The Audacity of (Hoping That I Continue Writing)

Dusting off this old ghost to try things! (Yes, we’ll see what happens as the calendar spools further into 2019). Here are some words that whoever is running the social media for WIRED reposted today, from President Obama, back before the hell times:

So it’s a *slightly* different now here in 2019 — Orange Voldemort is somehow not impeached yet, and is literally holding the government hostage for his stupid wall, and people around the world have apparently forgotten that fascism is supposed to be a BAD thing. I haven’t been a religious person since I was eleven years old, but there are some tenets I hold onto, in blind faith against an overwhelming torrent of contradictory things. Namely: the only way out is through. Keep on keepin’ on, don’t give in to the shitgibbons, and remember that our primary responsibility is to make things better for the people who come after us.

As much as I’d love to go hide under a blanket with my cat in my apartment, reading memes on my phone until nuclear annihilation claims us all, that does nothing for my wonderfully bright and talented niece. Or the kids I mentor through Refugee Youth Project.

It’s so hard to see it, but the future shines bright before us. We are tasked with chipping away at the old walls, to let the light shine in.

Say Day

Today is “Say Day,” an improv holiday…yes, as with all improv, it’s totally made up. It was invented by performers at the iO theater in Chicago, after the untimely passing of Jason Chen. After his death, his friends gathered to celebrate him and share the impact he’d had on their lives, and the question was raised: why are we always waiting until someone dies to say good things about them? It’s a beautiful holiday, and one especially relevant to me today, days after my final performance with Hostel as a weekend team at BIG*. Here follows a very long Say Day post directed to my teammates. (Sorry in advance to y’all for putting our business on blast out there for the world to see, but I hope that this will make sense at the end of this rambling novella).

Several years ago (how the time passes), I took a week long intensive at iO. If you were FB friends with me at the time, you might vaguely recall how it took me FOUR DAYS to get home: my first flight home getting canceled, missing the next flight, subsequently getting trapped in the Minneapolis airport overnight, etc. (Never again, Spirit Airlines!) Regardless of the hassle, it was ultimately worth it to stay one extra night in Chicago. I went right back to the theater to catch my instructor’s weekly show. It was, as it turns out, the goodbye show of one of the performers in his troupe, who was moving out west.

The set was great, I’m sure of it, but I can’t remember much. What I will never forget is after the set, when the teammates said their goodbyes. When it came to my instructor’s turn, he stood in silence, fragile and exposed under the spotlight. When he could find words, he talked of how they’d lived within miles of each other for most of their lives, their presence at the births of each other’s children, and other shared moments of their lives. He wept openly, on stage, in front of a packed house of breathless strangers. He forgot, I forgot, everyone else forgot that we were there as observers.

We were all a shared entity in that moment, in that space of loss.

Having a weekend team cut is not comparable to the loss of a friend. We’re still alive, here in the same town, and many of us are still on other teams together at the same theater. And also, we’re literally playing at least two more shows together. But it’s a pretty big and abrupt change. I see it now: I worry that we’ll keep it together for a while, coasting on good feelings and warmth from our final shows, then time and scheduling and distance will claim its eventual due.

About Hostel life: we’ve met twice a week for over a year**, making vibrator and vagina and gator-fucking jokes back stage. (Florida Men, what ARE you doing?!) Commiserating about pet deaths. Dating stories. “Jazz club.” We’d get out there on stage and fail or slay, over and over again, with varying combinations of us. Over time, slowly and gradually, you would sneak into my heart:

Maggie – you’re so lightning quick and sharp-witted, and such an absolutely delight to be around. Your kindness belies your inner toughness. I’ve never seen you teach, but the way you talk about your students – I know you’re a good one, the kind your students will remember long after their school days.

Hannah – similar to Maggie, I’ve always admired how strong you are. I love your strong connection to your family, especially your sisters, and the way that you uphold your convictions.  You are fierce and beautiful, inside and out.

Jeff – you’re so funny, and SO surprising! I feel like every interaction I have with you, I learn some new and insane thing (about lead paint, about dates in cemeteries, and whatever else!) I see you on the brink of earning confidence in yourself, and it’s exciting to watch.

Blue – I have to admit, I was afraid / intimidated by you at first! (I know you get that a lot!) You’re so funny and fast and bold, and I always felt like I had to run to keep up with you walking. And then we became closer over this past year, because stress will do that. You picked up the phone on multiple occasions this year to check in with me, talk to me and make sure I was okay, for which I feel so grateful and loved. You called me in. Thank you.

Jonathan – my Lobster brother! It’s been SO incredible to watch your growth as a comedian / nascent podcast king. You are so devoted and diligent, whether you’re buying clothes for your students or making sure we get home safely after an evening at the bars. I’m so happy for you that your hard work is finally starting to pay off, and more and more people are starting to recognize your brilliance. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Kristen – when I first saw you do improv, I admired how you’d jump in and support your teammates without a perceptible moment of hesitation. To my delight, I would learn that this is 100% authentically the way you are, on and off stage. You absolutely shine with this inner radiance that is breathtaking to behold.

Marty – there doesn’t exist the appropriate vocabulary to accurately describe how much you mean to me. You’re my creative partner, and one of my dearest friends. Your synapses fire faster than mere mortals can process. You’ve supported wholeheartedly all of my ideas, no matter how absurd and half-baked! I would assuredly never have had the confidence to do any of the projects that I do (improv and otherwise), and I would not in fact be the person I am today — had I not met you and geeked out with you about China Mieville and True Detective at Alonso’s after class. (There’s not a lot of good that happens at Alonso’s, but that alone makes it worthy of enshrinement).

I love you all, and mourn the loss of what we had together, because it will be different. We will try to keep it together as an independent unit, but I sense that it will be hard, and I in particular will be very bad at it. I’m terrible at keeping in touch, and especially shit at being honest and vulnerable. My natural response to anything vaguely emotional is to retreat into radio silence. It is not my best quality, and it keeps me from being fully human.

Why do I continue to do improv, despite being solidly mediocre at it? I keep reflecting on that night in Chicago, that moment of pure human connection. Doing this silly, ridiculous thing with you, week after week, has unexpectedly made me into a better person — better equipped to deal with change, think on my feet, and allow myself to feel. Because of this, I’ll always and forever be grateful for this time we had.

Borderline

Unlike the current occupant of the Oval Office, I am not a very active participant on Twitter. (I probably should be, given how much of our foreign and domestic policy changes appear to be communicated via this medium). I did catch this at the top of my timeline. It echoed in my head, not just because I was workshopping a clunky joke about how our new horrible political apocalypse now is due to the collapse of Borders the bookstore chain. Let’s repeat, with less capitalization:

“If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country.”

Is this correct? This is, traditionally, the approach to drawing maps. You delineate what’s inside, and what’s not.


(Al Franken, back in his less scandal-plagued heyday). 

There is something familiar and logical about this approach to defining country. It’s an approach shared by both major political parties in the U.S. Sure, there are a handful of renegade philosophers who advocate for open borders, but most people believe that defining what a country is not is essential to defining what it is.

I am, so to speak, on the fence. I think borders form by multiple means: geography less so these days, given technology and transportation. More immediate border signifiers: culture, language, shared values. The proposed border wall is a stupid and mean idea, and will never actually be built, but it doesn’t matter, because the border exists by other means. We are its enforcers.

I have lived for the past five years in a border city. When I first moved to Baltimore, one thing I marveled at was the razor-thin, impermeable lines between “good” and “bad” neighborhoods. Take Bolton Hill, for instance – I lived about a mile and a half from the neighborhood where Freddie Gray bled out, spine shattered, in the back of a police van. That distance might as well have been a hundred miles, for all the things that separated us. I lived in a neighborhood of fountains, delicate perfumed flowers, ornate and carefully preserved carvings. Freddie Gray lived in the Gilmor Homes, which I visited once after his passing: the span of his life unfolded amidst dingy brick squares, wires and weeds springing from cracked concrete, fetid brackish puddles.

One of my favorite books, The City and the City by China Mieville (I talk about this at length on my old scrubbed blog for which I can’t find the backups, a source of great frustration!), describes life in a border city in the most vividly metaphorical way. The plot of the novel is really kind of a basic potboiler detective story, in my opinion; the real draw is the setting – two cities, superimposed. Think East Berlin and West Berlin, if instead of side by side, they were right on top of each other, occupying the same space. Or Israel and the Gaza Strip, without the blockade. The citizens of Ul Qoma and Beszel are responsible for the separation between the cities by a mechanism called “Unseeing” – they’re socialized at birth to “Unsee” buildings, objects, and people displaying the physical characteristics of the other. (Tourism is a logistical nightmare for both cities, an essential plot part of the novel). Enforcement is via some unseen force called “Breach,” but really, 99% of the work is perpetrated by Ul Qomans and Beszlans.

Honestly – I practice “Unseeing” all the time, walking around in this city. Most of us do. It’s alarming and upsetting to See, so we don’t. I fear the border walls we have built up so high in our minds that are more difficult to dismantle than any dumb cheap claptrap thing our current POTUS would seek to erect, through the use of imported materials from China and prison labor, probably.

But I digress; back to the question at hand: what defines a country? Its borders, or something else? I don’t know how I feel about borders, but the gentle optimist in me prefers a world in which things are defined by what they are, not what they aren’t. An emphasis on the positive. “I am proud to be Vietnamese-American,” vs. “I am proud to be not white.”

What does the United States of America mean to me? It’s a complicated meaning with difficult history; it’s a country built on eradicating natives, slavery and 3/5ths compromise. It’s also a country of defiant, stubborn optimism, of restless busybodies forever working to tweak things for the better. It’s a country full of people coming from somewhere else, with their foods and religions and customs. It’s corn casseroles, peanut butter, cheese and sugar in almost every edible thing. Its people are weirdly, bizarrely friendly to strangers (not even distant cousins, just straight up people they don’t know!) It’s a breeding ground for cults, mystics and visionaries with dreams big enough to project across its vast lands.

What does America mean to you?

Tent Cities

I can’t sleep, haunted by images of children ripped from their mothers’ arms. Frightened, huddled in tents, far away from home. My mind reels, unable to process such brutalist cruelty. Episodes like this are supposed to be increasingly further back in history books, so I understood, without really being told or promised as such.

From where did I absorb this fiction, this dream of an America? Did it ever exist in any point in time of history? This country, foaled in slavery and fueled by war machines – would it ever grow up to be a welcome place for all?

A friend of mine recently shared her own account of life as an immigrant child here, separated from her deported mother. What would an alternate universe childhood have been like for her, without the constant omnipresent anguish of separation? She said that she had experienced the best case scenario of such a situation (for eventually, thankfully, they were reunited), but years of separation still fucked up her developing life. I am lucky in so, so many ways. I was born here state-side. I grew up weird and awkward and teased at school for being strange, but I came home to warm dinners and a dry bed and the knowledge that my parents were taking care of me.

Just don’t come here. This is the general summation of comments from those who support forcibly separating children from parents and placing them into makeshift camps.  Just don’t come here. This is what’s written at the base of the Statue of Liberty, right? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and let me drown them all in the Hudson.

Just don’t come here. I do not think these commenters (the human one anyway, I can’t account for the bots) have any sense or appreciation of what traumas might motivate  a family to flee their homeland. Have you ever moved? Do you remember what a pain in the ass that was? Now multiply that times ten, remove most of your possessions and monetary assets, add in a dash of war trauma (and loss of one or maybe all of your close family members), subtract linguistic fluency (throw your resume / CV right into the garbage) and add +100 to your sense of uncertainty. That will give you the barest sense of how difficult it would be to uproot your life and start completely over in a new country.

People’s reasons for leaving are myriad and painful. I’ve written about my family’s experiences, briefly. My own mother, lovesick for my father and increasingly horrified by the “disappearances” of people around her, made multiple escape attempts. She took my sister, a mere baby at the time, with her. They were easy prey for scammers and pirates looking to make a quick buck off people’s desperation. She lost all her painstakingly earned savings, accumulated over multiple years for each attempt, and was jailed several times. At one point, she had even contemplated crossing into the jungles of Cambodia – where, unbeknownst to most everyone, the Khmer Rouge were gassing refugees and bashing their infants’ heads on the ground to prevent them from growing up and taking revenge. I’m forever grateful that she did not elect to escape this route.

She made it here eventually, and my sister did too. They were not forcibly separated by some unfeeling border patroller upon arrival. I am lucky, in so many ways. We all grew up and we go over to her house to have family meals every weekend. She cooks way too much food for us to consume, an unshakeable tenet of Vietnamese culture; sometimes she brings food over to the neighbors’ houses to share.

In these brief moments, it becomes easier to believe in that dream of America, that distant possibility. Is this the America I’ve been dreaming, this little idyllic neighborhood of row-homes, freshly mowed grass, summer rolls and little cakes?  Or is this America an armored fortress riddled with bullet holes, stained with the blood of schoolchildren, surrounded by tent cities?

Which America is the real America?

Here; again

Years ago, I lent out my copy of Kitchen Confidential. I forget to whom. I like to think it’s floating out there somewhere, and that it is loved. Instead, today, I’m carrying around my weathered copy of “A Cook’s Tour.” I once went on to Goodreads to post about it and was surprised at how many middling to negative reviews it received. This is a re-reader for me; for a six month stretch of time I’d thumb the pages while falling asleep, hoping to induce dreams of other lands. Of even (especially) uncomfortable and upsetting encounters. Of mountain potatoes and sheep slaughter. Of streets and smells I’ve encountered, via the transportation magic of words.

I read these words as I was stuck working in an office after college, wishing I were anywhere else. I am re-reading these words, now back working in an office, reminiscing about the times I was somewhere else, exploring other sides of the world. I cannot blame Anthony Bourdain for my wandering heart – that’s an inherited trait, some deep restlessness in my bones. I can directly credit Bourdain for translating this desire into words that would inspire me to always choose the more narratively interesting path. The taste of the unknown.

Blurry photo of a talk he gave in 2008, which seems like such ancient past now.

What does Bourdain’s death mean for us, for those who wander? Are we cursed to walk this earth alone? What is home for us? When the many curiosities of the world begin to lose their shine, what’s left?

I am actively choosing to believe that a momentary slip into the darkness, brief and fatal, does not vacate the worth of a lifetime’s accumulation of wonderment. This is a choice, one of many. We choose until we reach the bounds of possibility.

One of the many things I have loved about Bourdain is his enduring connection to Vietnam, my family’s country of origin, a country I’ve had ups and downs relating to throughout my life. At the end of Cook’s Tour, he writes:

“I’m leaving Vietnam soon, and yet I’m yearning for it already. I grab a stack of damp dong* off my nightstand, get dressed, and head for the market. There’s a lot I haven’t tried.

I’m still here, I tell myself.

I’m still here.”

I  still choose to be here. If you’re reading this, know that I hope you do too.

post-script: Of course it would take the death of a personal hero of mine to give me that kick-in-the-ass into actually writing again. Not exactly a fair or equitable trade-off, but we must see silver linings where we find them, even in a pile of abandoned and corroded scrap metal. 

post-post-script: Among the many gifts Bourdain has given to the world of travel literature, the phrase “damp dong” is a treasure.