When It Gets Challenging

It’s a tough time of year — the weather is hot, in the way that August is always hot, and the way that portends the ever-nearing climate apocalypse. The autumn is nigh — in the way that August always precedes the too-fast downhill slope into the holidays and the end of the year.

We’re housesitting for a few days — in a beautiful house with air-conditioning and a calm, well-behaved dog. An ideal writer’s retreat… but I am not being the ideal writer, and it makes me feel ashamed of passing hours lacking in accomplishments, and it’s too easy to make the mental jump from passing hours to passing life.

I have my reasons for minimal output, as maybe writers always do. So far, it has been yet another year of almosts, promises, feigned excitement and “contracts on their way from business affairs,” that in the end… turn out to be lies. Some innocent, others intentional — plentiful enough to have some of each. the. Another year of “free” work — which, of course is a misnomer, since it’s paid for by me…

So what should I be writing? I have two stories, a feature in need to a rewrite, and three feature outlines all begun, and I find myself in a state of paralysis, unable to make a good dive into any of them.

There is the pervasive Hollywood myth, that I am realizing is much the same as myths perpetuated by abusers everywhere, that there is some right choice, some story, that if you execute it in a way that’s transcendent– that will make the relationship healthy, that will make the abuser act not act like a sociopath. If you can just be GREAT ENOUGH, then THIS TIME all the promises will be made good on, this time you will be pulled from indentured servitude into the rosy future. if YOU can pass all the tests and reach it.

I don’t believe in it anymore, and yet… and yet. Like a seven-year-old coming to some certain conclusions about Santa, I’m still like, but WHAT IF? What if there are awesome presents that you get because you’re good? So, there’s still this irrational weight placed on choosing which project to invest in — what if one of them has the potential to be a project that CHANGES EVERYTHING and I choose another one instead? Or, what if NONE of them will change everything, but there’s a project that will give me personal satisfaction, and instead I’m choosing to chase promises and pots of gold at ends of rainbows again?

At this point, my compass is so messed up (or because it’s impossible for anyone to predict) I’m having difficulty even choosing what will give personal satisfaction. Which project will be worth the frustration of finishing a draft and realizing I need to tear it down to the bones and build it yet again?

So here I stand at a fork in the road, unable to choose which way to walk forward, waiting for clarity.

 

 

 

Beth Ann

Beth Ann (not her real name, for privacy) is the homeless lady who lives in our neighborhood. She used to perch on a brick planter near the entrance to the parking lot until the CVS asked her not to sit there as customers didn’t like. Then she moved across the street. And then, when the doctor gave her some “water pills” that make her pee a lot, she crossed another street to a bus stop bench in front of the McDonalds. The bench is probably more comfortable than the planter, but there’s no shade of any kind, so she is in full sun for the entire day.

When I come to see her she says, “Oh hey, darlin,'” and we sit and chat for a few minutes. She tells me a little about her health and doctors’ visits now that she’s approved for Medi-Cal, what the mysterious construction site on the corner is going to be (she knows from making friend with one of the workers) and how she was born in the same hospital as Mayor Garcetti and about the time that Mayor Garcetti got our of his limo to talk to her, telling her she might want to go to a shelter for the night because there was going to be a hard rain. She told him she appreciated the advice but I don’t know where she slept that night.

When I go to visit I take a few bottles of frozen water, and whatever I have on hand for food. Today I had cut melon, a slice of pizza and some thai noodles and a Snicker’s bar. Usually I try to do something more nutritious like eggs or cheese sticks or a salad, so I added three dollars rolled up in a rubber band, and resisted the urge to apologize or make excuses when I handed her the bag.

Before I knew Beth Ann by name, I would sometimes see her reading a book next to her pile of belongings, and I’d think, if I were a homeless person, that would be me. A white woman, off by herself, reading a book. I spoke to her once or twice, maybe offered a dollar, but didn’t engage too much. The reasons seem both obvious, but also are not that easy to articulate. Maybe the responsibility seemed too much — maybe I was worried I would find out things she really needed (like a room in my house!) and I wouldn’t be ready. to go that far and I’d feel guilty. Maybe she was a reminder of the overwhelming problem we have of homeless everywhere you go or look in Los Angeles now, and I didn’t want to think about it.

But then, in the era of the NextDoor app, a woman I’ve never met in our neighborhood posted that she was starting a “Lotsa Helping Hands” calendar for Beth Ann, and that if we got 14 people, everyone could stop by only once every two weeks and we would still cover every day. And that drew me in, even though we only got as high as nine and not every day is covered. I’m really grateful to that neighbor for the rather brave thing she did, courting the ire of the NIMBY’s to make the request. When I see a Beth Ann on the bench, I see “Beth Ann” and not just a problem. Even though I still feel sad for the situation, I feel hope too, that things can get better for her.

Hollywood and Highland, Friday Night

The short Hispanic woman selling blinking plastic light-sticks from a shopping cart offers a collegial fist bump to the guy in the wheel chair selling bunches of roses from his lap, then continues down the block.

A black man, so thin he swims in his all black shirt and trousers, break dances next to an oversize speaker. Popping, locking, giving it his all, beads of sweat on his bald head when he takes off his top hat with sequined, Shamrock-green band.

At the end of the song, no one puts money in his jar. No one buys roses, or light-sticks–not that I see.

But perhaps the night is still young. Maybe at a later hour, there are buyers on Hollywood Boulevard to complement the sellers.

This all takes place on the sidewalk in front of the America Eagle, with its clean glass storefront underneath the sign that exhort in block letters: LIVE YOUR LIFE.

Next to these words, a ten-foot photo of two women, elegant and gaunt, sylphs haunting a cool green forest. Their shoulder blades jut under loose, summer linen, hinting at wings.

The wheelchair guy moves to try a different spot. The black dancer searches his playlist for a better song.

The 217 bus comes and takes me away.

I’m An Outlaw

I know there is some contention about whether there is such a thing as monthly quotas for traffic tickets, but I will mention that it just happened to be March 31 this past Wednesday, when I took an ill-fated turn down a side street near school, erroneously thinking there was a chance the universe might grant me a free parking space.

I knew it was a mistake as soon as I made the turn. Up ahead police lights whirled atop a patrol car as the cop stood writing a ticket to a kid on a bicycle. Down the intersecting side street, something else was happening, also involving a cop car. My thought was, I don’t know what’s happening here, but I need to drive on by all this mess, and go pay my seven bucks at the Shrine.

The car ahead of me at the stop sign was tucked over to the right hand side, but wasn’t moving. Was he waiting to run right? Or maybe he was about to try to park? I waited a couple of minutes and when nothing happened, I moved around him, and pulled to a stop. With a clearer view of the intersection. I saw maybe he was just waiting to turn, but something was happening in the road. Rather than try to reverse back behind him, I crossed the intersection. And then I heard the sirens.

“Are you in the habit of driving on the wrong side of the street?” Asked my friendly neighborhood policeman.
He explained–I’m not sure why–that his job is only to investigate accidents and give tickets. Maybe he mentally intuited that I might question whether a cop in South Central L.A. might have something more important to do with his time. Apparently not, since he only investigates accidents and gives tickets. When I went around the car in front of me “half your car crossed the center line of the street”. (Note there was no painted center line.)

“I’m sure he’s just running the plates. He won’t give you a ticket,” said my carpool friend, Conor. I shook my head despondently–if all a man does is investigate accidents and give tickets, and we weren’t an accident (thankfully), well, you can pretty much guess where that’s heading.

I’ve decided that just to get my money’s worth out of the system I’m paying for with my ticket, I will try to figure out how to contest it. I believe it involves a trip to court, which sounds fairly exciting, but is probably some guy at a counter, that you have to pre-pay for your ticket in order to see. I’ll probably also cry–which I don’t look forward to. I cry way too easily. You hear women talk about getting out of things by crying, but that has never been my experience. Maybe it’s because I don’t get big, luminous eyes that shine as the tears well up. When I cry, my face instantaneously gets all red and blotchy. My eyes swell up, and my nose fills with snot. I don’t think a red blotchy face ever caused a man’s heart to melt. It’s like trying to manipulate someone with your hives.

But, good writing comes out of understanding suffering. And in my life–I don’t experience a lot of real suffering. My life is not really hard–I make it harder by worrying a lot about it becoming hard, and with my career choice and my existential angst, but hell–I’m lying in bed on a Saturday morning writing this blog.

On Thursday, I boycotted my car, and rode the bus. There are two options for buses going to USC from near our house. There is one bus that is a straight shot, but only comes every 42 minutes, and you can never trust it not to have arrived five or more minutes early and have passed you by. The other is a two bus route–but the buses come every 8-15 minutes for most of the day, so it’s a safer bet. I’ve always taken the first, but decided that with my new, heavy bus use commitment, I should do the second.

Here’s an interesting thing I learned about the L.A. bus system: They used to have these things called “transfers” so that if you had to take multiple buses, or if you needed to make a stop–hop off one bus to go a store, then get on the next one to continue to your grandmother’s house, your could do that for a surcharge that wasn’t as much as the original ticket. It turns out the city abandoned “transfers” seven years ago. So you pay $1.25 for every bus. My travel expense for a round-trip to school is thus $5.00. How do actual poor people ever catch up–ever?

On the way home, I asked the bus-driver about the transfers. Apparently they felt there was too much misuse of them, too much money changing hands with the bus driver (like they couldn’t just make it part of the machine). Then he commented on how expensive it is for people these days just to do the basic things. He said, “They just need our money. It’s not really for the the people.”

Hey! That’s just how I’ve been feeling. I expect a lot of people feel exactly how I feel.

(That’s why I always feel a flush of connection when I ride the bus that I rarely feel in my car. I look at the guy across from me asleep in his seat, and I get it. I’ve been so tired, and so happy to be sitting and resting, and I can, in a vague way imagine his life when he gets off the bus. That Audi with the tinted glass, on the other hand, that races by me (passing on the right) on the freeway. I can’t get into how he’s feeling. I mean, judging from how he drives, I can imagine, but what I imagine doesn’t make me more compassionate toward another person.)

Tightropes

I woke up this morning thinking about how soon after I was first diagnosed with cancer, I went to see a lecture by Buddhist teacher Soygal Rinpoche. He gave us a visualization to work with that was about a Buddha floating over your head, who poured a kind of golden elixir that would enter the top of your head and slowly fill up your entire body, (kind of like a plastic honey bear). He told a story of a woman who was trying to find healing, and so she carried this visualization into her life. When she took a shower she imagined it was the golden elixir that washed over her and healed her, when she breathed the air, it was a golden air that entered her body and healed her. When I was sick, and since then, I have tried to work with idea. When I eat food, I take a mental moment to be thankful “for this food which nourishes and heals me.” It is hard to do sometimes, when I think I am eating poor quality food—which is easy to think, because when I researched about the causality of cancer, so much information about our food is bad news: Pesticides on the plants, antibiotics in the meats, mercury in the fish, toxins in the water etc. So I try to choose the best quality food I can, when I can–organic, healthful, prepared well is optimal. But at the same time, it’s not always convenient or possible and I don’t want to categorize half the world as poisonous to me—even if it is. Because I do believe our thoughts can help or hinder us in a search for balance and health.

It becomes a mental tightrope to have good thoughts and yet not ignore reality completely. This is not unlike living with the likelihood of disease. What is the phrase? Live like you will die tomorrow but plan like you will live forever? If I plan to live forever, of course I should be in school now. I will have forever to reap the enjoyment of writing, and to pay off the loans. If I was to die tomorrow, then I probably should skip it. Part of the enjoyment of a project like grad school comes from the idea of a goal at the end, if I knew I’d never reach that goal, then certainly I would just spend the last day goofing off with family, maybe writing a farewell note to friends—which is the kind of stuff you should do anyway, which of course is what the saying means to begin with. You should not neglect spending time with family, you should tell people what they mean to you. And yet, if you are going to live longer, then your friends will eventually get tired of farewell notes delivered everyday, they would like to plan a camping trip next summer or dinner and a movie next week. In everyday life, we are wired fro the future.

And then, what about the in-between land that the saying conveniently ignores? None of us will live forever, and very few will die tomorrow. Especially in the life of a cancer survivor, one is more often faced with the dilemma of “How do you live like you will die in five years?” Should I set aside worldly considerations, or do I gamble that maybe in that time I might achieve some small portion of what I’d hope to achieve in my life. Many poets and musicians die young, and if they had known, and decided to chuck the whole artistic enterprise because of that, the world would be poorer for it. (Although they might have lived longer after all, because often the art itself seems to be one of the main stressors). But to embrace this ‘cram it all in” philosophy, is like living an accelerated version of what is already our modern day stressful lifestyle.

For me, I guess the pole that I hold on to for balance, as I walk my tightrope, is gratitude. It is easy to be grateful for one day, or for more. One can be equally grateful for frozen pizza covered in salicates, or an eight-dollar, all organic green drink. I can be grateful for the air, even when it’s smoggy, and grateful for my loved ones, even when they’re pissy. This does not make me unaware of the differences between things, it doesn’t remove the obligation to make decisions. It simply changes the emphasis, and in some way that is hard to explain, that changes everything.