A Los Angeles I Can Get Behind

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Less than 24 hours after I wrapped up one of the great conversations of my life on a plane with a rabbi whose college acapella group had gone viral and landed them on every national morning show five 5ams in a row, my eyes once again validated Los Angeles’ ugliness. It happened on Saturday morning during a two-hour run through the slopes of Westlake and Koreatown and Little Armenia, its homeliness glaring at me as I panted on Sunset Boulevard. Spat out onto the pavement, I observed gum the color of soot, probably the consequence of the daily condensation of smog. I found little charm in the pastel ranch homes or Graystone parking garages or sad palm trees. In its best moments, the plethora of Spanish-speaking voices propelled my nostalgic self back to a South American metropolis. But I remained unmoved.

I have little love for Los Angeles and I have little qualms telling others about it. This aggravation starts with the Giants’ arch rival Dodgers but is not limited to the baseball team.  Much of it found its way into a screed I published against California, or rather, the idea of California. It still holds up:

California is a myth. It’s an asphalt and parking lot-ridden landscape with four-lane freeways from which you can look up at the arid, tan hills as they blend into the arid, tan skyline.

No one’s condemned to live there. Indeed, most folks profess a surge of pride recognized only by New Yorkers as the satisfaction of sticking out an extraordinarily pricy place. (In this case, the residence in question is likely a McMansion in a hackneyed development, not a park side condo/co-up.) But it’s lonely and vacuous and everyone wants space and togetherness, fresh air and short commutes, culinary variety and cheap food.

Hey if you don’t hate me, read the rest.

Anyway.

It began an amicable musician that Donald and I predictably chatted up in line for brats in Little Tokyo that same Saturday. “I love Los Angeles,” our new friend declared. He might have repeated that sentiment six or seven times as he evoked the climate, the hiking, the intangibles. We—a party which also included his two sisters and Ashley—all bobbed our heads to the set emanating from the imagination of tweed-jacketed DJ studying his phone. The dim lighting bolstered the faux tension. The musican’s So. Cal conviction nearly too earnest for a dinner of French fries, a conversation about EDM. It is hard to cultivate desire to verbally crush sincerity, especially when radiating from someone you wish to be friends with. So I slightly pushed back, before realizing that I had made my home in Chicago.

But the musician’s California convictions only found further ideological allies as the week progressed. The conference—replete with dozens of Christians who had chosen to love their communities, no matter their disinvestment, blight, or violence—made my conscience sit less easy in my contempt for LA. While my hatred for So. Cal stemmed partially for ascetic reasons some of it also came from the area’s perceived passion for air-dirtying cars and four-lane freeways. It found justification in the (intentionally, at this point?) brown-tinged skyline. Yet, in a panel of Hollywood community leaders, while none of the speakers mentioned my gripes, all of them attested to the area’s sicknesses: its drugs, its homelessness, its gang violence. And then they professed their love.

One assumption from my 2014 diatribe: all those infatuated with California refused to look around, both at their state, but also at their country. So much bravado about Lake Tahoe and Highway One and Big Bear Lake and Yosemite and yet the locales the majority of Californians resembled paved paradise. If they could see the United States of America, they might find meadows and the milky way and backyards without fences. But so few did. The myth—it threatened to become a bubble.

Still, immersed in a community of Angelinos far more integrated than Chicago and New York and surging with gratitude for their home, I casually sipped the Kool-Aid. During my eight days, I did not invent reasons to further the So. Cal eye roll. I tried out its bike share. I limited my car rides to five. I took the light rail to Santa Monica—twice. I laughed with fellow straphangers when the train got stuck at a station and the announcer provided a dubious explanation. I walked down Chavez Ravine, I trained for marathon on Hollywood Boulevard and Skid Row. I checked email at a #DTLA public plaza. I tapped my Tap card like a regular. I managed three swings on the beach circus rings.

I will never live in a city that contains all my people. But if I ever move to Southern California, some of them will reside there. I have found a Los Angeles I can get behind. If the Dodgers leave, it may become an LA I can love.

Why I Dress Fancy for the Pacific Ocean.

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Inventing milestones

In May 2013, I graduated from the Coro Fellows Program on a stormy night, in a reception center, in a tower at Union Theological Seminary. My littlest sister and father attended the event and munched on cake while one of my trainers nonchalantly went on about running a marathon on every continent. The morning after, my program ended and I was unemployed. It was summer, but tinged with anxiety that the fun might not be sustainable. It was summer, a season not recognized because of the earth’s position relative to the sun, but because I had achieved a milestone—concluded the Coro Fellows Program—and my life was about to change.

I don’t have summers anymore and I don’t know how to apply myself to the figurative version of them. I have not been taught how to conserve energy to later expend it on a giant kick at the end because I no longer know the definition of finishing. I am gainfully employed at a respectable magazine until management shows me the door or I find a new venture. I rent until I come to terms with an identity as a landlord or win the lottery for a condo. I live in Chicago until I get antsy or a family member gets sick. I am single until I fall in love with so much conviction that I no longer esteem my independence more than God. I may also write a book, follow my father’s dream of law school, or establish a bilingual life in Buenos Aires.

An amalgamation of those events may occur in the next 4 or 13 or 17 years but that possibility gives me little parameters with which to strategize and fabricate and build a life. In the meantime, I often experience my life as making a series of majestic pit stops as I coast down Highway One: every sight is spectacular but am I missing the point of hustling to the destination that will provide ultimate grandeur?

I lack the language to describe the reality of being a college-educated 26, without romantic prospects and babies, and believing that all that stands between you and your wildest dreams are a few semesters. If only you could make up your mind.

This is why I want more milestones. I do not know how to sacrifice for realities which are not possibilities for me and I have insufficient pride in my September cover story, my three-minute trapeze act, my ability to navigate a sailboat, and the magnificent backyard bashes that I throw. I do not know what aspirations in which to drive a stake and which ones to inflate with helium and where Christ’s call to an abundant life and taking up your cross should add definition.

I do not know how to work hard for the summer so instead I dress fancy for the Pacific Ocean and smile.

Shared rituals

American metaphors for immigrant initiation have long fascinated me. Melting pots. Chopped salads. Do we venerate assimilation as a goal? Or do we cherish difference—and encourage cultural enclaves that reinforce norms of the ancestral country?  I do not relish the idea of feeling proud of a country that shames individuals for practicing and carrying on the cultural norms taught to them by their elders. But from a civic standpoint, I believe mayors, governors, and presidents ought to consider how to morphing existing rituals and yes, establishing new ones, to reinforce belonging and stand for community.

A couple weeks ago, I remembered that many of the practices that I associate with Christmas have previous associations with pagans. This thought gave me hope, mostly because I do not want to jettison holidays that are nationally recognized. But what I do yearn for are folding others’ traditions into existing festivities and finding ways to make them our own.

Here is our struggle: given the religious nature of nearly every major holiday—save Fourth of July and Thanksgiving—how do you infuse pluralism into the celebration, without rendering it hollow? How do you find ways to reinvent ritual without subduing the sacred? In a culture that already tends to consumeristic tendencies, how do you avoid a mainstream observance of the holiday as appearing as little more than buying more stuff?

Here is a thought: I think we must sing together. I have been among those that lament of the politically splintered way in which most folks read the news. With so many on-demand means to listen to music, this may also be true for our songs. But even if it’s not, the majority of Top 40 hits have little of cultural sustenance that would edify us as a country if we were to sing their lyrics to each other.

At my favorite church, St. Lydia’s, the pastor and her best friend founded a group known as Music That Makes Community. Much of that ethos infused the church, where a worship leader taught the congregation multiple several phrase songs throughout the liturgy, while we all stared at each other in a circle. We did not use PowerPoints or retrieve the lyrics on our phones.

Just a couple weeks ago—though oh-so-many-nightmares passed—I attended a vigil for the 49 murdered at Pulse Night Club in Orlando. The microphone sound quality had me straining to hear the voices playing tribute. I fretted about hugging strangers in a pain that felt secondary. But I wish someone had come to the stage with a guitar and a dirge, a lament, or a protest song, and taught us all how to lift our voices and sing.

Dear Online Diary

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Hello Milwaukee. My last week I

-spun poi for the first time in a Gold Coast apartment.

-listened to the inhabitant of said Gold Coast perform a Regina Spektor-esque song that she had composed herself.

-strolled around on her roof and stared down North Avenue—which runs nearly to Lake Michigan—and past my suburban job.

-lay on my back on an aerial hoop four feet off the ground and pulled my right leg into the splits.

-drove home from Milwaukee.

-dipped tortilla chips into chicken salad while sitting on my neighbor’s island stool and planning my birthday party with her daughter

-received a text from my ex.

-watched my podcast debut and get as high as No. 15 on the Religion and Spirituality charts.

-bantered on a podcast with three men and made a case to love the team I rejected—the Golden State Warriors.

-parallel parked on the first try—twice—on Saturday

-showed up to a sold out event without a ticket—and got in.

-stammered through a conversation with my ex’s ex and fought back feelings violating the 10th Commandment.

-attended a Good Friday service in yoga pants.

-got home from Rogers Park to my house in 45 minutes.

-prayed aloud for half an hour in the dark

-mocked looking cool before attempting it while in the Wisconsin woods

-Finish two thirds of a short story that evoked Bel Canto

-Cracked my computer screen

-Lost the chain on my bike

-Impressed our administrative assistant with how many receipts I recovered from my Raleigh trip

-Spoke with the impressive subject of my criminal justice feature story

-Mourned the end of a project that makes me proud

-Only half showed up to a phone conversation with my father the day after his birthday

-Stayed inside during the sunshine

-Traveled inside a 15-passenger industrial van on a 25 minute drive to a dive bar just south of Midway for a date

-Felt the fragility of my life following the Lahore, Pakistan suicide bombing

-Howled hysterically with my friend’s sister during family Catch Phrase on Easter

-Ran into three friends from church at one bar in three hours

-Ate a salt-and-pepper biscuit with mushrooms and tomatoes for Easter brunch

-Smashed a cherry tomato and watched its juice spray over my white skirt

-Judged the worship songs at the Good Friday service

-Felt sick after the Brussels airport and subway bombings

-Did not pray for Donald Trump

-Attended a live podcast taping

-Discovered that mango oranges are watery and bland

-Ate brownies for breakfast

-Talked to a childhood friend about life not under her parents’ roof

-Ran six miles and eight miles

-Ordered kimchi pancakes at Little Goat

-Did not rebuke my mentee for driving without her license

-Felt like a human. Alive and little and inadequate.

The Joy of Being Friends with Andie

 
Scarcely did my future supervisor send out an office-wide email introducing me to my future colleagues, when I received a personalized reply from one Andie Moody. A Chicagoan by way of Texas, my new colleague offered to give me the lay of Illinois over a phone call. She and her husband had resided in the Windy City for nearly six years and as a young, bright, female employee at my future employee, she could offer me advice specifically in that vein. Several weeks later, unprompted, she opened her network to help me find potential roommates and threw out neighborhood and commute suggestions as I sat on the steps of the New York City public library. In true Texan fashion, she also insisted I attended her birthday party, which coincidentally turned out to be the first day I’d arrive on Fulton St. Of course I showed up. 

In the year or so that I called Andie my coworker, I inherited more than an office neighbor with a gift of interior design. I found a woman who lived on purpose: what collage of festivities would make her sister’s bachelorette party most memorable? How could she hold the line during the bleakness of winter? What would be a gender inclusive version of Tie Tuesday? How could she coax her colleagues into spending a work day in Chicago? What might be a better way to on-board new young colleagues? Could she up her running ante? Could she bike to work? Was there a career option that allowed for grad school–and a more sustainable commute? 

In our time together, Andie found answers to her questions, including the last one. 

Will our friendship outlive the confines of 465 Gunderson Dr.? 

Absolutely. 

Will I find another career co-conspirator who injects such friction and mirth into my office life? 

Absolutely not. 

The Joy of Being Friends with Mollie

mollieEveryone needs a friend on their feet. Portland, Maine, to Kansas City, Kansas, to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to Seattle, Washington with some backtracking, zigzagging, and hopscotching. When we last laughed in person while applying eye shadow in cloudy cosmetic mirrors en route to a Pennsylvania farm wedding via the New Jersey suburbs.

At our little college campus outside of Harrisburg, Mollie and I bonded in our freshmen November at a Conor Oberst concert. She had mesmerizing blond curls, a lip ring, and a red flannel shirt. She brought her own bike to campus, grew up in a town called Yarmouth, and introduced me to the idea of the Appalachian Trail. After our freshman year ended, I skipped going to my then-boyfriend’s house for some summer love canoodling, and fixed myself to Mollie’s front porch for four chilly May days. At one point, we convinced ourselves to pay for overpriced tickets to take a ferry to a nearby island. Or did we? That was six years ago.

Like the majority of friendships that I’ve maintained since college, Mollie’s and mine relationship works because it inhabits the world of ideas. The breadth of refugees’ tenacity. Dating an undocumented person. The extent to which law school might make us more effective in Changing the World. Spirituality and sexuality. Biracial blood but passing as white. Doubt and wonder and timidity and courage. What do we believe? What do we live? What difference does any—or all—of this make?

I will not be surprised if Mollie and I never live in the same place again and I will not be surprised if we do. We are rarely in relationships. We give a damn about our cities. We are not afraid to be alone. We both spent two semesters off-campus. Our only fear in moving is that we’ll gentrify our neighborhoods.

I do not know when we’ll both hop on bicycles and accompany the other to a volunteering gig or an immigrant’s apartment or an independent bookstore. But we have each other’s voices on the phone and this must sustain us until then.

The Joy of Being Friends with Chris 

One Saturday night during my junior year, I stayed up until 1:40 in the morning on AIM with Chris Munekawa. I remember this distinctly because when I casually mentioned this to my mom the next day, she insinuated that I had done something inappropriate by typing words on a screen to a friend of four years. I know that I saved this conversation and I know that I stayed up so late that night because at one point Chris went off to take a shower and then our conversation resumed.

If I lived in the vicinity of my parents’ home and if they still had our Windows XP desktop, I would scan through the copious .txt transcripts of high school instant messaging conversations. My summer camp friends and crushes would dominate the archives, but the biggest files would be my conversations with Chris.

Chris and I lived one mile from each other’s houses our entire lives, yet many of the critical moments of friendship occurred over the internet. I assume that this was a function of being a teenager—where feelings transform into events in and of themselves—and where instant message chat rooms and upstart blogging platforms—immortalize them. (Unless your parents recycle your PC and buy a Mac, that is.) While writing this I began to wish that we’d spent more time in person given our proximity—but then I realized that we both had homeschooling Christian Asian parents and at least essay writing gave us a pretense to slouch for hours in front of a screen.

Out of everyone in our church clique, Chris and I probably spent the most amount of time on IM, and likely a disproportionate amount of our conversations involved positive reactions to the A’s—who nearly made it to the World Series during his sophomore year—the Giants—who missed the playoffs my entire high school career—and an analytical diatribe, likely prompted by me, about the vapidity of my faith. When we weren’t on AIM, Chris, Heather, I and our siblings took turns commenting on each other’s MySpace pages and photos. And then there was Xanga.

Some point during college, Chris deleted his Xanga account, which contained brief but beautiful sentiments and poetry. It also meant that all the insight he left on my Xanga posts also vanished. Several times I remember writing those numbered lists where you wrote anonymous messages to your readers (or not) and several weeks later I’d wish that I’d recorded who was who in my diary. I would totally love to divulge that information to Chris now because I remember him guessing where he was.

(This sentence exists to inform you that as of last night, all my Xanga musings can be found on this blog. Seriously, I imported them here two nights ago. Just remember that I was a baby when I wrote all that stuff.)

What I loved about my friendship with Chris was the gravity with which he engaged my attempts at being whimsical, intellectual, and passionate. He was a dude. He was a year older than me. His attention mattered in the way that those who spent their teenager years bland-looking, bereft of a fashion game, and firmly under the supervision of their parents intuitively understand. (Just the other night I asked Chris why we didn’t spend more time in person, given our physical proximity, and he reminded me that our parents regulated the time we spent with the opposite sex. Word.)

To this day, he treats all my manifestations seriously: the spoiled Giants fan; the football scorn; the socially-aware intellect; the eldest sibling; the questioning person of faith. He read me on the Internet before anyone ever paid me for it and I will get him published if it’s the last thing I do in my 20’s.

Christopher Munekawa. San Francisco businessman. Bay Area Asian-American. Senior year prom date. Public intellectual. Best baseball fan I know.

The Joy of Being Friends with Grant

grantGrant Ewing has no chill. Grant Ewing has zeal. His eyes glow, his hands wave, and his words fly out faster than corn kernels from a dysfunctional popcorn machine. In a world that has conditioned us to perceive apathy and detached irony as the foundation for cool, Grant is an evangelist. And I am better for it.

I am envious for the stamina of our friendship in my other relationships. Years ago, we forged our bond through family New Years Eve parties, attempting to teach second-graders the Truth about God, and and a couple of overlapping years at summer camp. After I left for college, we began unofficial, but routine check-ups every time I returned to the Bay for the holidays. For two hours, every December, a sacred and safe place.

Whether over runny diner eggs or breathing evaporated saltwater winds blowing through our lungs, we analyze the contours of our faith. We tell stories of transformation and regression. We probe the definition of 21st century Christianity. And we do not settle, because there are answers to questions we have not even considered and we are hungry to ask them.

The Joy of Being Jason’s Friend

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On my first day of classes at Moreau Catholic, I arrived with converse sneakers, damp hair and a make-up free face. Over the next four years, none of my male classmates ever came close to casually leaning against my open locker, crossing their arms in a sheepishly confident posture, and making banter with me about my Friday night plans. None of them ever requested my company at a dance. Few, even asked for my AIM screen name. I oscillated between blaming this oversight on my lack of Filipino heritage (unlike the majority of my fellow students) and my preference for sleeping over hair styling, and suggesting to myself that this lack of attention correlated with my four-plus GPA.

Enter Jason Barrera. Initially, we bonded over our passion for a baseball team who had lost the World Series in seven games in 2002, whooping about the results of the previous day’s games when we crossed each other in the stairwell. A season ticket holder at the time, he offered me a ticket to a game in late September of our senior year and we stared at our dumb phones as the bullpen recklessly let the Reds back into the game. We left in the 11th inning when he and his best friend wanted to go to a party. The majority of friends humored my ardor for baseball, but for Jason, this was the webbing of our relationship.

When the high school baseball season commenced the following spring, I accepted his invitation to cheer for him and his fellow Mariners on a Tuesday in March. The following Thursday, I sat in the score-keeping booth with my high school math teacher (and former ballet teacher’s husband!) and grilled him on a brief history of the varsity team. I was promoted to operating the balls and strikes on the outfield screen several weeks later. At visitor ballparks, I clapped and hollered to myself when a rally broke out and muttered under my breath when my classmates botched “routine” plays. During spring break, I drove two hours to gossip and relive inside jokes with a summer camp friend—who coincidentally lived a town over from where the team was playing in a tournament. Internally, I observed that the frustration I felt in the classroom for the intellectually apathetic jocks decreased the more I logged hours studying them in their element on the field. Jason informed me how my presence boosted team morale. I wrote a column for the school newspaper about finding my groove as the(?) high school baseball fan. As someone who at times found herself borderline resentful that my accelerated classes had established a relatively rigid divide between the academically and athletically inclined, at long last, I made peace.

Seven years after that spring, Jason and I only intermittently chat about MLB. Instead, he has prepared mate for me in an Argentine cup on a bridge in Fremont. I have stuffed my face with tacos with him on lawn chairs in his former Los Angeles backyard. We send text messages about the discomfort of being brown people in white spaces. Two weeks ago, we pedaled nearly 20 miles around Chicago’s South Side before traipsing on unreliable rocks on the shore of Lake Michigan. We can munch on chips and guacamole in my patio under twinkling lights and interrogate each other about the inexplicabilities of the opposite gender. We can imitate Jon Miller’s “Travis Ishikawa” NLCS incredulity. We can analyze the Bernie Sanders’ effect. We can grow old and we can grow more together.

Play ball.

The Joy of Being Alyssa’s Friend

nashville alyssaOne day, you and your childhood best friend will finally fight. It will take more than a decade after she first walked up to you, likely wearing a forest green t-shirt with frogs on it, and you still had a ponytail mercilessly pulled back because your father had strong opinions about his daughters’ hairstyles. It took you more than five years to walk to her house by yourself, to trek the half mile and fierce intersection with K-Mart in the parking lot, because your parents’ raised you out of the city where everything was safe except the traffic. Your friendship has persisted even when you looked down on her for ignoring the quadratic formula as you made B’s in ninth-grade Algebra 2. Retrospectively, you both laugh about the day that you bawled on her shoulder the day on the pavement in the dismal church patio that day after your hamster died. One day, you tell her that as a 7-year-old, you had specifically prayed for a best friend. Somehow, you ended up with a homeschooled hapa born 13 days after you who shared your affinity for American Girl dolls and had a trampoline in her backyard. What a God.

Now, she has a ring in her nose and a ring on her finger and before you both turn 26 next year, two children on her lap. You have a college education; she has a developed a curriculum for teaching Hindi. You can both sing Taylor Swift songs. Your friendship almost entirely exists at the mercy of email servers. You have not stayed overnight in her Delhi apartment and sipped Lassi with her while the din of an Indian marketplace rings in your ears. She has not sat on a cast iron chair in your back patio underneath the twinkly lights and toasted with Trader Joe’s cava.

Once upon a time you argued and cried and articulated the reality of your emerging differences, truth-telling that propelled your relationship into your 20’s. Nobody really wanted to play make believe into the next decade.

You have both run away from your little Bay Area suburb. Even Katy Perry can be a California girl, but you were both destined to take on the world.

The Joy of Being Ashley’s Friend

ashleyAs the credits played at the conclusion of Inside Out, I reached across my armrest, took Ashley’s hand, and burst into tears. I had been warned from none other than The New York Times of the high probability of adult crying and that the provocation for this emotion would likely be a reconciliation between Joy and Sadness. But unlike those who screened the film as parents, I had spent the last two hours alongside a person whose value and delight in my life was inversely related to the amount of romantic misfortune we had both encountered. I squeezed her hand and let a couple tears drop before we started giggling.

My friendship with Ashley offers me a diary which talks back. It exists as a laboratory in which to develop theories and identify patterns of young female adulthood and use our own flirty text message exchanges, online dates, and DTR (Define the Relationship) conversations as data. Much of the analysis exists in weekday GChat windows and the sweat of antiquated t-shirts earned through double digit mile runs. Occasionally, it can be found in the sticky syrup still fixed to the wrappers of fruity Mexican ice cream popsicles we stick into trash compactors.

Running the gridlines of Chicago and the Minneapolis half-marathon may be the easiest obstacle we collectively have encountered all year. The predictability of running juxtaposed against the tumultuous relational life in which we have both found ourselves mired suggests that our easy exercise success has emboldened us elsewhere. So we move on to master the game of male attention—power-infusing, ego-debilitating, relentlessly intoxicating—relieved and (beyond) thrilled for a close friend in which to revel in it all.