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.

Who Lives, Who Dies

(Note: This was mostly written in early November 2018, after the White Privilege Symposium that took place in Denver November 2-3.)

“Words make worlds.” This from poet Dominique Christina, in a YouTube video that I’m watching because I’m hoping to find a piece she performed this weekend, one about the social coercion that the mere threat of violence has on a community. Her talk on Friday was not about words at all, but about the mute spectacle that is Emmett Till in an open coffin, Michael Brown uncovered on a Ferguson street, David Jones hung from a lamp post in a town square in 1872. Darren Wilson didn’t plan to kill Mike Brown that day, but leaving his body out on the street for his neighbors to see? What message was that? What do we hear from Emmett Till, who lives still, a ghostly reminder of What Could Happen To You? Broken black bodies follow Dominique and her son through the world. Another speaker this weekend, Theo Wilson, spoke of the anger and powerlessness that threatens to eat you when you realize how quickly a police officer having a bad day (or, let’s face it, having any kind of day) can ruin your life. He spoke of how many friends he’s had to bury.

If you’re a white person learning to talk about race, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s really hard to get white people to talk about race? But you can play Telephone. When black people talk to me about what it’s like to be black, in the background–especially if you’re listening to a black person talk about racism–there is a white person, talking about race to a black person. Those are the messages I listen for, because that is the behavior I’m trying to undo in myself. It’s easy to have compassion for Emmett Till’s mom. She’s central in the story that’s told about him. But I’m a white woman. I will always be on the other side of this interaction. Emmett Till was not my son. Emmett Till is not my phantom.

My phantom is Carolyn Bryant Donham, who looked at Emmett Till and said, “That boy put his hands on me.” Who shaped whole worlds with those words. She said those words (or something like them) in August 1955, said them again at a murder trial to get two white murderers acquitted, and then said nothing more for sixty years, when she admitted that it wasn’t true, that the boy hadn’t done what she said. In the meantime, Emmett’s mother had died. She never had another son.

My phantom is white women who call the police on black children for doing things like selling bottled water or mowing lawns or playing with a pellet gun in a park. On black adults for doing things like using a barbecue pit, or shopping in Target, or sitting in Starbucks.

A tweet went viral awhile back that goes something like, “I have a new game, especially for other white people. It’s the ‘don’t call the cops’ challenge, and basically you start by not calling the cops, and then continue to not call the cops for the rest of your life.” These days we don’t call up a lynch mob. The police have taken the place of the lynch mob. They pass immediate, deadly judgment every time they roll up on a call. We don’t have to call the local Citizens Council; we call the local police non-emergency number. Who called the police on Tamir Rice? Was he white or black? I have a guess.

It’s not that simple, but also it is. As a woman I have to be able to name threats to my safety. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who named Emmett Till a threat, was physically abused by her husband, who killed Emmett. But it was Emmett, not her husband, who she targeted with her words. It was Emmett, not her husband, who she had power over. It was Emmett, not her husband, that she could name as a threat, and have that statement be believed, and acted upon.

One of the oft-stated reasons for lynching was to protect white women from black men, but it generally wasn’t black men that we needed protecting from. And yet, the power of a white woman to call a white man (whether her local police officer or her local Citizens Council) and say, “This black person is bothering me,” and bring the oppressive machinations of society crashing down on that person’s head, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years.

Words can make worlds. Silence can send messages. But I want to, hope to, need to skip the 1955 words. Skip the sixty silent years. Start, in 2018, with truth that is not imbrued with fear, with words that will not destroy anyone else’s world.