Windows

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On Windows in my life…

1.
My childhood bedroom window used to have no sheers, just a patterned blue cotton fabric that my parents urged me to close in the nighttime. The walls of my bedroom were blue. A few years later, my parents asked what color curtains I wanted. Because I liked yellow, I asked for yellow curtains.

Did I mentioned I had light blue walls?

Blue + yellow = green. For ten years, I swam in swamp green. A decision made when I was eight years old colored my teenage years.

With the yellow curtains came sheers. My dad still told me to shut my curtains in the nighttime. My silhouette could be seen he said. I never wanted to shut them. I didn’t want my room to be green. And if I could not see out, who could see me inside?

2.
“In California, people really don’t like curtains,” said our interior decorator. She was excited to have clients who wanted curtains. My husband and I, both born outside of the state, wanted curtains with swags and jabots, borne of fabric so thick that light would not be able to penetrate. I wanted to shut the light out, and he wanted a luxe treatment. With every flourish and fabric we chose, her face beamed.

When she gave us her proposed drawings, we were filled with glee.

The lace curtains from Sears, circa 1950 from previous homeowners, came down. The upholstery-thick fabric went up in our south-facing bedroom.

I slept until noon for the first time in years.

3.
“Or you could just not care and not get shades,” said the shade vendor, who was fidgeting with my sink faucet, which had nothing to do with windows, so why was he touching it? “Sometimes, these young girls, they just hang out in their windows, like they want you to look at them.”

Ew.

“The people across the Bowery from you–they had to get curtains once this building went up.”

I wanted to usher him out the door. He’d already given me a price on the sunshades that bore the inclination to do so, and now I could smell the sweat on him in the new apartment festooned with half emptied UHaul boxes, a handle of a saucepan sticking out of one, and sheets pouring out of another.

I had been waking up at the break of dawn since we moved in.

“Get eyeshades said my friend,” and so I began to sleep beyond dawn, and until the sunlight moved across the room until I could feel the heat on my body.

At night, the tenants in the building across the street stare. I got binoculars. And stare back.

I put up California king flat sheets.

4.
It’s been 2 months since we moved in, since we got the exorbitant quote for shades. The sun comes up earlier now, and I awake briefly to fumble for my eyeshades. After several eyeshades, I have come across a pair that I like.

The binoculars are put away. I saw a naked woman in the hotel down the street, applying lotion for what seemed like an eternity. I told myself to not apply lotion in front of my open windows in the nighttime.

5.
I’m back in Berkeley now. In NYC, we ended up getting cheap curtains from Bed Bath & Beyond–blackout shades and cloth curtains. Totally utiltarian and functional. I slept. I am back in the house with the French upholstery fabric curtains. I am back walled off from the world.

And yet I cannot sleep in. Because I’ve a toddler who screams awake each morning.

I love her, but I cannot sleep.

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Subculture Subconscious

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This is a draft of a post from July 15, 2013…back in the deep throes of my postpartum depression and new motherhood. It’s unfinished. I didn’t post it, because what was there to say? What point was there to make? That this new life was difficult? That I was dying? But I want to post it now.

It’s not like this anymore, but I wanted to put this up, because it’s like this for a lot of people. And if I’m honest, I still have moments that remind me of these:

 

Motherhood.

I literally felt like I was slowly dying. Like when people asked me how I was doing (“How are you?”), I would answer, “I am slowly dying.”

For the record, responding with “I am slowly dying” is a conversation-killer. There’s not much you can say to that. Except, “What?”

To which I would reply, “I am slowly dying.”

There’s not much you can say to that. Except, “What do you mean?”

To which I would reply, “I am slowly dying.”

There’s not much you can say to that. Except, “What’s wrong?”

To which I would reply, “I am slowly dying.” Because I felt like the life force was draining out of me. Because I’d gone well under pre-pregnancy weight and now I was balding and I couldn’t remember anything anymore and all I wanted to do was sleep but sleep was the last thing I could do, because I had to take care of my kid-who-kicks-me-in-the-head-all-night. No matter what I ate, I’d keep losing weight. I figured out how to make fast-as-hell meals. I ate cheese cake. I ate ice cream. And yes, there were days I had zero time to eat at all.

My kid, otoh, has been Happy As a CLAM. (Why do they say that? Is it because clams look like they’re smiling?). She giggles and coos and smiles. She is thriving. She’s enormous–in the 97th percentile in height and weight. I could see my weight transfer to her body, my hair loss translate into her hair growth. I loved her to death. Literally.

Because in a sense, I am dying. I’m saying goodbye to my old life and building a new one. I am re-examining my life, my own childhood, in this little girl. I’m revisiting my childhood bliss and pain. What hurt me? How can I not hurt her?

When Serena becomes Catwoman, she dies. Peter Parker gets bit by a spider and gets ill, and becomes Spiderman.

Add on top of that–the psychic mirroring a child creates. It brings up all this past trauma–and if not trauma, emotions. Re-examining my own childhood. Re-examining my parents and my own parenting. That plus the sleep deprivation brings everything to a Whole Nuther Level Of Crazy.

But here’s the thing–a few things are saving my life these days.

My friends. In particular, this tribe of parents. In particular, the tribe of moms and stay-at-home-dads.

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Major Shout-out to our AWP Panel in The Atlantic

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Last year, I wrote a panel proposal on writing outside of your race in fiction for the AWP Conference 2014. Writing characters of another race is a topic with which I have long been entrenched–since the days of being in an MFA program, and I was psyched when it was accepted. This an important topic that begs discussion, and is yet rarely discussed in open space. And I was thrilled to have an opportunity to discuss something so sensitive at AWP with some respected writing friends and mentors.

At AWP a couple months ago in Seattle, we (Randa Jarrar, Patricia Engel, Mat Johnson, Susan Ito, and I) had an amazing audience turnout for our panel entitled “How Far Imagination: Writing Characters Outside Your Own Race in Fiction”–people spilled out into the hallway in attendance, and sat on the floor all the way up to our feet. At 10:30am in the morning on the first day of the conference, no less.

Needless to say, I was pleased with the reception. We had a very intense and enriching panel discussion, and then we segued into a Q&A that was largely audience-driven. I’m not sure in hindsight, as moderator, that I made the right call in calling first on a man who interrupted the panel mid-discussion.

“I have a question!” a man called out in the middle of our discussion.

I told him to hold off until our Q&A session. And so when our Q&A began, I felt obliged to call on him, first. Because I’m polite. And I’m a fairly competent moderator and I figured I could handle most conflict. Even though he is the kind of person who will interrupt a panel in mid-discussion because He Has A Really Important Question. I kind of regret calling on him first. But it at least opened the gates wide open on what is sensitive terrain.

And we made some lively and important points on the panel, much thanks to our brilliant panelists.

There are a couple reviews of our panel up on the web. There’s a brief one here. And if you want to read about our panel in detail (albeited biased detail), The Atlantic did a write up of AWP and gave a major shout out to our panel. I’m very delighted at the amount of real estate allotted to us, even if it did make panelist Randa Jarrar sound shrill and reactive, and the dude-with-a-question into a well-intentioned victim. But then again, I think you could write an entire article about the complexities of our panel topic and how they play out in the writing world.

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Excerpt/transcript of our panel after the jump…

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CD Giveaway: ANIMAL HOURS

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When I do a giveaway, they are usually books. Books I love. Books written by friends, mostly, because I want to support their work.

But the reality is that we writers are not only influenced by books, but also by music.

Like, I know jónsi is going in my novel acknowledgements. His music has accompanied the majority of my novel writing. He transports me. And helps me connect with myself and words and story. But I am always looking for new music–because there are days I need to unlock another corner of my mind for a scene, a character, setting, or new mood.

The music to which I write has to meet the above requirements.

Someone special and important in my life released his album last week. Orion Letizi’s record, DO OVER by ANIMAL HOURS, is a muse. You can download DO OVER on iTunes or cdbaby–but I’ve also decided to do a giveaway of DO OVER here on my blog.

The music is “indie-pop”–people have compared it to music by Elliott Smith and Beach House. There are days on which I’ve written to the album–and it’s produced some of the following lines in my novel revision/draft:

Migration during wartime is more push than pull. Nothing pulls you forward, nothing guides you, there is no hand outstretched towards your own. You stumble and fall and pass by orphaned children and mothers whose breasts have gone dry and who hold starving children, who cry without tears, because their bodies have no water to waste on sadness and pain and frustration. These people remind you that you are lucky, despite the blood soaking through your socks and shoes and your own stomach turning on itself in hunger, as your body eats muscle off bone.

The above is a rare peek at my novel-in-progress (I don’t usually share my work when it’s in progress) and will likely be revised further. It’s not perfect, but it came out of music. Music is inspiration.

There are some early comments on the album here and there on FB and twitter. Buzz will likely grow. And I hope you’re part of that buzz.

To that end, I’m doing a giveaway of the CD. I hope you win. If you do not, I hope you still buy and download some tracks or the album in its entirety. It’s about starting your life over. I think we can all relate to some or all of that.

Here’s how to enter:
1) Leave a comment below. (I appreciate “likes”–but that doesn’t enter you in the giveaway) You can say anything you want–e.g., you can choose to tell me why you want a copy of the album, or share an anecdote about something you had to do over…or just say you want the album because you want the album. Do fill out your email address when you fill out the fields in the comment box (it won’t be published to the world, but I will need it in order to contact you in case you win)!
2) 1 entry per person. If you tweet about this giveaway (please tag @xtinehlee in your tweet so that I can track it), you get an extra entry.
3) The giveaway is open worldwide.
4) If you win the contest, I will email you for your mailing address.
5) Winners will be chosen by a random number generator.
6) I will be announcing the contest winner on the blog. None of your personal information will be posted, aside from your first name and last initial (or the nickname you choose to list in your comment). If you see that someone else has entered the same name as you, please try to pick a different nickname to call yourself, so as to avoid confusion.

The deadline to enter a comment/tweet is Monday April 21, 2014 12:00pm EST. The winner (picked at random) will be announced Monday April 21, 2014 by 9:00pm EST.

GOOD LUCK!

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M is for Mourning: Ziggy the Wiener Dog, 1996 – December 17, 2013

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Ziggy the Wiener Dog’s cremains had been ready for pickup for several months. For three months, in fact.

“Do you want to pick him up?” I made the rare call to him to ask.

“No, can you?”

“All right. You okay with waiting?”

“Yes.”

And I took my time. After wading through the raw emotions when I picked up Scarlet the Wiener Dog so immediately after her death, I learned my lesson and took my time in carrying him home. I wanted to be ready. I waited. I waited months. I waited until the trees blossomed, and then after the blossoms fell.

I picked him up a couple weeks ago, my grief long processed in a grueling succession of bad news after next. He was in a box. A small box. He was a good dog until the end, always low maintenance and accommodating. His life with me bookended an amazing chapter in my life.

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I adopted Ziggy a couple months after my fiance broke off our engagement–there he was, a trembling little dachshund in my life. It was February 1998, in the middle of a rainy El Niño season; he had been found wandering the streets with his sister-dog. I was alone, too. Next year, the fiance and I got married.

I had no idea what would happen ten years hence, but I knew I would have a dog. He ended up being my constant for fifteen years. And he died a week after my husband asked for a divorce. If I had made this timing up and workshopped such a story, I’d be criticized for being too “device-y” and the timing too coincidental. But it happened. He came and went with my marriage like a wedding ring.

Ziggy just–died one evening. He rose, teetering, from his bed. Since Scarlet died, he spent a lot of time in that bed, napping.

My mother’s helper asked, “Um, is Ziggy acting weird?”

We were sitting in the den, playing with my baby before bedtime. I looked over. Ziggy was not walking straight. He had trouble standing. “Yes,” I said. So much had happened in 2013, I didn’t want to look yet another other Bad Thing in the eye. So I looked away. “I think he’s dying.”

“Really? What should we do? Shouldn’t he go to a vet?”

It was 7pm. He would have to go to the emergency vet. I shrugged. “I don’t think there’s much we can do. I’ll take him to the emergency vet. But he’s probably going to die.” I know I sound cold, but if you were there, you’d have heard the pathos in my voice. Also, I’d given up on all good news by that point.

I emailed my husband. I typed, If you want to see your dog, you should come see him now. I don’t know if he’ll live another week or another hour, but now’s the time.

So much had already happened.

I drove Ziggy to the vet, about 5 miles away, across town. The drive took the length of an Adele song, “Someone Like You.” At some point during the drive, my husband called.

“Are you serious?”

Yes, I said. Your dog is dying. Where are you?

Far away, he said.

Ziggy stopped breathing as I handed him over to the pet emergency veterinarians, a team of UC Davis doctors who then asked me, “Do you want us to resuscitate him?”

Why? I asked.

Because he’s stopped breathing.

Oh, I said. He was over 17 years old. It was time to let him go. No, I said. He’s an old dog. He had a good life.

“What’s happening?” I could hear the husband on the phone. This intertwining of my lives. The present, the past, the near and the distant.

“He died.”

“What?”

“Probably from a heart attack or stroke. My guess is a stroke.”

And then my ever-stoic husband started crying.

So much had happened.

My life was officially a country song.

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***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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View from the Slushpile

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I’m the Fiction Editor at Kartika Review, and I take great pride in sifting through KR’s slushpile (I personally read the whole slushpile) and connecting with the work of other writers. In fact, great friendships have come out of the slushpile; I keep in touch with them to this day, and hang out with them at AWP and online on twitter.

But the slushpile is not without its gripes. And I decided to tweet about some of the things I experience each time. I tweeted in real time, and I hope the advice is well received. My friend Elizabeth Stark aggregated them on a blog post at Book Writing World a few days ago.

Here is part of the list…

1) Reading thru @KartikaReview slush pile. Do NOT start ur story with 3 pages of ITALICS. No. Just, no. nonononononooo.

2) Reading thru @KartikaReview slush pile. Do NOT start ur Asian-themed story w mentions of rice paddies/kohl/silk/lotuses/etc. NO. nonononono.

3) Reading thru @KartikaReview slush pile. If ur NOT Asian, I do NOT want 2 hear abt ur travels thru Asia fucking prostitutes & smoking opium. (Don’t wanna hear if you ARE Asian, either–but so far, it’s not a trend for writers of Asian descent to write the above, thus the specificity).

I am considering tweeting about manuscript protocol, too…

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Acknowledge Beauty

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I was walking into the corner cafe to get coffee a few months ago. In the flurry of ripping off my gloves and hat in the sudden heated indoors, I nearly bumped into a beautiful woman.

This was New York City, where an acquaintance advised me upon my arrival with, “The people here are beautiful. A 10 anywhere else? That’s a 7 in New York City. And a 10 in New York City? 13 anywhere else.”

“Okay,” I said.

“No seriously. The people here are gorgeous. So gorgeous you think this is what people are supposed to look like.”

When you are surrounded by beauty, you can become blinded by its prevalence, take it for granted. When friends come over to visit me in Berkeley, they often ask me, “Do you even notice how pretty it is here?”

I always pause before replying, because I never like my answer. I see the landscape around me come into focus–the hills lush with greenery, the Bay Bridge looming in the distance, the light glinting off the pewter water, the sky blue and maybe misted with fog. The faint smell of jasmine. My answer is, “Most of the time I don’t.”

Someone I know has a ritual–at the end of each day this person says, “Another beautiful day.”

My reaction at first was, “Did you doubt it would be beautiful?”

“No, I didn’t doubt it. I just wanted to say it was a beautiful day.”

Huh. But then there was this woman in front of me. Tall, even though tall doesn’t mean beauty to me. Slim, even though slim doesn’t mean beauty to me. Alabaster skin. Raven hair. The most serene of facial expressions. Cheekbones that would cut my finger. Lips like cherries. The combination of her features were Snow White, incarnate. But still–it wasn’t just her appearance–it was something deep inside her psyche that struck me, made me stop peeling off my gloves.

“You’re beautiful,” I blurted.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“You’re beautiful!”

“Oh!” And then she blushed. She really blushed. I was shocked at her reaction, and it made her all the more beautiful. That she could be thrown off by such a compliment. That she wasn’t jaded by her beauty.

Acknowledging beauty is a powerful act. Do it. Tell someone beautiful that you think they are. Acknowledge a beautiful day. Acknowledge landscape. Acknowledge feeling. Acknowledge sensation. Acknowledge.

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