. She’s the type of friend who you know, no matter how far apart you end up, no matter how long it is between phone calls, you’ll be kicking it together in the end – sitting on the porch, nursing the gin and tonics, having the neighbors call in noise complaints because we’ll be laughing too loud too late into the night.

When I share memoir pieces on this site, it’ll be because of AP. A few months ago, we decided to write our memoirs to each other, taking turns to pick topics that resonates with us both in some way. For the most part, you’ll only see my half. AP is in med school, so doesn’t alway have time, but I’ve left the door open for her to guest post if she ever wants to.

This is a journey/experiment/whatever I never expected to make, but these days, with my own health skipping all across the board, it seems wise to start now. And I’m grateful to have her with me along the way.

Away we go.


Extended reading:

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Your Memoir

Getting Started:Tips for Writing a Memoir

How to Write Your Memoir

The Key Elements of Writing a Good Memoir

The Twenty Top Tips for Writing Memoir


Featured image for this post is a close up of the prayers in the Western Wall. Mine is somewhere in there…

(Updated) Listen and Hear the Truths


13418546_10154977446964972_2857183093890874567_oYesterday I posted my first and last op-ed about the terrible Orlando massacre that occurred this past weekend with the note I’d be sharing the extended reading in a separate post. Here is that promised post. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and as I continue to read, I will add updates.

Please read. Please listen.

And, if you have any appropriate links, please share them in the comments.

Extended reading (Updated 6/16/16):

After the Orlando Shooting: Finding Hope and Healing as a Gay Latino

Dear straight allies: please don’t come to Pride until you’ve understood these 6 things

Fuck Your Prayers for Orlando

How LGBTQ People Of Color Are Dealing With Orlando: Code Switch Podcast, Episode 4

More than Blood

Statement from the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity on the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, Florida

To my heterosexual friends: this is why Orlando hurts

The Choice is Clear

Trans and Queer Latinx Respond to Pulse Orlando Shooting

The Truths We Hold in the Wake of the Storm

Until now, I have not written during times of crisis, tragedy, mourning, devastation. Not once. I have not shared links. I have not changed my Facebook profile image. I have not and, after today, I will not. The simple matter is, it is not my place.

Like many in the United States, I have grown up with privilege – much more privilege than many others. I was lucky enough to be raised in kindness. And, while Jewish, I was lucky enough to spared from much of the anti-Semitic attacks other Jews in this world face. The prevalence of violence across our country has become an abysmal reality. Attacks such as massacre in Orlando (or the Charleston church mass shooting last year) are hate crimes. They are deliberate acts carried out to destroy and silence communities.

In the wake of these tragedies, it is my job to listen. As an ally, it is my job to strive even harder to be compassionate and supportive to the LGBTQIA community. As a feminist, it is my job to approach misogyny with an intersectional perspective and to acknowledge that the struggles women and other non-hetero, non-cis individuals are subject to may not be the same as my own; that as a white, hetero, cis female I am allowed many privileges that are denied to them. As a white person, it is my job to actively work to dismantle the systemic racism faced by all minorities in this country, and across the world. As a working/middle class individual, it is my job to understand challenges, fears, and subjugation of poverty and find the ways that I (despite my own precarious finances) can ease the suffering of others. As an able-bodied individual, it is my job to respect the intellect and integrity of disabled individuals and treat them with the same courtesy I would treat anyone else. And, as an anthropologist, it is my job to approach all peoples with kindness and consideration, as well as to not force my personal beliefs and truths on others – and to remember that at the heart of the ethnographic lens and participant-observation is permission.

I say these things not to those who are now suffering or who have suffered; my words are for the majority. For those, like me, who do not live in a world where every day is dangerous, where fear of retribution for simply having an identity is a reality. My job is to speak to them, to share my lessons learned, and not to speak to you who have suffered so much and so unfairly. I am not here to lecture you, nor to interpret your lived experiences for you. That is not my job, and that will never be my job.

My job, and the job of others like me, is to listen to what you have to say. To not interrupt. To not negate. To not co-opt your pain or your truth.

My job is to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy – to recognize where the two overlap and where they do not.

My job is to act for a better future in ways that make real differences, not to hide behind performative actions. To advocate for all human rights, as well as for laws that will secure those rights, protect peoples of all backgrounds, and to properly address, condemn, and punish perpetrators. My job is to vote for representatives who will enact and maintain these laws, as well as to hold accountable public officials who do not. My job is to donate my time and resources as I am able, to not shy away from the collective responsibility for our nation’s inaction. My job is to speak up when I see injustice, to not allow fear or apathy blind me. My job is to remember those who have been harmed, the atrocities carried out, and to seek ways to prevent historical repetition. To ask permission rather than assume. To be cognizant of my words and the unconscious xenophobic, disablist, racist, misogynistic terms embedded in our cultural vocabulary.

And so, when I say I will not speak again during times like these, I am not saying I will turn away. I am saying that I am here, that I will listen, that I will recognize that there is a time and place for me to contribute, and that I will not back away from the uncomfortable truth of our current cultural narrative. In my silence while you speak, I am promising to act. My silence after today is a promise that I will hear your needs and respect your requests. I promise to commit myself to you, your community, and your future, to ask and not presume.

I promise to endeavor every day to be a better ally.


Extended reading is available in the follow-up post, Listen and Hear the Truths




Can steampunk fix scatterbrained?

Some of the health problems I’m currently struggling with are short term memory loss, brain fog, and word retrieval trouble. More often than not these days I feel like there’s a noise machine in my mind cancelling out all other sounds or thoughts. It makes following conversations difficult and nodding-and-smiling to everything isn’t a great solution when you’re not sure where the discussion currently is on the gravitas scale from “we had spaghetti at our house three times last week” to “…and the killer is still at large.”

It also makes it tough to do basic things. Like finish sentences I’ve started. Or read books. Or recall ideas. Or remember what that awesome recipe I made in that dream I had last night was. Sautéed brussel sprouts with sliced pancetta and lychee? That doesn’t sound right.

Basically, retaining information is rough. It’s like having a black hole where your cognition machine should be churning. A cog loose? Try twelve missing gears and a skipped oil change.

Coupled with focus issues is the underlying loneliness and exhaustion. I find myself unable to wake up in the mornings. And feeling like I can’t follow conversations well makes being out around other people overwhelming. Sometimes just talking is difficult. Not being able to trust my own brain makes me want to live in pajama land forever.

Perhaps this is all more than I should share, but I’m starting to think that perhaps one of the best ways to return to myself and find inspiration again is to be honest for a bit and not hold all of the conversations in my head. One of the reasons I’d felt I’d lost my ability to write for in the cactus garden was because I had written myself into a caricature of who I actually am. Someone who was removed from the words I was writing, who was trying too hard to be impartial or prevent life realities from seeping online.

So when the rain started, my cardboard self started to wilt.

Extended reading:

Akinola, Modupe, and Wendy Berry Mendes. “The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2008, 1677-686.

Andreasen, Nancy C., MD, PhD. “The Relationship between Creativity and Mood Disorders.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 10, no. 2 (2008): 251-55.

Cameron, M., N. Crane, R. Ings, and K. Taylor. “Promoting Well-being through Creativity: How Arts and Public Health Can Learn from Each Other.” Perspectives in Public Health 133, no. 1 (2013): 52-59. doi:10.1177/1757913912466951.

Fitzgerald, Michael. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Creativity, Novelty Seeking and Risk. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2008.

Lauronen, Erika, Juha Veijola, Irene Isohanni, Peter B. Jones, Pentti Nieminen, and Matti Isohanni. “Links Between Creativity and Mental Disorder.” Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes 67, no. 1 (2004): 81-98. doi:10.1521/psyc.

Ulanov, Ann Belford., and David H. Rosen. Madness and Creativity. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2013.

Pavitra, Ks, Cr Chandrashekar, and Partha Choudhury. “Creativity and Mental Health: A Profile of Writers and Musicians.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry Indian J Psychiatry 49, no. 1 (2007): 34. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.31516.

Raab Mayo, Kelley A. Creativity, Spirituality, and Mental Health: Exploring Connections. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub., 2009.

Waddell, Charlotte, Mac, MD, CCFP, FRCPC. “Creativity and Mental Illness: Is There a Link?” Can J Psychiatry 43 (March 1998): 166-72.