White Mayonnaise, White Boss

In the Fall months of 2000, I had a stifling desk job during college to pay for gas and bar tabs. Across the aisle from my cubicle, there was a Richard Brautigan quote pinned to the grey fabric of someone else’s cube wall: “I have always wanted to write a book that ended with the word ‘mayonnaise.'”

These summer months in Ohio, because mayonnaise squats next to the ketchup and mustard towers at BBQ gatherings, and is mixed in every potato or macaroni salad, or slathered on a burger, my thoughts continue the 17 year saga wondering how I would end anything—poem, essay, or book—with the word mayonnaise. After a few minutes and discarding a few plot ideas, I remember the reason why I looked up so frequently that the quote bobbed relentlessly into my periscope, and has thus been haunting me for nearly two decades: my boss at this job— a petite blond woman—an administrative assistant who commanded the office with her Type A skills, who harbored some hybrid form of superiority via inferiority complex, took deep pleasure in ordering me around. I often looked up from my computer because she would often appear out of nowhere, “What are you up to?” As if she caught me red-handed trying to score a few extra copies of the latest how-to books we were launching that month; the edgiest instruction books on how to build bird cages out of tree limbs and hemp.

That would be my fate as I entered the labor world, into many aspects of adulthood, actually. I would take a job various industries—restaurant, daycares, retail, hospitals, counseling, healthcare, academia in order to pay for the quotidian needs of life and I’d find myself glancing up to see a white boss lady, often blond, who would only know me as her subaltern: an inconsequential being, certainly unthreatening with my mannerisms and pleasing rhetoric. Excruciatingly polite. Curiously overeducated.

I remember the iterations of her disapproval and my nascent comprehension of self. Her pointed nose, her bird-like face, eyes so sharp and hawkish. Nothing but skeleton wrapped in translucent white skin. She looked like she might bake a lot for other people. Not for herself. A tiny thing, but larger than her job, and knew it. Gleefully knew it. The others—the ones in much larger cubicles than mine, littered with framed pictures of pruney babies and Post-It To Do Lists stuck on top of printing and launch schedules, seemed fine. Absolutely committed to expressing variants of fine and just fine. I don’t know what I was expecting, but at the time, there was nothing more disappointing than a publishing house with brooms as people in the cubicle. The magic of reading was slightly spoiled by working there; the wizard was truly just another man with a bag of trinkets.

I did what I was supposed to for a couple months before lying about being overloaded with coursework and needing to quit. The last day of work, I remember heading toward the elevator, and she wasn’t at her desk. I didn’t wait for her return to say goodbye. I never saw the hawk again.

But she would be replaced with more hawks later in life, even bigger ones. And I’d continue to survive by writing in the notebook margins of those jobs, scribbling poems and riffs, plays and prose about power, love, dreams, and liberation before making up a lie and quitting because I couldn’t bear another second as someone’s subaltern. I was often told that under my pleasantry, I had a real problem with authority.  Glory be to writing; it has saved me in ways beyond material.

Almost twenty years later, I often find myself thinking of those white boss ladies, speculating what became of them, whether they’re reading this now, and wondering (still) if I’ll ever find a way to write about mayonnaise.

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On Leaving New York

On Leaving New York

IMG_8690I was a child here first. This is the city where my parents chose to enter the US from the Philippines which formed my first understanding of urban living as urban family. The social security numbers of my siblings and I show we were born here, around here. As children, my father drove us around in the old Impala to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree. I remember the sun-drenched slide at the playground, burning the backs of my sister’s and my legs when we slid down in our summer shorts. My name – Ana Lisa – comes from my two Lolas (grandmothers): Juana Fernandez and Elisa Factora. Elisa spent all of post-immigration years in NYC and died the night before the infamous blackout on August 14, 2003. When I was in my 20s, my best friend tucked my body with a barely-there pulse into her car after a devastating break-up and drove me from the midwest all the way to the East Village, where she fed me new music, poetry, and let me cry out my dark grief at Battery Park and then sat next to me on the top deck of the Ellis Island Ferry, riding the river between Lady Liberty and Manhattan until I began to show signs of life again. Many rituals of Filipino faith – weddings, baptisms, and funerals of my extended family – were celebrated on this cement. My family was here decades before and leaving is familiar. The oscillation between two states is what I’ve always known; I quasi-belong to a place I occupy only in intervals.

I began writing when I was eight years old, in a place called Massillon, Ohio, shortly after my family moved from the Atlantic shoreline to horizons of cornfields and pastures. To offer an alternate route for the deep ache of missing New Jersey and New York, my mother gave me a journal. That was 30 years ago. Mom, I’m still writing my thoughts about leaving New York. Again.

New York has birthed and eulogized many parts of my personal life, and its magic transforms me without delay or disappointment. It’s magical because of the deep relationship of my family’s history to the city. The stories of first and second generation Filipino-Americans is my narrative of New York, not the illusion of the Upper West Side bestowing the precious identity as a “writer in New York.” I am infinitely much more interesting than that. New York was given to me by my family, not the faculty at Columbia. I took up writing as a child, under the wing of my mom, not the fame addict who butchered the pronunciation of my name at graduation. I know the magic of this city because I’ve been here before and I’ve left it before. I can attest to its allure and I can also attest that the magic does not cure the hollow, pervasive loneliness of the writer, nor does it repair the erosion of empathy for the marginalized. The New York I know is multi-narrative and in this month-long goodbye in my series of life-long goodbyes, I want to bid one tip to the “New York writers” who don’t know any other narrative of New York other than your own: please stop offering me condescending looks and suggestions on my life decision to live elsewhere. Please close your lips.

I am equal parts mother and writer, traversing the unstable grounds of both vocations. Both writing and mothering necessitate the quotidian discipline of practice, practice, practice and establishing a familiar ease with failure, learning, and rejection. The decision to leave New York for Columbus was made using a lexicon that most “New York writers” are unfamiliar with; a lexicon that establishes life outside the conformity of trending unconformity; a lexicon supremely sensitive to the dis/connection between fulfillment and success. This lexicon has been built by experience, the decision to create a life with someone who – thank GOD – is not a writer, and the glorious grace called Your Mid-to-Late Thirties. This lexicon has roots in trust not trust funds, the desire to be with my aging parents, and the simple truth that neither Nick nor I can comfortably justify what New York requires for existence; a trade-in offer we are walking away from with peace. I love New York and rest comfortably knowing that the world is not New York. Leaving it can leave me devastated and thrilled at the same time.

To write, to write at the deepest level of consciousness and care that I can possibly reach, is to locate the primal voice, luring it out of of the cave of discretion into a robust and spined creature. To live, to live well means to taper the irrational urgency to pursue what’s greener on the other side because I’ve seen the evidence: both sides are equi-green. Living well means presence and absence, here and there, both/and, Ohio and New York, belonging but not, hyphens and halves, dwelling but never truly residing. Savoring but hunger, again, arrives with voracious demand. Life is cyclic. I’ve only known it that way. I’ve only known loving something, someone, some place so much that I can trust saying goodbye.

I’m not going to make a pronouncement or draw metaphors about the great madness and euphoria of this place. It’s been said. Each person who stays is right. Each person who leaves is right. The only person who is wrong is the one who invests their writing in the luminous skyline. The lights are real, but those lights, remember, do have a history of blackouts.

What the Hell is Creative Nonfiction?

What the Hell is Creative Nonfiction?

Taken from a presentation by Kaya Oakes, writer and lecturer

I am a little over three months away from beginning my program in literary nonfiction at Columbia. In the chaos and details of moving, I found it rather hilarious that folks keep asking me to define “literary nonfiction” and how that differs from journalism. There are plenty of differences, some explain it better than others.

I’ll start with Kaya Oakes.