Monthly Archives: July 2013

Musee Mecanique (For Angela)

secret sign in the cold, cold light

running fast to the Judah line

holding hands not to lag behind

fingers tugged just to get inside

tracing moons near the window sill

bag shoe biff asking for a meal

we’ve got food but he will not eat

we’ve got more than he’d ever need

your eyes change from green to blue

thumb war stakes mean more to you

let me win and I’ll let you go

let me win but don’t let me know

buffalo on the walk back home

your hair’s shorter than before

my breath’s heating up your neck

your hand’s warming up my hand

the way we came will never take us back

the sides of cliffs are falling way too fast

we’re chasing tracks

we’re making maps



Someone called the police on my stepmother when we were shopping at Smart & Final when I was a kid. She was Mexican and we were white and even though there was no signs of distress, it looked “suspicious.” My father said we should be grateful that people are watching, that others care enough to call. I didn’t feel grateful. Another time, a very large man in Kmart screamed in my stepmother’s face that she should go back to Japan, after a dispute over line order. When we moved from California to Ohio for a brief time, where there didn’t seem to be any other races besides black and white (on separate sides of town, in the 1980s), people openly stared, asked crazy questions. “Do you eat hot tamales for breakfast?” No, but I did eat chorizo sandwiches for lunch. The unfamiliar smell made other kids shift away.

There are a range of reactions to the Zimmerman verdict. Many of my Facebook friends are torn up. Others insist race had nothing to do with it, that guns are still good, that it’s unfortunate, but these things just happen. One implied that the media cares more about dead black people than dead white people.

Earlier this year, we had a rash of break-ins in my suburban neighborhood. No one took anything from us because we don’t have anything too enticing. But the neighbors were very upset. Our next door neighbor, who is nice–with her smile and her curly brown hair and her garden clogs–rushed over to me as we were getting out of the car. She told me she had seen a suspicious man outside of our house. This suspicious man was my darker-skinned, half-Jewish, half-Mexican brother-in-law, who pulled up in a Prius and wore running clothes and a CamelBak. He was meeting me to go on a run. What do you think made my neighbor suspicious? The pouch full of water strapped to his back? Or the extreme wicking nature of his technical shirt?

My neighbor spoke to me about the rash of crime in front of my anxious son, and he couldn’t sleep for a few nights after.

Eight-year-olds aren’t the only ones. We convince ourselves to be scared, even in our gated communities, our stucco tract homes. We buy guns and we practice. We imagine we are heroes in our own movies, that everything we are suspicious of is out to get us. We are stupid, we are isolated from one another. We don’t know what we are really talking about. But people still die, all of the time, as a result.

Zimmerman says he needs his gun now “more than ever.”

Stand your ground laws say you can follow a person, a teenager, into the darkness and terrorize him and kill him and get away with it.

My black friends have black children, black boys, who they know will grow up to be black men who will be in danger because someone will always be suspicious of the color of their skin. And that someone might have a gun. He might imagine himself to be some arbiter of justice and safety, as Zimmerman did. And he might be wrong, as Zimmerman was, but it wouldn’t matter. My sister, too, has a black son. This is my nephew Cameron:


Let’s be honest. We have a race problem in this country. And we have a gun problem, too. And there are lives at stake. Stand your ground laws and the verdict in this case and all of our own suspicions, legitimate or not, guarantee this sort of thing will happen again.

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the thong song, revisited

hqdefaultA friend Lashawn Lee recently admitted that while she remembered the “Thong Song,” she did not remember the music video, and my brain exploded. She must never have seen it. The house she is staying in has limited wireless reception, but I maintained that the effort to watch this video on her cellphone would be worth it. “There is a human diamond,” I explained. It took us a 45 minutes to get through the 4 minute, 37 second video.

I want you to watch the video and I want to explain it to you and I want you to understand.

It begins with a brief scene of Sisqo and his beautiful lady chilling in Miami. Sisqo’s young daughter and she have just returned from shopping. Sisqo is on his cell phone in the bedroom, handling business. (I suspect this mini-drama may have in some small way influenced R. Kelly’s complex and brilliant Trapped in the Closet.) In any case, the four- or five-year-old girl walks into the bedroom, a new (tags still on), lacy red thong behind her back. “Daddy, Daddy” she says, insistently tapping at his leg, pleading for Sisqo’s attention. She reveals the thong in her tiny, outstretched hand. “What’s this?” she asks.

Sisqo is shocked and seems briefly dismayed with his lady’s carelessness, but he nevertheless gets to work. He puts on his strange, two-fingered white gloves and his unzipped collared vest. He knows what he needs to do. The answer to his daughter’s question, which arrives in music video form, is not directed at the girl, but rather to all of America.

(Sisqo has a belly button ring framed by a tribal sun tattoo.)

There are violins. There are charter buses full of scantily dressed women from all over–Chicago, Dallas, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles–who have arrived to the beach to apparently demonstrate their thongs for Sisqo and two of his friends at this impromptu spring break party. They are on their way.

The video seems at first to be standard hip hop video fare. There are glistening, objectified women lying on the beach, playing volleyball, dancing. But there is something a little more sunny and upbeat, at least for the first three minutes. Sisqo does flips and cartwheels, for example. There is a Super Soaker fight and a little coordinated dance done by Sisqo and his male friends. There is a phallic hot dog, with mustard, which just seems kind of endearing. That, too, a thong could be so subversive, points to a more naive time. This video could not be as successful today.

But then, THEN, things change. There aren’t very many lyrics, and the beach party seems to be winding down. It almost seems like it is over. But suddenly, at around 3:08, both the sky and the music darken. Sisqo and his buddies fly into the air Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger style, tumblr_lzlepkCmtf1qaboh9o1_250forming a human diamond, the kind cheerleaders make. Sisqo’s singing suddenly becomes more urgent, more passionate. He runs across the tops of the partygoers’ fingers, thunder sounds, and he is suddenly on a stage. A 9-piece (9!) string section plays furiously, fireworks explode behind them. Women in DayGlo bikinis dance so hard, you wonder if it is painful. Everywhere there is dragon imagery. Everyone and everything is intense. Then, the music just sort of fades away. The fireworks explode one last time, in slow motion, and it is over. Fade to black.

At the beginning of the video, in a spoken word intro (as the charter bus women disembark), Sisqo promises that this video will let “all the ladies know what guys talk about.” But I feel no closer to understanding.

All we are left with is the knowledge that this is a man who truly loves thongs.

But here is why I am obsessed with this video. The strings part is lifted from a cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” which lends layers of melancholy and depth and meaning. While the song seems initially lighthearted, a spring break anthem, there is an abrupt shift in the last minute. It becomes desperate, pleading. “I don’t think you heard me,” Sisqo sing-screams. He needs you to understand him, and all he can do is keep repeating the same inadequate words, repeating the same, limited moves. He is is some sort of late 1990s/early-2000s existentialist trap.

This song was a very big deal the year that Ryan and I got married, in 2000. So much so that I knew it would be requested at the reception, and I asked the DJ not to play it. He waited until we left, but public demand was so great that he caved to the pressure and played it. It was a dance floor success. I am a recovering music snob, and I am now prepared to admit that this was a great song.

Sisqo’s first album was called Unleash the Dragon, followed by Return of the Dragon. Sadly, the final album in the trilogy, Last Dragon, was never released. Despite his greatness, Sisqo has faded into my memory. He was born a year before I was, and he has achieved more than I ever will. Still, I had forgotten his name was spelled with an “S,” and the accent on the “o.” Perhaps Sisqo will enjoy a comeback. Perhaps he will sweep the Billboard Music Awards once again. Whatever happens, we will always have the “Thong Song.”

Photo credits:

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high / low

woman-bipolar-disorder-290x300I cried once during our family vacation to Austin last week. Elliott and I were locked in the “family” bathroom stall of a movie theater. He was screaming at me, threatening to throw his chew necklace onto the bathroom floor. We had been watching Monsters U in 3D. (Side note: I hate 3D for the headache it causes me and the extra expense, but it was all that was playing at that time.) During the climax of the film, Elliott accidentally bit his finger. He roared in response. I threw everything in my lap onto the floor and whisked him up into my arms, as the whole theater seemed to turn and stare at us. He was angry that he had bitten himself. He was angry that I was rushing him down the dimly lit stairs and away from the movie. We were in the last row, and it seemed to take hours. I wasn’t worried about him. I know the difference between his screams of rage and his screams of real pain. I was mortified. I was frustrated. I was exhausted. It had been a difficult day.

We burst out of the theater door, and the ushers stared at this screaming, kicking child and his mother who had forgotten she was still wearing the goddamned 3D glasses. They seemed to find us mildly amusing. In the bathroom, I put Elliott down and caught a glimpse of my ridiculous self in the mirror. “I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE I WANT MY GLASSES I HAVE BOOGERS EXCUSE ME I HAVE BOOGERS I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU,” he screeched. As calmly as I could, I told him he needed to stop screaming or we would not be going back. He screamed for several more minutes. I considered my haggard, pathetic face in the mirror. I wondered if the people in the hallway could hear us, the horrible things they must be thinking about my parenting abilities. I felt tears well up but I pushed them away.

He finally stopped screaming. We watched the last two minutes of the movie, which no longer made any sense. He wore my 3D glasses because I couldn’t find his, so the final scenes were blurred for me. As the credits scrolled, he said, “Did you like this movie, Mommy?” as if nothing had happened. I had to put my face against the filthy, cold theater floor to reach far enough under my seat to collect all of the items I had dropped.

We stepped out into the blinding light and overwhelming heat and humidity. He demanded his sunglasses, which I produced from my purse. We walked to the car, the boys happily chatting about the movie. Meanwhile, horrible thoughts ran through my brain. I wondered if he loves me, if he has a conscience, if he will be like this, or worse, when he gets older, when puberty hits, when he is bigger than I am. Will he still kick me and scream at me? Will he hurt me? I thought about the woman I know whose autistic son nearly drowned her. He was 22 and had a tantrum in the pool. She had bruises all over her body.

My thoughts were very bleak, and I was feeling very sorry for myself, and I am not proud. As we walked to the car, my face twisted up and tears started pouring. Ben saw me and got upset. Unlike Elliott, Ben has a surplus of empathy. One kid couldn’t care less, and the other cares too much. I know I shouldn’t have cried in front of him, but I couldn’t stop.

Most of the time, I don’t feel like this. Most of the time, being Elliott’s parent is pretty incredible. Every year, every week, every day he is doing something new, and every accomplishment feels like an occasion to celebrate. Most parents are happy when their kids are potty trained, but when Elliott finally pissed in a potty chair, we jumped around the house, giddy with excitement. I felt like shutting down the streets and throwing a parade. It had taken him nearly 3 years.

This morning, I had to wake Elliott up very early to go to an occupational therapy appointment we had been anticipating for months. Elliott has been doing this for years. The appointments are generally several hours long, and the assessors are sometimes patient and kind, and sometimes not. Elliott is asked to perform task after task, often with no breaks. Balance on one foot, skip, do this puzzle, spin, close one eye, do this with your tongue, wear this cap, go into this tube, say this, etc. During the long, traffic-filled drive, Elliott and I played word games, listened to music, looked for sight words in the billboards. I marveled at him. Most kids don’t have to do the crap he has to do, and he is generally so amazing about it. During the assessment, he listened well and tried his hardest. It was over after 2 hours, and he was allowed to play for a few minutes while the therapist discussed the results with me. As he laughed in the other room, she told me everything that is wrong with him, and there were a lot of things. My face grew warm and it became difficult to swallow, but I pushed it away.

I cried as quietly as possible in the car as Elliott sang along to the Hairspray soundtrack. Somewhere inside, I already knew the things she told me, but it didn’t make it less difficult to hear. I took him out to lunch, and as we waited for our food, we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and he cheated, like always. Then, he grew serious and said, “I love you, Mommy.” He almost never says this unprompted. He was immediately silly again, doing crazy dances to the music playing over the restaurant speakers. I watched him and wondered if he knew that I had been sad, if he was trying to make me feel better in his own way. Who knows.

My highs are a little too high and my lows are a little too low, and that’s how I’ve always been. Maybe it has something to do with my mother’s bipolar disorder. Or maybe that’s just what it’s like being a parent of a kid with special needs. Maybe it’s a little of both. In any case, after some time alone, during which I chainsawed some vines outside and bought a cute new dress, I felt so much better.

My friend Lashawn reminded me of Elliott’s epic tantrums last summer. He would scream and rip away his shoes and clothing, throwing each item in our direction, his face angry and red and tearful. Once naked, he’d throw his body around, slap his own cheeks, writhe against the rough carpet. This would go on for 20 or 30 minutes. This was his response to our first family vacation, to Portland and San Francisco. This went on for weeks, nearly the entire summer. I had actually forgotten about it, maybe because I wanted to. This year, he whined a little and had one major tantrum (fully clothed!), and now he is back to normal. He threatened to throw the necklace, but he ultimately put it back on.

Things still need to get better, but I need to remember how things keep getting better.

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