From Greek myth. A frightened and wild-looking Kronos eats one of his children.
Saturn, by Goya. 1820-ish.

There’s a painting by the Spanish artist Goya. It lives in the Prado Museum in Madrid, but you’ve probably seen somewhere. It’s a very famous painting. You can buy it on t-shirts and mouse pads and things. The Prado website just calls it “Saturn,” though I’ve also seen it called “Saturn Devouring His Son.” On a dark background, the Titan Saturn (the Roman version of the Greek Cronus), an old man, wild and desperate, is shoving a bloody, helpless body into his mouth.

I was listening to a podcast about the myth of Cronus eating his children this past week, and (perhaps using the Goya painting as an inspiration) it was very detailed in its description of how Cronus’ body changed and failed him after he started eating his children, who could not die, but who he also could not digest. How swollen and distended his belly became. How he became bedridden, trying to hide from the other Titans how uncomfortable he was, how weak. Cronus, who castrated his own father with a sickle, and was afraid of a prophecy that said that he would be deposed by his son in return.

There’s a lot of myths about power and how to use it, and some of them are about how power corrupts (hello, King Midas), but very few myths about it turning somebody grotesque, misshapen, monstrous. It makes me think a little bit of No Face in Spirited Away, eating customers in the bathhouse, or even of Chihiro’s parents, eating enchanted food until they turn into pigs. Jacob Marley, maybe, weighted down in the afterlife with chains and locks. It also made me think of the episode of The Simpsons when Springfield legalizes gambling and Mr. Burns gets even more filthy rich, and starts taking on qualities of Howard Hughes (oddly, it doesn’t make me think of Howard Hughes, who clearly had some mental illness stuff going on in addition to his enormous fuck-off levels of wealth and power, but Mr Burns has the privilege of just being cartoonishly evil).

A square of four images: No Face from Spirited Away, swollen and misshapen from overeating; Chihiro's parents from the same movie, turning into pigs; Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, chained up and pale; and Mr Burns from the Simpsons, bearded
Being corrupted has consequences, eventually.

What if the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth was a metaphor for power, and not just greed?

There’s a song that’s been running through my head basically since DJT was elected, but especially since George Floyd was murdered and America started going to protests instead of our jobs (because so many people had lost their jobs). It’s called “Timebomb Generation” by the hardcore band Strike Anywhere, and it was released in 2001. “What does it mean to take their power and push it away?/To overcome this culture and the lies they tell them everyday?/Find a voice for a better future and a place for you and I to face our fears/Fall down to rise back up.”

America is sick. For awhile we could call it polarization, division, culture wars, whatever. It started with racism, and it started with white people having power and wanting to keep it, and with every cultural revolution, white people scrambling to keep their power. Even if it harmed us economically, even if it harmed us spiritually. I suppose if we couldn’t be bothered about the physical and emotional trauma that we were inflicting on millions of African-Americans and Native Americans and Chinese people building railroads and Latino migrants in hieleras, it is particularly white-girl-naive of me to think that we would give a shit about our own spiritual, mental, and economic wholeness. We put billions of dollars into colonialism and imperialism and imprisoning and disenfranchising a huge part of our population, instead of building a system of empowerment and liberation that would surely benefit everyone. Right now in multiple police departments across the nation, officers are turning on the citizens they ostensibly protect with weapons of war because the citizens had the audacity to say that they don’t want to be policed any more, not this way, not at this cost. We cannot build a system of justice because we are too invested in our system of power, and too afraid to try anything else.

America is a wild-eyed, broken, bow-legged old man, terrified and eating his children in a futile hope to keep the world from changing.

Cronus created his own demise by eating his children (Greek myths are full of people who try to escape from fate and end up creating it). Next to him was his sister/wife/victim Rhea, losing child after child to his endless fear and appetite. Her desperation grew, and out of it came anger, and then vengeance, and a plan. Out of it came Zeus, and swaddled stones, and eventually, a warrior who could depose his old, sick, corrupt father.

What if Cronus had made different choices? Interestingly, in Greek myths, characters are often both ruled by fate and yet entirely in control of their own destiny. What if Cronus had accepted his deposition from power as inevitable, even beneficial, for the continued health of the universe he ruled over? What if he nurtured his sons and daughters, raised them to be a family, and work together?

What if he took the power and pushed it away?

How do we both acknowledge the power that we have, and use it to the benefit of those who have none…and then push that power away? Not in the silly context of saying “I renounce my white privilege!” as if that’s all it takes, but if we as a culture truly reckoned with what it would take to dismantle that system that gave us all this power, and corrupted us deep into our souls?

And what would the world be like if we did?

We Deserve a Better Storm and other thoughts on race and the X-Men

storm
Picture of Fox cartoon Storm aside, this entry is about the X-Men movies.

I don’t remember where I saw the comment. It was probably a tweet. I don’t even remember what the wording was, exactly, but the substance was something like: why, just before the climax in X-Men: Days of Future Past, are all the characters of color standing sentry (and then dying) outside, while the white dudes (and white lady) stay inside and save the world? How had this comic book franchise, of all the franchises out there, fallen into the same white-centered tropes and patterns of so many other Hollywood movies?

Well, shit, I thought. I love the X-Men comics precisely because they’re diverse and tell stories of othering and oppression, but the Forgotten Commentator was right. The X-Men movies (which, let’s face it, have been pretty white from the beginning) duplicate the tropes that have gotten so common and so tiresome over the decades: White people save the world, people of color are expendable. White people are the leads, people of color are the supporting cast. 

I’ve been mulling this essay over in my head for months, and have been hellishly blocked on it, but also unable to forget about it or move on. I watched all the movies again, taking notes, trying to make some kind of quasi-objective evaluation that didn’t feel right. I wrote a bunch of it and it was boring to read, even for me. And I could also write a whole thing on how if people of color don’t have any substantive parts in the X-Men movies, well, that’s totally natural, right? When you have actors as good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and a character as popular as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, of course there aren’t any prominent characters of color who last for more than half a movie. There just isn’t space in the story, you see. It’s a perfectly natural narrative/money-making decision. Why would they make a movie about Storm, who was perfectly terrible in the first movie, when they could make one about Wolverine, who was amazing?

Well. Let’s think about Storm for a second.

On the one hand, the X-Men franchise does a reasonable job of avoiding some of the most common racist tropes in cinema (Sassy Black Woman, Black Best Friend, Black Guy Dies First, etc). They avoid these pitfalls by…not having any Black people in the movies other than Storm until Days of Future Past. And Storm has basically no lines, especially in the first movie, where almost all of the ones she does have simply provide exposition (she asks how the adamantium got bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, for example).

Storm also has these conversational moments (in both the first movie, talking with Senator Kelly, and in the second movie, with Nightcrawler) where she sort of…stands in to speak to where prejudice comes from? Which is a little bit of a weird choice, from a character point of view. When she’s alone with Senator Human Purity, he asks if she’s afraid of “normal” people, and she says, “Sometimes. I think…I think I’m afraid.” She’s a member of a persecuted minority, being afraid isn’t a prejudice, it’s a reaction to her life experiences. The power dynamics are never addressed, it’s just fear=prejudice=bad. The Senator never reflects out loud where he thinks his prejudice came from.

That said, the emotion behind this line worked fine with the late-90s/early-00’s. Conventional wisdom back then was that bigotry stems from lack of understanding. But I don’t like that line anymore. I can see why Singer (a gay man who definitely saw mutaphobia more as a metaphor for homophobia/gay panic than anything else) included it, but hatred of a thing isn’t always because of fear of that thing. Sometimes hatred is a cynical power grab, because if you can convince other people to fear the thing, you have power over them. If Senator No Education For Mutants had more air time, I bet he would be the second. He doesn’t fear mutants. He thinks he can control and exploit other people’s fear of them. 

Anyway. Back to Storm. Goddammit, old white dudes, still distracting me from talking about Storm. In the comics, Storm is amazing. Her mother is Kenyan, her father American. Born in America, she grew up in Cairo, and as a young girl, survived a terrorist attack that killed both her parents and left her an orphan. She survived by learning to pickpocket, and eventually traveled south to the African plains and lived with a tribe there, where she learned how to master her mutant powers. She was already a powerful mutant in control of her abilities before Xavier ever found her and brought her back to New York (and yet somehow, later on we’re to believe that Jean is the true badass here? Pffft). She was the bedrock center of the X-Men team for a long time, taking over leadership of the team when Cyclops couldn’t do it. She eventually became the Headmaster at Xavier School for the Gifted. She always prefers negotiation and preserving life to fighting, but when she decides to fight, she is one of the most formidable opponents you could ever imagine. She beat Cyclops in battle. Storm is a fucking badass. She is amazing. Also, Bryan Singer had Halle Berry, an Oscar-caliber actress, in his cast! So what does he do? “Do you know what happens to a Toad when it gets struck by lightning?” Goddamit, Singer. Just…goddammit.

To be fair (?) to Singer, his problem may not be black women, but just women, as I also have serious problems with how Rogue is portrayed (Rogue is not some frightened, delicate flower who hides in her shell. Rogue is also a fucking badass. She is sassy Southern, not demure Southern). Mystique doesn’t have any lines, but she spends much of the climax fighting Wolverine, so you know she’s tough. Jean is powerful but there’s hints that she has powers that she doesn’t use because they are uncontrolled and “dangerous.” But Rogue seems lost, and Storm does nothing. It’s infuriating.

So in this movie, which is establishing the universe for future movies, there’s one character of color, and that character of color has almost no lines or character establishment. The white actors (who are great! Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman are all amazing) dominate the movie, and fans and movie-goers responded accordingly. With everyone responding positively to Wolverine and nobody responding to Storm at all, it becomes that much easier for the screenwriters to give Wolverine screen precedence on the next outing.

The racism we have here might be called where the fuck is everybody, because we are supposed to accept that just outside of the most diverse city on earth, in a school devoted to serving a population that are the result of random genetic mutations, most of the faculty of the school, and even most of the students that we see, are all white. Except for Storm. And that just carries on for another 5 movies and 13 years (including two solo Wolverine movies), until we get to Days of Future Past, where it turns out that the PoC characters who have been established are expendable. No setting up a multi-movie arc for Bishop or Warpath here.

Days of Future Past isn’t even where the expendable PoC tropes begin. In X-Men: The Last Stand (the third movie), a bunch of new characters are introduced when Magneto recruits new followers. Lots of these folks are PoC, which is cool (I really like Arclight, for the record), but we never get to know them, and a bunch of them die at the end of the movie. None of Magneto’s new recruits survive to have an impact on subsequent movies in the franchise. As far as I remember, none of them even appear in any of the subsequent movies.

And look, I realize that this is maybe not on purpose. The studio can certainly make an argument that there’s a finite amount of marketing space, a finite amount of space in a story, a finite amount of space in merchandizing, and that Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman just take up a damn lot of space. And a lot of folks will see that argument as having merit. But racism isn’t always on purpose, and impact doesn’t equal intent. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: Storm doesn’t have enough of a following to get toys made in her likeness or a movie made about her, so kids going to see the X-Men movies never learn enough about her to get curious, so they don’t demand more Storm, so the studio doesn’t make a movie that it doesn’t think people would be interested in. And we can all talk ourselves into never having people of color on screen and make it never about race at all.

So, no more Storm. No more Bishop, or Blink, or Warpath. No Sunspot. No Jubilation Lee. We had Lady Deathstrike, for a hot minute, but she’s gone. And whatever reasons you or the studio wants to give for why we had three Wolverine movies and no movies about Storm, I think that sucks.

 

 

Random Tangent #1: I know that Magneto often plays the role of the villain in the comics, but can we just take a minute and sit with the fact that all the villains in these movies who hold systemic power and influence (Senator Kelly, Colonel Stryker, Bolivar Trask) are tertiary villains, passing fads, while the primary, unkillable nemesis is…Magneto? The Jewish war refugee who lost his family (twice!), whose anger and grief is deep and cold and bottomless, and whose reaction to oppression may be summarized as, “You killed my family and there is no justice for that so come on, just try it, try anything, because I have been looking for an excuse to drop a football stadium on your heads”? That’s…not how oppression works at all, actually. Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender are both great. And it’s really hard to make a compelling narrative about fighting a power system (see also: the Captain America: Civil War movie, which took all the thematic conversations in the comics about freedom vs oversight and made it into a personal beef between Captain America and Iron Man). But also, making the survivor of a genocide into a perpetrator of terror while white villains disappear in between movies is not a politically neutral decision.

Random Tangent #2: Speaking of evil-doers, in X2: X-Men United, the most queer-coded movie of the entire franchise, the baddie is Col. William Stryker, who enslaves mutants as part of his master plan to eradicate them. Near the climax, it’s made clear that his son is also a mutant. Stryker declares that he “has no son,” rather than accept the fact that a) his son is a mutant; b) he has subjected his son to brutal scientific experimentation to control him because he can’t accept him; and c) he is sitting right there. (Perhaps it wasn’t intended to refer to this at the time, but when I watch it now that line makes me think of the ex-gay movement that holds gay kids captive and brainwashes them into trying to be straight). There’s adults out there who haven’t talked to their parents since they came out in the late 90s, because their parents disowned them. There’s kids out there right now living on the street because they can’t safely live with their parents, because their parents are homophobes. William Stryker declaring that he has no son is perhaps the most pedestrian, believably evil line in that entire movie.

Anti-Racism as Practice

It continues to be a hell of a week (this week has been, what, four months long now?). I can’t go to protests and I spend way too much time on social media, so one of the many things I’ve been watching, along with white folks showing up and protesting alongside black folks, is white folks learning about systemic racism and police brutality in real time. It got me thinking about how I started learning about these issues over a decade ago. Not just about events in my life or people I’ve known who influenced me, but what is it about me, that predisposes me to care about this stuff? I’m not unique in my experiences. When did this state of affairs creep into your consciousness? And why do some of us (white people) let it change our consciousness, and some of us dig in and refuse?

I know there’s a lot of white people out there who just realized the depth and breadth of racism and injustice in America (welcome!), and there’s a ton of blog posts out there pointing people towards books and TED talks and resources. You should check in with all that. This isn’t that, this is about the perspective that I try to keep, things I remind myself of before I act. These are the things that I do inside my head, every day, when I can’t go to protests or smash the police state.

Disclaimer #1: I am in no way saying that I am a great ally, or even a good ally. I’m trying to be, but I’m not the one who gets to decide if I succeed. I think I’ve got some stuff down. I know there’s a lot of stuff I still need to work at. 

Disclaimer #2: While obviously PoC are welcome to read this and weigh in, this is definitely a post by a white person for white people and is likely to contain some white feeeeeeeelings (and/or acknowledgement of same). If you don’t have the time or energy for that, that is totally legit.

1. LISTEN and TRUST. This is the one thing I’m willing to claim that I do well, since it’s a running theme in my entire life, not just when I’m trying to be an ally. When people tell me how their lives are, or what they want, I just…believe them. Which should not be a radical act, but in the context of racism in America, not believing Black people is the #1 fundamental thing that White people must do in order to maintain this system. Outside of anti-racism practice, this trustingness probably means I get taken advantage of by panhandlers with sob stories (shrug), and I miss a lot of undercurrents in office politics, and the “honeymoon phase” of relationships is secretly hell because I believe all the soppy things that men tell to me during that time and have trouble readjusting later. But it also means that when an older black lady from my church says she’s been subjected to racism her whole life, I believe her. I don’t have any reason not to. When another older black lady tells me that racism is why she retired as an associate law professor, not a full professor, I believe her. Why would I not? What does that get me, or them?

Flipside: Learning to trust Black people when they describe their lives and experiences, trusting that they are right about those experiences, means learning to distrust institutions like the police, the media, and politicians who are trying to get elected to things. This is basically a project all on its own, and one that (specifically in the context of distrusting the media) I still struggle with. I have spent the last three weeks repeatedly falling for police/media propaganda (I definitely shared pictures of the cops kneeling for the protesters, for instance), then catching myself and backing up and readjusting my mental viewfinder.

You have to listen to people, if you’re going to learn anything. You have to believe that they are the experts on their own lives. You have to believe that they have no reason to lie to you. If they say something that doesn’t jive with your own understanding or personal experience, chalk that up to a difference of experience, not misdirection or misperception.

Which leads me to

2. HUSH. Just hush. Just listen. Don’t argue. Arguing with white people is exhausting. Every black person with any kind of public persona has to do it all the time. The one black person who works in the same department as you probably just wants to get work done, not talk about racism and white privilege to all of her co-workers that she never exchanged a social word with until two weeks ago. 

You can practice hushing and still get your questions answered! On social media, look in the comments. Chances are you’ll see some other white person with the same question as you. See if someone answered that person. Don’t be asking people to answer the same question over and over.

If you don’t see an answer to your question, hang tight. People often address the same topic over and over. It’s a side effect of the fact that we like to talk about the things that we feel very strongly about, and most of us have a limited number of things we feel strongly about. We talk about what’s going on in our lives, a lot. What a lot of black people have going on in their lives is racism. Some of them choose to talk about it publicly, and those that do, will talk about it regularly. If someone says something you don’t understand or disagree with, I promise you lose nothing by letting it slide by. Lurking is good for you, and good for the person whose feed you’re reading. Remind yourself of all the things that person said that you found powerful and true, remind yourself of all the stuff they’ve already taught you (for free!) and just let it go. The subject will come around again. And the person will make their point differently, or they’ll talk about another aspect of it that they didn’t mention before, or they’ll link to an article. And you’ll have learned more in the time between. Your ears will hear better. It’ll be different. Keep listening. Keep learning. Figuring out racism and how it functions is a process

And hey, eventually you’ll hear something that you don’t agree with completely, even if you understand exactly what the person speaking is trying to convey. That’s fine. But you don’t have to open your mouth to say it in somebody’s mentions (go back to the paragraph above, and remember that somebody else has probably already said it). Just let it go. It’s fine.

Remember that Google is a thing! Try googling your question, or asking a handy reference librarian. Many, many times, the question you are wondering about has already been asked and answered elsewhere. A lot of the topics that are currently under discussion–racism in policing, lopsided city budgets, the broken criminal justice system–have literally decades of academic discussion and research out there, because these are problems that we have declined to solve for decades. Which, in terms of treating our fellow citizens with actual justice and compassion, is very very bad. But for you, person with questions who just wants to know more, it means that there is so much information and analysis out there, waiting for you to find it.

3. READ. KEEP READING. There’s a million reading lists out there for people who want to learn about racism and white privilege in America. I’ll refrain from making another one here. But this isn’t about homework. This isn’t about how you can read The New Jim Crow or watch 13th and call it good. And maybe you don’t like reading! That’s fine. (Try listening to something on audiobook?) But if you’re an American, I bet you take in a lot of art and media, one way or the other. You gotta diversify that shit. Like reading fantasy? Find black fantasy authors. Like movies? Find movies by black directors, writers. Watch movies from Africa (I hear Nigeria is fostering a growing African movie industry). Podcasts? Music? History books? Television? Comics? Is your local art gallery organizing a showing of local black artists? Can you tell them that that’s something you would like to see?

And don’t make it all about racism, either. I mean, maybe at first. You gotta learn about racism and how it functions and how our society got the way it is. That is a project that’ll keep you busy for a while. But don’t get yourself into a place where the only stories you know about black people are ones of discrimination or oppression. Part of de-colonizing your mind is hearing more stories, different stories, new stories. Give yourself a break and watch a Tyler Perry movie. There’s a black dude out there who makes videos where he raps with his cat. Watch the Nicholas Brothers dance. Learn about the pre-MJ history of the Moonwalk. Or the history of go-go in DC. Maybe Jordan Peele has a list somewhere of his favorite movies by black directors? Who are some badass black visual artists working these days? I don’t know. You do you, and you like what you like. You’re most likely to be successful if you diversify a type of art you already like, instead of trying to foster a whole new interest just because it’s done by black people.

I did this/am doing this (my book collection was White As Shit until about five years ago), and I don’t regret it. Not even for “And now I’m a better person! And I know more about black people!” reasons, but because you don’t always realize how many of your stories are the same until you start taking in different stories, by people from different backgrounds. And then you start to realize you’ve been cheated, all this time. There is so much stuff that the white folks who run music companies, movie studios, and book publishers have been keeping from you because they didn’t know how to market it. There is so much fucking creativity and beautiful art out there, but if you don’t specifically go looking for black folks (and other marginalized voices), they’re not likely to end up in your bookcase by accident, because marketing is also racist.

Also, reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy. Go find stories! They’re good for you!

4. Perspective. There is a weird tension in trying to be anti-racist. Being a racist is the worst thing in the world, right? We (white people) have all been trained from babyhood to reject it. We’re not racists. We perceive the mere accusation as violence. If you want to shut down a conversation with a well-meaning but ignorant white person, call them a racist, or use the word white supremacy. We deflect those accusations reflexively. Being called a racist is the worst.

We gotta get over that. Every white person is racist. If you grew up in America, especially if you grew up in a segregated neighborhood (and most of us did!) and you’re white, you’re racist. You can’t help it. It’s not your fault. It’s because the country is racist. The air is racist. It’s a miasma. You can’t keep it off you. By the time symptoms developed, it was already too late. It sucks, but you’ve got to get over it. You’ve got to admit it. That’s the only way we move forward. As a friend of mine said the other day, “Once I realized and admitted I was racist, it was freeing. I had nowhere to go but up. Every step was progress.”

It might be a little like admitting you’re an addict? (Or this might be the worst metaphor ever.) Addicts do some heinous shit sometimes, they do damage, and they may not realize they’re doing it (or not realize the impact), because they’re addicts and they’re using. Call them an addict, and they’re offended, they’re mad, they storm out, they don’t want to know you. But when they reach their own moment of clarity, when they can call themselves an addict, when they can look around with clear eyes and see the part they’ve played in their life turning into whatever it’s turned into? That’s when they can start to move forward.

So, you’re a racist, and that’s okay.

Except it’s not okay! Don’t forget! Being a racist is still the worst thing! Our system of racial oppression is still terrible and it’s eating people alive! We have to undo it. In order to undo it, we have to acknowledge it’s there. To acknowledge that it’s there, we have to admit our part in it, and its effect on us. 

Racism is the fucking worst thing but admitting that doesn’t make you the worst person but also it’s the worst thing and we have to dismantle it right now. It’s the worst, but it’s not, but it is. Clear?

5. When you fuck up. Because you’re going to fuck up! You’ve been breathing in racism your entire life and you just started to change your perspective like, five minutes ago. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet. So you’re going to fuck up, and it’s going to hurt even worse than it did when somebody called you a racist before you realized you were a racist, because now your whole thing is understanding how much harm black people experience every day but you’ve contributed to that harm and that sucks that we can’t seem to stop hurting black people, even when we’re on their side. So: You’ve fucked up, you’ve said something hurtful that you didn’t realize was hurtful, but a black person has told you it’s hurtful (and you believe them, because you’re still following #1 on the list). What do you do?

  1. You say you’re sorry.
  2. You thank them for telling you what you did wrong.
  3. You shut the fuck up.

You’re going to want to say more. White people, we’re used to having our emotions and grievances listened to. If we’re white women of a certain demographic, we’re used to processing those emotions. We’re used to being validated, one way or another. We’re so used to it, we reach out for it and demand it from others without even realizing we’re doing it. Listen to me: It is not a black person’s job to help you process your emotions or listen to you explain where you were coming from or what you were trying to say. Stop. Stop that. This is such a common spiral that white people fall into when we’re being corrected that it’s got a name now: White tears. It takes over conversations and suddenly now we’re talking about how sad Karen is because Tara told her she was racist, and not about the harm and the hurt that Tara is feeling.

Find a fellow white person to process your shit with. (Preferably one who also knows how racism works who won’t tell you that Tara was just being mean and validate all your white feelings.) Needing to process is fine! Needing to feel your feelings is fine. Needing to let some stuff out before you circle back around to working on not being racist is fine. Do not feel your feelings at black people. I promise you, experiencing racism is worse than being called racist. Take a deep breath, leave the conversation for a minute if you have to, come back when you can be a person participating in a conversation instead of dominating it. 

And remember: Hard as it is to hear, being told you’ve said or done something shitty is also an opportunity. On some level, that person wouldn’t have told you about the harm you’d done if they didn’t think you were capable of learning to do better. 

(Tangent: Back in 2012 [I think it was 2012 because I remember Mitt Romney was in the picture], Dreamers and immigration activists kept shouting at President Obama and interrupting events, trying to push him into doing something about the Dream Act. I think at one event he actually departed from his planned speech and responded to them a little bit. They were notably not shouting at Mitt Romney [who was running for President at the time], or John Boehner [who was Speaker of the House] or Eric Cantor, or [as far as I remember] any of the Democratic Senate leadership. A journalist actually asked one of the activists, Why are you yelling at Obama, who is on your side, but not at any of the Republicans who are blocking the legislation, or at Mitt Romney, who is super high profile and would get you attention if you engaged in civil disobedience at one of his campaign stops?

Their answer: They thought Obama was the mostly likely person to actually get something done for them. They knew that yelling at Republicans was a waste of breath. They weren’t out for attention, they were out for actual change. So they yelled at the guy that they thought might actually change something.

I’m sure that Obama did not like being yelled at [though as far as I remember he handled it with grace]. But I hope he knew why they were yelling at him, specifically, and maybe felt a little bit…honored? Flattered? Slightly less annoyed than before?]

So. Remember. Black people are asking you to change. They are trusting that you can. Don’t tell them you’ll do better. Shut the hell up and do better.

This ended up being a lot of words to describe some things that are really pretty simple. They aren’t always easy. But they’re simple, once you get down to them. Believe Black people. Listen to them. Seek out their stories. Change and grow as a person. Destroy white supremacy. You can do it.

In the middle of All This

Oof. It’s been a week, hasn’t it, Best Beloved? A year. An interminable, endless year.

I had at least half an entry in my head last week (was it last week?), when the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park who (among other things) doesn’t think that dog leash laws apply to her and will enforce that belief by threatening random black men with murder-by-cop, was circulating. But then George Floyd was murdered, and then protests, and then riots. I don’t know that I have anything like a cohesive post, but I got some things. (Also, I’m not the first to say any of these things.)

A.) I was accused of having a “laundry list” of things that worried me more than property damage when I responded to a person on social media who was lamenting property damage. And…yeah. I do indeed have a long-ass list of concerns. Because I am 38 years old and this list has been growing for my entire lifetime and then some. That’s the thing about lists, and grievances, and grief, and trauma: they don’t go away when you ignore them. They sits there, festering, self-replicating, creeping out the cracks in the walls until the walls lose their integrity and come tumbling down. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up…or does it explode?

What “rational” response should people be engaging in right now? Colin Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest and lost his job. MLK engaged in peaceful protest and he was murdered. How many black people have to die, and the people who killed them face no justice, before it’s okay to break some shit? Activist Stokely Carmichael said that, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” It’s clear that forces with power in the US are fine with ignoring peaceful protest; violent protest they can squash with guns and tanks and then do what they can to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. Because if activists really wanted change, they would do this shit nonviolently, right? And they think we’ll forget that activists already tried that, have been trying that, will continue to try that. What’s left, then? What are folks supposed to do?

How long are communities expected to go without health care, including mental health care? How long should activists spend trying to reform the criminal justice system, to get nonviolent offenders out of jail, to get cops to stop killing people? Does systematically depriving children of an education because you don’t want to pay for schools count as violence? What about systematically depriving children of their parents because you want to house them in a for-profit jail system and make money off of them? What about systematically putting children in jail because you don’t know any other way to change their behavior? How do we change all that? I agree that lighting a dumpster on fire won’t directly change that, but neither has decades of direct activism and hard work, so I got no answers and I’m not going to judge the people who got to the end of their rope and found that it dropped off a cliff.

B.) Just after George Floyd was murdered, I said on social media (kind of offhandedly, while talking about something else) that I thought it was important that videos like that be shared. That white people should watch them and not look away. I changed my mind, though, after seeing multiple people of color (on other social media platforms, not in my mentions) talk about how traumatizing they find these videos. How they’ve become more traumatizing over time because it’s a cycle now: graphic video/protest/nothing happens/rinse/repeat. To watch black people die, over and over and over, is traumatizing. To have it show up, unasked-for, in your social media feeds, is exhausting. When’s the last time you saw a white person murdered on camera? When’s the last time that got broadcast over and over on CNN? We (white people) have to expand the definition of “don’t look away” to something beyond “share shit on facebook.” Or if you’re going to share that shit on facebook or twitter, commit to doing something else, too. Contact your congressperson. Donate to a bail fund. Make some art. Buy some art from a person of color. Don’t just feel sad/mad for a minute, share the news story, and move on. Do something.

There was a time when it was important to see and share and take in these videos, along with other accounts of the trauma and danger that people of color live through in this country every day. I’m glad that more people seem to believe people of color when they tell their stories now. I wish we white folks could have gotten there without the need for video documentation, but it is what it is. Now we have to keep believing them and keep sharing stories and do it in a way that isn’t traumatizing our friends and family and people who are just trying to walk through the world without getting killed or harassed.

If sharing videos of these atrocities could have stopped them from happening, they would have stopped by now. But the death of Philando Castile didn’t even galvanize change in the state of Minnesota. We gotta do something else.

(Also: relying on videos and viral sharing is a bad way to do justice, friends. There’s no way it can reach every murder, galvanize every city. Look at the difference in reaction between George Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s. Is one of them more deserving of justice than the other? Is one of them, at this moment, more likely to see justice served? This is what we’re talking about when we need systemic change. We can’t rely on social media to catch everyone who deserves justice and find it for them.)

C.) Talk to your people who still believe that colorblindness is how we solve racism. It is not. Thinking and talking about race is hard and uncomfortable, especially when you’re a well-meaning white person who doesn’t want to piss anybody off. It still is for me, and I’ve been reading/thinking/talking about systemic racism and whiteness for well over a decade now. We have to know our own history and how racism is tied into it. You think the Nazis and the fascists and the slavery nostalgists don’t know this history? You think they don’t use our ignorance against us, to outflank us and cause harm to PoC and Jewish people, every step of the way? They use our loyalty to and investment in colorblindness and they make us complicit in the harm they cause. It’s one of the reasons why people of color end up doing so much of the labor, physical and emotional. This investment in not acknowledging race or racism has never helped black folks. It has only helped white supremacy.

And we have to start talking about this shit with kids. Kids can see the difference between how white folks live and how black folks live. They want explanations. They want to know why the world is the way it is. And right now, with white kids, a lot of the best explanations they can find is coming from racists. And that’s a problem, right? We can agree that that’s a problem?

I remember going to punk shows as a teenager, and reading zines, and the ARA (Anti-Racist Action) would hand out and distribute fliers from the SPLC showing different names and logos and code words of white power groups, publications, websites. I got warned off Skrewdriver before I even knew anything about them. There was no hoping that failing to recognize them would make them go away. Instead, there was positive action. Naming them. Showing what they looked like. Forcibly ejecting them from shows when they were recognized. Maybe if white liberals had learned how to talk about racism forty years ago, Bannon and Miller and the other racists in this administration could not have gone so unchecked for so long, or built up the empires that they have.

When Trmp says, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he is quoting somebody. Do you know who he’s quoting? I didn’t, I found out like two days ago. Were there white nationalists out there who heard him say that and understood exactly what he meant? You bet your ass. And yeah, maybe he didn’t know who he was quoting either (it’s not like he reads anything), but I bet that somebody in the White House does. Somebody put that line in his head. Learn to recognize dogwhistles and call them out, if you do nothing else. If today is your first day looking around and thinking, Holy shit, maybe there’s something to this racism thing, welcome! You don’t even have to start with systemic racism or implicit bias or white privilege! Our president is giving real-time lessons in how racists talk to each other when they don’t want to be obvious about it. Learn the language.

Black people have known how to talk about race for decades. White racists have known how to talk about race for decades. We white liberal antiracists have to learn how to talk about it too.

D.) White women in particular: Don’t forget about Amy Cooper. Watch that video, and sit with that. That was such a perfect fucking textbook example of how white women wield their social standing and their fear to enforce racist outcomes in this country.

E.) Buy work by black artists, musicians, and writers. Support their podcasts. Find their patreons. Share those videos. Listen to those stories. Lift up voices, allow other perspectives into your feed.

F.) This is all aspirational for me too. I’m not saying I’m great at doing any of this, but it’s past time I redirected some energy into trying harder. We all need to pay attention, and keep paying attention. Learn what hushing up and letting other people talk looks like (it probably doesn’t look like this entry, which I realize is full of all kinds of white-centered thoughts and feelings, but that’s what blogs are for, I suppose).

G.) Stephen Dubner, the host of the radio show/podcast Freakonomics, has started signing of off episodes with the phrase, “Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else.” I like that. I might start using it.

Take care of yourself. If you can, take care of someone else.

 

Poets I’m reading this week: Langston Hughes. Martin Espada. Danez Smith. Ross Gay.

Prose I’m reading and/or listening to: Roxane Gay, NK Jemisin, Stokely Carmichael, W Kamau Bell, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Frederick Douglass (1852 Fourth of July Speech), MLK Jr (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Music is good: Jurassic 5, the Flobots, the Gossip, Le Tigre, Strike Anywhere, Lizzo, Yo-Yo Ma.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones Listening Party: While We’re At It

Cover art for Bosstones' album While We're At ItOh hey, remember how like two years ago I was listening to the Bosstones’ discography and writing about it? The band put out a new album. Like a year ago. Let us get started with this ultra-timely review/listening party.

While We’re At It was released in June of 2018. Officially added to the band’s membership in the liner notes is John Goetchius, on keys, and Leon Silva, on saxophone. (Silva has also played with Justin Timberlake and I’m pretty sure I saw him in Bruno Mars’ backup band during a Superbowl Halftime show.)

Disclaimer that I’m going to be hitting pause a lot because I haven’t listened to this album as much as others and still need to refer to lyrics.  (I’m sure you will both notice and care about this.) Also I saw a review of this album that referred to Dicky Barrett’s lyrics in general as “cynically positive” which is actually a pretty great descriptor.

1. “Green Bay, Wisconsin.” I love this song. So so much. There is so much in here that this no-coast ska-loving girl can relate to. “She drew Walt Jabsco with a Sharpie fine point marker.” Check. All over my school notebooks and on a few tshirts. I didn’t have a Fred Perry parka or a Vespa, but driving all night to get to a show (rather than a motor scooter rally)? Check. Drove from Denver to Reno. Denver to Oklahoma City. Denver to Florida. Denver to Chicago. Denver to Bozeman. And more. All for shows. “She had to let the living part of life begin.” I remember being in high school with the very explicit feeling that I was waiting for life to begin. Like high school was just a thing I had to get through to get to the next thing, and I couldn’t wait to get it done (and then of course, life snuck up on and slipped past me, as it’s wont to do). “Moving on forward, she rallied and she ran/Romped the moon stomp she did the running man/Skanking and a-ranking full stop and full force/One step way beyond with no apologies regrets shame or remorse.” There’s something in here that’s like a fan letter to fans, a love letter to people who love ska. Something for people who couldn’t make ska (or motor scooters) their life, couldn’t do it for a living, but still centered it and loved it and marked their lives by it. Also, I enjoy the hell out of Joe Gittleman’s bass on this song.

2. “The Constant.” I have heard that this song is better live than on the album, but I haven’t heard it live yet (soon! December! Soon!). I admit this doesn’t stand out as one of my favorites on the album, but it is for a lot of the 737. If I was still working in coffee shops, spending a bunch of my time bored and frustrated with hurting feet, I would probably relate to this song a lot more, but as it is I see it as a song that’s about a lot of true things that don’t (mercifully) apply to me, not at the moment. Also I just noticed that Jimmy Kimmel has a writing credit on this with Dicky instead of any of the usual Bosstones.

3. “Wonderful Day for the Race.” The band released this song as a single before they released the whole album, so I had a lot of early love for it, love that has not abated with many repeated listens. It’s an optimistic song for a not-so-optimistic time. I love the fake out ending. I love running to this song, it’s got a great tempo that more or less matches my running cadence (“Graffiti Worth Reading,” off the album Pinpoints and Gin Joints, also matches my cadence. And because the first lyric is “The end is near,” I try to put it toward the end of the playlist). Dicky has written a lot of songs over the years about people. He’s a storyteller, and I think he finds people interesting. He’s one of the few songwriters I can think of off hand who writes songs about people that he’s not romantically interested in (though he writes those too). Boston politicans, his mom, old guys in bars with stories, homeless people. Dicky seems like a guy who cares about people. He doesn’t make a thing of it, he just does it. “Every day until it’s done, I’m talking about the human one.” Yep.

Also the song is ending! Oh wait no it’s not! One more chorus!

4. “Unified.” A sweet, sorta rootsy ska song. When I look at the lyrics as a whole, I admit I’m not sure I know what this song is about. Sometimes I feel like it’s about social and political movements, about gaining ground in a culture war that wants to grind you down, in which case I’m not super fond of the lines “We are with you not against you/We only hope you have the common sense to/Realize we’re on your side,” because I see sentiments like that get thrown around on Twitter all the time when somebody, say, calls out the racism or ableism inherent in some otherwise-well-meaning white person’s unintentionally fucked up comment. (“Could you guys all stop yelling at me? I’m on your side!”) Such sentiments are natural and understandable but also not helpful. But there’s also nothing in the lyrics that point to a political movement, except for words like “unified.” Similarly, it could be about Hillary Clinton, except I don’t have much to back up that theory except the timing of the release of the album and it’s juxtaposition next to “Wonderful Day for the Race” in the track listing.

It could be about another band making it big and finding out that that’s not everything they hoped for? Dicky has written about the dangers and mixed rewards of “making it big” before (“Failure has far too many fathers/Succeed and you’re an orphan till you die”). There is some in here that sounds like that: “Make a killing if you’re willing to do what it takes and then/If you’re willing then have at it/Have a field day if you haven’t had it/And have the wisdom and the wherewithal too call if you should break again…It’s not something you signed on for/What you were built for or designed for…”

Chris Rhodes’ trombone in this song is so sweet and warm in this song, too. And there’s little rolls that Joe Sirois plays on his drums.

In the cover art for this album, there’s hints that this is the last in a trilogy, which Dicky has also basically said in interviews. It’s the third album they released after reuniting. Am I going somewhere with this thought? I don’t know if I’m going anywhere with this thought.

5. “Divide.” Gee, I wonder what made them decide to put this after the song called “Unified.” This is probably also why I think of “Unified” as more political than it maybe is, because this one has some fairly obvious allusions to US politics. “Unpredictable/Unstable and erratic/As loose as any cannon/And that’s being diplomatic” is probably about one specific guy. “Divide/Let them think they have a choice/Tell them that their rights are equal/Tell them that they have a voice” could be about right-wing propagandists and media outlets that make profit by enraging their audience/readers. They make money by dividing people. I don’t really know. It’s a short little song, not very specific.

6. “Closer to Nowhere.” I love the groove in this song. I can totally dance to this. I’m not sure what it’s about, except that it starts with somebody trying to tempt Dicky into a card trick. The second verse is him getting sold New Age hokum (he mentions a God’s eye, bonsai, rosary beads, Buddha, dreamcatcher, sacred bell, Hindu tapestry…and that’s not even the end of the New Agey decor list). This song contains the excellent line, “I flipped through a copy of Eat Pray Love/I didn’t judge, you know I don’t sometimes,” which I find hilarious. I don’t personally find Dicky judgmental but maybe that’s because I usually agree with him. I have heard some people put forward the opinion that they think the Bosstones should stop talking about politics at their shows which, if you know literally anything about the Bosstones (personally or musically) is a hilarious thing to say.

The last verse of this song mentions a couple things that I have no context for (Barney Blackstone and Monday Moonbeam), and I admit I have very little context for understanding the chorus or the title and how it fits in with the stuff going on in the chorus (anyone want to enlighten me?) but I still enjoy the hell out of the song.

7. “Walked Like a Ghost.” I don’t know what to say about this song. It’s one of those happy-sounding ska songs that’s actually about something unutterably sad. The Sarah, Lily, and Grace that are mentioned are the Badger sisters (ages 9, 7, and 7) who died in a house fire on Christmas Day, in 2011. Their grandparents were also killed. Their mom and their mom’s boyfriend survived; the girls’ father (who the song is about) lived in Manhattan. He died in 2017. “He walked like a ghost/Up until the day he was/When something like this happens/I guess that’s what someone does.”

8. “The West Ends.” More ska! More lyrics that I love from Dicky! More songs about gentrification and Boston changing and how much that sucks! (See also: “I Want My City Back,” on the album Jackknife to a Swan.) Also about what people say about other people, when they’re moving in on their space and tearing it down and making it so that they can’t afford to live there anymore.

I realize that a lot of what I’m writing in this entry is about what the song’s about, instead of what I associate with the songs. A big part of that is just how new the album is; it hasn’t had time to work its way into the fabric of my life that way that, say, Let’s Face It has. But this song does bring to mind walking around Boston with the Skippy and Christine and Adam and Flynn and Steve looking for hot chocolate or cannolis, or dim sum, or pizza. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to the West End. “This one’s a bullfinch, I love every brick/The streets are so narrow and the accents are thick.” They spell it bullfinch in the published lyrics, though it’s clearly a reference to Charles Bulfinch, an 18th-century architect responsible for many prominent buildings in and around Boston (and also, apparently, DC). His son wrote Bulfinch’s Mythology. According to wikipedia, “Bulfinch was responsible for the design of the Boston Common, the remodeling and enlargement of Faneuil Hall (1805), and the construction of India Wharf. In these Boston years, he also designed the Massachusetts State Prison (1803); Boylston Market (1810); University Hall for Harvard University (1813–1814); the Meeting House in Lancaster, Massachusetts (1815–17); and the Bulfinch Building, home of the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital (1818), its completion overseen by Alexander Parris, who was working in Bulfinch’s office at the time the architect was summoned to Washington.” So basically, he’s responsible for so much of what makes Boston, Boston, at least up until somebody built the Citgo sign and the Prudential Tower.

9. “Here We Are.” First thing I notice in this song, besides the lyrics (I always notice lyrics first) is how much I love Joe Sirois’ drumming? He has this really characteristic fill that he does, that lets me know that that’s Joe, and I don’t know how to describe it, but I always like hearing it. I also really love Chris Rhodes’…rap? toast? toward the end. “The lugs are loose on every wheel/On every level, it’s unreal/Lost appetite and lost appeal/Fed up with the set up, where’s the reveal?/…Whose premise whose plan whose bad idea?/That’s not important, get us out of here.” (I also really love the saxophone going under that verse.)

10. “The Mad Dash.” So many of Dicky’s lyrics think me make of social media even though, as far as I know, Dicky is largely not on social media (I think most of the Bosstones’ social media accounts are run by Joe G for some reason. I don’t remember why I think this so I could be completely wrong). This song also seems more about capitalizing on tragedy or politics than it is about social media, but I dunno, whenever he writes about false urgency and divisiveness, I always think of Twitter. I spend too much time on Twitter.

11. “Absolutely Wrong.” Can we also take a moment here to appreciate John Goetchius and his keyboards? They’re lovely. They’re often kind of in the background, but if you turn your ear attention toward them, he’s doing such interesting stuff back there. Also if you go see them live and they play “Toxic Toast” he does an absolutely baller piano intro to that song. Also the Peanuts theme song. He can play that. I realize that a lot of piano players can play that (I’m sure my brother could), but still, I enjoy the hell out of it. I’m glad they found him and got him to join the band/play Throwdown.

This space that I’m writing in suddenly smells like french fries. I want french fries. Where are the french fries.

12. “In Honor Of.” I admit I have no idea who this song is about. I think I’ve seen it mentioned in interviews, but I can’t remember at the moment and don’t feel like going to look it up. It starts out slow and kinda simple-sounding, but in the last minute and a half it ramps up and I think it’ll launch us into the last two songs of the album…but then it sorta slows down again and starts repeating the chorus which is maybe not my favorite thing (I kind of hate using chorus repeats to fade out of a song).

13. “Hugo’s Wife.” This song is, I think, about some relatives of Joe G’s who were on the Hollywood black list in the 1950s. Subtle thing that reminds me that it’s Joe’s relatives: often on songs that are about a band member, that band member’s instrument will be more prominent, like how Joe’s bass brings the song in here, and/or that bandmember will share a songwriting credit (like how “Break So Easily,” on Let’s Face It, has Dennis Brockenborough as the second writer because it’s about an experience he had). It’s interesting to me that even though it was Joe’s grandfather, Hugo Butler, who was blacklisted, the song is called and about Hugo’s wife (who is unnamed. I looked it up, though, her name was Jean. Jean Rouverol). “So you held your head high/You kept it down to get through it/They wanted to control you, but they couldn’t/You just wouldn’t let them do it/No they couldn’t and you knew it/Not on your watch, not in this life/No, not Hugo’s wife.”

The chorus reminds me a little bit of a story that a friend of mine told me when I was a kid. She’s maybe ten or fifteen years older than me, so I was a kid, but she was an adult, one who was already a veteran of progressive politics and civil disobedience. A friend of hers was being interrogated by the police (I forget why now), and being threatened with arrest. The cop was waving a warrant in front of her face, threatening her, saying he had the power to put her away. “This?” she said, touching the warrant. “This is not power. This is paper.” It makes me think about the definition of power: who has it, who thinks they have it, and why. When power is an illusion, and why. Who truly has power, and who just holds it, by virtue of the fact that we, the people, who outnumber them, have decided to let them hold it for a limited period of time.

13. “After the Music is Over.” Going out on a high note. I also love this song! Shocking, I know. Like a lot of Bosstones finale songs, it starts out in one style (kinda swingy/jazzy) and then goes into a different style (the Boston Herald calls it “military march,” which I don’t hear, but then, I don’t listen to a lot of military marches) and then straight into ska. The first part even has Dicky sounding artificially far away, like he’s got an old school microphone. Having the final song on an album sound either completely different from the other songs on the album, or a song that sounds like 4 songs pushed together, is something the Bosstones have been regularly doing at least since Jackknife. It’s also thematically not so far from “They Will Need Music,” another album-ending Bosstones song.

“Fight on with your heart head and fists,” a line sung by Joe G, has been called out by people in the 737 as sounding very Avoid One Thing-ish. (AOT is Joe’s other band, a pop punk band.)

Even though I have yet to hear this song live, I can see it in my head, I can see the band on the stage at the House of Blues Boston, I can hear the crowd singing along, I can see the confetti raining down, maybe other band members from opening bands crowding onstage too…and then the ska starts, and Ben is dancing, and so are all the rest of us, and people are bumping into each other in the pit, making the most of this song because it’s the last one, it’s going to end the set, and Dicky is saying goodbye to everybody, people who have left for the night or left this life forever. And I’m hugging my friends and I’m covered in sweat that isn’t mine and a bunch of us are drunk but all of us are happy.

Once Upon a Time

It started with a boy , and it started on a very particular Sunday .

The name of the boy is lost, or was never known, certainly not outside the
original conspirators. This is as it should be.

The news went out that a Royal Ball had been announced for Sunday. Decrees proclaiming a holiday were posted in the town square. Supply wagons had been trundling to the castle, day after day, food and decorations and bands and extra cooks, all working flat out to prepare for the upcoming celebration. Lutists and flautists could be heard practicing late at night, soft music dancing on moonbeams as they sought not to wake the town.

Maybe it was one of the boys in the tavern, or the stableyard , or one of the delivery
boys. Again, his name is lost to us. Perhaps it went like this: looking across the square at the market stalls where the ladies held up frocks and skirts to see what would suit them
best for the ball, he stared for a little too long. Perhaps after school let out, a crowd of boys clustered around a sign to read the Feast Day Proclamation and start planning their attendance (the event was open, anyone could attend, from the richest miser to the poorest churchmouse), and one boy sighed, and looked wistful; or perhaps he said, jokingly, to disguise his true desire, “I wish I could wear a dress.” Or, “Wouldn’t it
be grand if we all went in dresses?”

As for why, we don’t know that either. A popular schoolmaster had recently been shamed when it was revealed that his out-of-town sweetheart was not a beautiful lady, or, in fact, any sort of lady at all. The school boys had arisen as one and refused to go to school or do work of any kind until their master was reinstated. One particularly obstreperous lad was heard to declare that he did not give a ewe’s left buttock who the schoolmaster monkeyed about with, everyone should just mind their bloomin’ business. So perhaps they wanted to support their friend, or their schoolmaster. Perhaps something else.

Regardless, on the day of the Ball, twelve boys in glittery skirts, rouge and eyeliner, and
plaited hair stepped onto the dance floor. Hovering behind them were various giddy sisters and girl cousins who had donated skirts and paints and hair-ironing skills, who had hurriedly let out or taken in bodices and skirt lengths.

If the boys had been laughing, or cutting up, or teasing each other, it would have been boys doing boy things. But it wasn’t. They behaved as they always did. But they did it in dresses. It’s hard to dismiss something as a prank when it is so earnestly and seriously done. Lady Havishton was scandalized, but then, she is always scandalized by something, so nobody paid much mind.

The boys wore their gowns all night. The next morning they reappeared in their usual trousers and jackets, though some with a smudge of rouge still next to their noses, or black edging to their eyelashes. They declined to explain themselves beyond a vague shrug.

The next year, there were fifteen boys, and instead of wearing their sisters’ dresses, they
had procured their own.

Ripping off Scalzi, Day 3: Home

I am still (and maybe forever, now, at this point) trying to get into the habit of writing more than I am worrying about what I write about, so I am still taking inspiration from John Scalzi who wrote a 20 year retrospective on his blog, covering 30 different topics over the course of a month (it was in September 2018 if you want to go find them). Day three is home.

Since I’m one of the many millennials who can’t now/maybe can’t ever afford to buy a home, I think about this more metaphorically, I guess. Emotionally. Sometimes I think about my house, which doesn’t exist yet: It has hardwood floors, and windows that let in the sunlight. It’s an older house, not one of the modern boxy monstrosities they’ve been building in Denver for the last decade or so. There’s a garden in the back, though I imagine myself composting more than I imagine myself actually growing anything. There’s a dog or two. There’s a big wooden table where I can eat and work on projects. In this daydream, I am the sort of person who remembers to sweep baseboards and dust things and so everything is homey and clean and maybe a little shabby, but not dirty. I have hammocks in my backyard. I have a nice shade tree. I have money saved up to buy a new roof or a new water heater. I have a nice human that lives with me, whether a partner sort or a roommate sort isn’t important, but we agree on things like making soup on cold days is good, and a clean bathroom is healthy, and nobody eats anyone else’s food without asking first. I can walk to work, or bike there, in less than half an hour. Friends come over to play Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a very nice house.

Sometimes home is a place, right? We usually define home as a place.

I grew up amongst Quakers in the Western US, and for the past 15 years we’ve had our annual gathering in northern New Mexico, in this conference center in the high mesa country. It’s hot and buggy and the accommodations leave something to be desired (I just got an email that some of the older housing is not available this year due to “structural issues,” because they are letting buildings fall down instead of repairing or replacing them). It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. And it’s where some of the people I love best in the world go every year. But I don’t go for the mesas or the rocks or the sunsets or the little lizards. I go for the people. We’re changing sites next year, and some people have said that if the gathering isn’t in this one specific place, they won’t come. Which: what the fuck? You were never supposed to come for the scenery. We’re not there to worship the scenery. We’re supposed to be there for each other. You know that Billy Joel lyric, “I need you in my house, ’cause you’re my home”? Yeah. That. That’s how we’re supposed to be with each other. A friend of mine grew up in a lot of different houses during his childhood, and for him, when he thinks of home, he thinks of his church building. Across a lot of childhood moves, that was the place that stayed constant for him.

Other things that make me think of home: Roasting marshmallows over a campfire and making s’mores. Watching rain fall into a ditch in New Orleans. Powdered sugar down my front after eating beignets. Hanging my arms over the rail at a concert right before the band takes the stage. Standing on the top of a mountain, either after climbing it or right before bombing down it on my snowboard. Taking a deep breath while standing under the sky. Lying on a couch with a dog draped across my legs.

I’m in my mid 30s now (I don’t have to say late 30s until next year, fuck you), and am starting to realize that there’s some markers of “responsible adult” that I’m not just late in hitting, but may never hit. Home ownership is one of them. Having kids is another. And that feels fine, as long as I can remember not to compare myself to anyone else or what they’re doing and accomplishing. I would love to have my little square of the world all to myself, but it’s also a thing that I’ve learned to want because I’ve lived in the US for my entire life, and home ownership is huge here. So if I never get my own house, if I have roommates and apartments until the day that I head for the old folks home, how do I maintain that sense of home? Can I remember that home is a feeling, not a place? Is that how we win in capitalism?

Because love is free and life is cheap,
And as long as I’ve got me a place to sleep,
Some clothes on my back and some food to eat,
Then I can’t ask for anything more.
—Frank Turner, “If Ever I Stray”

Note to a kid and also myself

makegoodart
Picture by Gavin Aung Than of zenpencils.com

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
—Stephen King

Recently, I was going through my google drive to see what I could clean up. Docs tends to be where I start impulsive projects, or where I take notes if I’m out and about somewhere and don’t have a pen and paper handy. I get started, write a few paragraphs, realize that I have no real place to go with it and no conclusion, run out of time, and close the app. I never remember to title these bits and pieces so my drive is full of “Untitled Document” with only the creation date to differentiate them. And every now and then I go through and try to figure out what I can expand on and finish, and what I can just delete.

This time, though, I actually found something interesting. Marginally. In 2017, I was on a panel at Denver Comic Con about writing fanfic (DCC has since been renamed something that won’t get them sued by the San Diego Comic Con, who have decided that they are the only comic con, but I never remember what the new name is, so in my head the event is still, and probably always will be, the Denver Comic Con). I was working at the public library at the time, which often organizes a bunch of family-friendly panels covering various aspects of nerdly books/movies/fandom. It was fun, if terrifying, because I’m not exactly known for my public speaking skills or confidence. We covered a bunch of topics, from writing generally to a history of fanfic to an overview of a few of the largest sites, like AO3 and fanfiction.net. I went first, and spoke about writing generally. It was…not a lie, exactly, but more of an aspirational talk than a factual one, because I was (and still am) struggling with writer’s block. I was giving advice to kids that I was having trouble taking myself.

But anyway. This is more or less what I said. I have gone through and edited and updated it, since it’s two years old:


I took on the task to make a case for writing, which I think is both easy and hard, because to me it comes down to this: If you want to be a writer, if you want to write, you should write. And you should write what you want, and what you enjoy. Period, the end. That’s all you really need to be a writer. Everything else is details.

“We owe it to ourselves to tell stories.” That’s what Neil Gaiman says. Especially in this day and age, in this culture, when it’s so much easier to be a consumer than a contributor, we must tell stories. In this age when so many of our stories are fed to us by corporate behemoths who write by committee, we owe it to ourselves to tell stories. Don’t wait for someone else to write the story you want to read.

When I was in high school and college, I got intimidated out of writing what I wanted to write. I thought that if I was going to be a “real writer,” I had to write stuff like what I was reading in English class. I thought I had to write like Steinbeck or Tolkien or Toni Morrison. I don’t even know where I got that impression. It certainly wasn’t anything that anybody told me, but more of a vague idea of what a Real Writer looked like. If I’d been cognizant enough of it to articulate it, any adult would have told me what I’m telling you now: write whatever you want, and don’t worry about whether you’re measuring up to Charles Freaking Dickens. Don’t worry about symbolism or theme or whether your subject is weighty enough. Soap operas get dragged for being silly and impossible and overly dramatic, but their writers get paid like anyone else. Chuck Tingle writes stories about being pounded in the butt by [insert noun or sometimes figurative idea here] and got nominated for a Hugo award. Don’t worry about whether it’s worth it. Worry about finishing. Just write it, whatever it is that’s in your head.

So, with that manifesto out of the way, I thought I’d spend a minute talking about some specific advantages to writing fanfic especially if you’re a new writer.

Sometimes it seems like people will only consider you a “real fan” if you know everything about the thing that you’re a fan of. Don’t get me wrong, knowing everything about one thing can be cool and fun if that’s your jam. I have a friend who owns every single Daredevil comic ever written. He can name all the all the writers and artists and often what issues or arcs they worked on. If that’s where your fandom happiness lies, go for it. More power to you, and I hope you make editor someday. But if you want to write, and you’re hesitating to start because you fear that you don’t know enough yet–stop that. Start writing. Stop doing homework and start writing. There’s a ton of resources out there about how to write, but they all boil down to: Sit with a pad of paper and a pen, or with your computer, and start putting words on paper. That’s all you really need to get going. The rest you can learn.

Fandom is changing, and with the internet comes a lot of gatekeepers, but there’s also a lot of people around who are determined to burn the gates to the ground and piss all over its ashes. Just as you can write whatever you want and however you want, you can define fandom however you want. It’s your fandom. Love the Good Omens miniseries? I definitely recommend reading the book if you haven’t, I think it’s great, but don’t feel like you have to read the book and also Neil Gaiman’s tumblr asks where he answers questions about it and also the script book and also the TV companion book before you can write your story. Do you want to cosplay Wonder Woman even though you’ve only read a few issues, but Comic Con is soon and you love her armor? I sure won’t stop you. And anyone at a con who starts quizzing you about all her writers and artists and storylines is doing it wrong. Don’t let them discourage you. Fan fiction is great because you can just start.

If you’re wanting to get published, sure, different standards come into play. Grammar and style and structure and (probably) using characters you created instead of somebody else’s. But this is fanfic. This is fun. There is where nothing but possibility lives.

You get better at writing by writing. The first thing you write will probably be terrible. That’s okay. The more you write, the more you’ll find your voice.

Ripping Off Scalzi, Day Two: Money

fabian-blank-78637-unsplashI just saw Avengers: Endgame, which I feel like I can’t talk about yet, so instead I thought I’d come back to this entry that I started writing oh, hey, six months ago.

This is another entry in which I take inspiration from John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, as he continues his twenty-year retrospective of blog writing. He is on day 26. I am on day 2. At this rate, I’ll be able to keep bouncing back to his blog until the end of the year. Up today: Money! And how I have none of it! (Well I do have some and I’m insanely lucky in some ways and I suppose we’ll get to that.) So far Scalzi has blogged about cats and money, two things that I don’t have any of.

I grew up in a house that always had enough money, enough food, Christmas presents under the tree. I’m fairly certain that my parents never had to worry about having enough money for Christmas, though they didn’t exactly go wild with materialism either. They were and are very deliberate with their money, something I’ve only come to realize in hindsight and observe as an adult. Like Christmas and birthday presents were always a thing, but cable TV? Never a thing. We never had cable television in my house. We only had dial up internet until after I moved out. But that had less to do than my parents not being able to afford it than it did my parents not wanting to spend money on garbage. We could go on a trip every year. My parents have their retirement worked out. My dad pays off his credit card bill every month. Whatever long term plan the books tell you to follow to financial security, my parents followed it.

And then they raised me, and I had no idea what the hell to do with money until well past age 30. Osmosis and environment didn’t do the job there. Part of it is just that I barely ever had any money of my own. In elementary school I got $1.25 a week in allowance, and even though this was the early 90s, it was still below average for my classmates. In middle school I got $5. The last couple years of high school I got $20, but I was responsible for buying my own lunches at school, which ate most of it (I never did what would’ve been the smart thing and made my lunch while still pocketing the $20). I think I was a junior when I got my first retail job, and I worked all through college, but after college I never quite transitioned from retail/coffee shop jobs into “professional” jobs. I just kept coffee shopping. For most of my twenties I probably earned between $20-$25k a year. I had roommates, I had a landlord who was happy to rent their space to us for below market value for some reason, I never went to the doctor, I didn’t own a car. But still, every dollar I made was basically spent the minute it landed it my account. I never learned to budget, never learned to not splurge. If you know you’re going to be running out of money anyway, why not just spend it on something that’s fun? If you have to buy food, why not buy hummus instead of beans and rice?

Could I have been thriftier? Sure. But I also had a fundamental income problem. I was earning like $9/hr and had no health insurance. (I think this is a really common millennial dilemma, by the way: Not being able to figure out where your own mistakes end and the shitty system you find yourself in begins.)

In 2010, I made the dumb decision to go back to school. Dumb because I had no way to pay for it, so I took out loans and asked my parents to help me, and they did because education is basically the one thing they’ll always help pay for. This led to my dad discovering exactly how bad I was with money, how much I don’t keep track of it, how much of his I was spending, how little of it I could account for it. I remember him shoving a paper copy of his budget/yearly planned expenditures in my face in frustration, asking Why the hell I couldn’t just do this. What was so hard about this?! And I felt so dumb. So, so so stupid. It took a couple years before I realized, wait, where the hell did he think I was supposed to learn this? When was the budgeting 101 conversation supposed to happen? Should he have taught it to me? Should I have learned it from school? Should I have gotten a book out of the library? Like I’m sorry I’m a dummy and I’m sorry I didn’t take steps to fix this ten years ago but also basically no one ever told me how I should do it or even that I should learn it. It was just assumed that I knew. 

Actually, I had tried to learn, now that I think about it. I read a couple books by Suze Orman and other personal finance people whose names I heard from Oprah. I had a Mint account where you were supposed to set a budget, and I did the thing they tell you where you write down every single cent you spend in a little book. This is supposed to make you more deliberate and thoughtful with your spending, kind of how logging all your calories supposedly helps you eat less. Neither of those things worked for me. I went overbudget every month. I would forget to write down my expenditures after a few days of trying. It just did not ever work for me. It was like, every month, I looked back, saw that I had fucked up once again, tried to do better the next month, only to discover that I’d gone overbudget on everything again. It was exhausting, and discouraging, and just made me feel like an idiot. Like maybe I’m just bad at budgeting. I always struggled with math. Maybe budgeting just wasn’t my thing.

But anyway. I came back from New York poorer, sadder, and feeling a whole lot dumber than when I left. And now I had student loans, and the same income (once I found a job) as before, so I had to learn budgeting. Had to.

Somehow I stumbled upon zero-based budgeting, and no exaggeration, it changed my life. I use a service called YNAB (You Need A Budget), which costs money but it unlocked a whole world of personal budgeting for me, so it’s worth it. It’s also called “the envelope system,” which you may have heard about through Dave Ramsey. (Dave apparently didn’t get along with Oprah, which is how I ended up trying to follow Suze Orman’s system instead of his all those years ago.) Instead of looking backward at all the money I had spent in the last month, instead of trying to budget based on output, zero-based budgeting has you look at the amount of money that you have, and allocate funds to categories based on that. Like if your rent is $1000, but your paycheck today was only $750, you cannot put $1000 in your rent category. You just can’t. That money doesn’t exist. This somehow managed to switch my perspective around so that I was looking forward with my money instead of backwards. And I started to think about my money in terms of category balances, instead of bank balances. The fact that my bank account has $1000 in it means nothing, my Movies category has $0 in it, and so I’m not going to the movies. YNAB also highlights categories that you’ve fully funded with a little green circle, and I’ve kind of made it my mission to get categories green and keep them green. It gamifies it just enough that it works for me.

So that’s been my past four years or so. Turning into a person who actually knows what’s in her bank account and what her credit card balances are. I have a retirement account with multiple hundreds of dollars in it! I also have a personal net worth in the negatives (because of student loans), but I’m paying on those too and watching balances decrease. I save for trips and pay for them out of pocket instead of on credit cards. Who knew. I’m a person who can budget, given a wage that is more than half the median national income and the tools that make sense to my brain. And that is no small victory, as far as I’m concerned.

 

Random resources that helped me, in case you’re looking for help:

  • YNAB software. It currently costs $84 a year, which is probably less than you’re paying for Netflix, but is also more than I’m paying currently (I got grandfathered in to what the cost was when I signed up). If $84 seems like too much, they have a YouTube channel where you can watch tutorials for free and get a sense of zero-based budgeting. There’s a bit of a learning curve with the software, but once it clicks, it’s like a whole new world and you’re off to the races.
  • Dave Ramsey. I listened to his podcast a bunch, both to learn and to keep myself in the mindset of being mindful with my money. I’m pretty sure I disagree with him about just about every social issue, and I don’t like how he steers college kids towards prosperous careers instead of doing-what-you-love careers, but when it comes to finance stuff, he has absolutely helped me.
  • Bad with Money, a podcast by Gaby Dunn. It also helped keep my attention focused, and I appreciated her perspective of “I’m fucked up and don’t know anything about this and that’s my bad, but also, the system itself is not much better.”
  • Various communities on reddit, including r/personalfinance and r/ynab.

On Being Bad At Things

snowhillI get off the gondola at the top of the hill and walk, carrying my snowboard, to the Schoolmarm trailhead. I take the gondola to the top as much as I can because de-boarding from a ski lift on my board still scares me (my fear is also justified; I fall over on maybe 4 of 6 attempts).

The top of the mountain is cold, and windy. Hard little bullets of snow hit my cheeks and fall into the collar of my coat. I walk to the top of the run, sit on a bench, and buckle my feet onto my board. Before I stand, I look around me, down the slope, readying myself to get up, telling myself that I can stand up and maintain control, that I won’t immediately go shooting down the mountain like a water slide.

This is my third time snowboarding this year, after fifteen years away from the mountains. The first time, I wouldn’t say I white-knuckled it, exactly. I butt-clenched it, sliding on my heel edge, staring straight down the hill, all my muscles from my hips down tense and shaking with the effort of keeping me upright. I didn’t do turns, I didn’t shift to my toe edge, I was afraid to build up speed. I had a tendency to fall on my rear. The act of snowboarding wasn’t fun, exactly–it was exhilirating, sure, and I was with my friend Christine and she’s fun, but I was too afraid of falling to loosen up at all. (I did fall, of course. The next morning all of my muscles hurt and my knees were multi-colored.)

But I went back another day, and took a lesson. Learned about placing my weight and how to hold myself (for instance: not like a rock) and where to look (up, up, always up), and how to make turns. I still fell, but it was in service of learning, not from trying to stand still while sliding downwards.

And now, here I am, ready to board down all three and a half miles of Schoolmarm. I’m still stiff and clumsy, and I have to think about every turn before I make it, but there’s also these moments where I’m sliding along, feeling comfortable and relaxed, feeling like there’s butter under my board, like there aren’t any edges that might catch on the snow and set me on my ass. And when I’m tired, I can sit on the slope and look at the mountains and the sky and take deep breaths and listen to the silence.

During the lesson that I took, my teacher showed us how to do flat 360s (spin in a circle without jumping off the ground), and to my enormous surprise I master it immediately. I do it until I’m dizzy, giggling and giddy, spinning in circles on a mountain slope.

I got a new job last year, and with that came an affordable gym membership, so I’ve been trying to supplement my running with gym classes and lifting. It has also, somewhat unexpectedly, been a place for me to battle with my anxiety, and my fear of being seen (to be more specific, to be seen doing something poorly or looking stupid in some way). The gym classes are all in a big room lined on two facing walls with mirrors. The weight area always has other people in it, and it feels like they’re all lifting more than me, like they all know than me. Intellectually I know that this is wrong, but my anxiety brain is full of people watching me. Getting into the gym sometimes is like waiting for Argus, with his thousand eyes and hypervigilance, to go to sleep. Some days I would fall asleep in my car instead of going inside. Some days I would change into my gym clothes, then sit in a chair and kill time on my phone instead of going to use the equipment. Some days I tell myself to just get on the exercise bike, because if I can do that for twenty minutes I can usually talk myself into doing something else. Some days I’ll do squat but then decide that I can’t do deadlift, not today, no thanks. 

I didn’t always used to be actively afraid of the gym, though when I look back on what I was doing in the gym at the time, it was almost always treadmill or pool. Challenging myself with new things—and, at the same time, becoming afraid of all of those things—is something that happened after I left New York City, when I was sad and broken and felt far away from everyone. 

When I was a student at Columbia, there was a gym on campus that students could use. The cost was folded into our tuition. At first, I went because hey, free gym. At some point I started going because I think I could sense that my mental state was not the best, but exercise is supposed to be good for depression. So I would go. I took a step aerobics kind of class, and tae kwon do, and ran around the quarter-mile loop that was in the center of the gym. Maybe that’s when the anxiety started to amp: the classroom where step aerobics and tae kwon do happened were in the center of the gym, with big walls of windows; the track was immediately around that, and the outer ring was the weight machines and treadmills and stationary bikes. It was easy to feel like you were being watched, but hard to see if you actually were. Also, I wasn’t going to the gym because it was fun and I wanted to; I was going because I felt like I should. And I was going to step aerobics feeling incapable of dancing, incapable of moving with any pep, any grace. I’ve never been a great dancer, but this was a whole other level. I felt like I was sleepwalking through gym class. Everything felt slow. Everything felt stupid. Everything felt unsuccessful. I always stood at the back (against the windows) and when class was over, escaped as soon as I could. I never spoke to anyone. I was a ghost.

So here I am, five years later, not feeling like a ghost anymore, but still feeling haunted by one. Still feeling the specter of Argus’ eyes.

It does get better. After almost a year in the gym, I found a program and I’m following it and that gives me something to lean on, something to focus on besides all the weight I’m not lifting, all the people who are (not) staring at me. Usually, these days, when I say, “I’m going to the gym after work,” I actually get there. And one happy side effect to global warming is that I’m still running in parks a few times a week, even though it’s December. I also made significant headway on a project at work, which was a big contributor to the “You’re dumb everyone’s going to find out you’re dumb and then they’re going to take your job away from you” feelings that I was having all fall.

Maybe someday soon I’ll feel that gliding feeling with my writing, that coasting-along-while-you-stare-at-the-sky feeling. That’s the feeling that I’m waiting for. But until then, I have to accept that I will suck until I don’t. That some days it will feel like pulling a car out of a lake with nothing but my bare hands. That I have to sit through some boredom and not knowing what I want to say. I might be bad at all kinds of things, but I’m trying really hard to not let that stop me.

2019 goals, man. Happy new year.