Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Pin Points & Gin Joints (Part 1)

pinpointsI don’t even know when I left off with my Bosstones listen-along. It’s been at least a year? Or two? I was going through my list of possible blog posts, though, and realized that I only had two Bosstones albums left (at least, until they put out another one). So here we are.

Also I started writing this and then it turned into something over 4,000 words long, so today, we listen to Side A (which is technically incorrect because the LP version of this album is a double LP, so we’re really kind of listening to the entire first record but you know what, Side A sounds better).

Pin Points & Gin Joints was released in 2009, the Bosstones’ first full length album since Jackknife in 2002 (they went on hiatus in 2003, and didn’t do anything until the 2007 Throwdown). I think that Medium Rare came out before Pin Points, but that only had 3 original/new songs on it and was mostly b-sides (which are great! B-Sides are great. Bosstones b-sides even more so than most songs. But b-sides != new music).

In looking at the Wikipedia entry for this album, Joe Gittleman (the bassist and one of the primary songwriters) said, “We really want to make a fun, upbeat record with a lot of cool ska stuff. Songs I look forward to playing at shows.” Mission accomplished, sir, because I enjoy hearing just about every one of these songs at shows.

The first song up is “Graffiti Worth Reading,” which I’m pretty sure I heard one way or another before the song actually came out–released on the internet? At a show? It’s super fun, upbeat, great to sing along to. It’s about people who tag walls and the people who read them. Chris Rhodes, who plays trombone, has some fun as fuck background vocals on this. The lyrics go fast but are relatively simple and happen on the beat, so it’s easy to sing along.

“Nah nah nah nah” is number two. That might not be the right number of Nah’s. Shrug. Also upbeat, also dancey, except it’s about coming to terms with the decisions your deadbeat dad he made when you were just a child. “I’d rather you hadn’t than had/If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be mad/At what I’d been handed/Despite it, I’ve landed/On both feet, so don’t worry, Dad.” Dicky has this habit sometimes of inverting syntax to keep his rhymes intact, which is kind of all over the place here (and in “Graffiti”).

Thinking about the title of the album–a gin joint, most of us either know or infer, is American slang for a bar. Where the Bosstones have played a lot of shows and spent a lot of time. It’s also in one of the most famous movie lines in history: “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine,” from Casablanca. Ska in general has a fascination with gangsters and spies, with the tension between fashionable elegance and brutal crime. Early ska is full of James Bond covers and songs about gangsters and speakeasies. Street gangs and getting in fights. The Bosstones cover these themes too, though of course they do it in their own ultra-specific way: they wear suits onstage (like a lot of other ska bands), but the gangsters they sing about are, like, James Michael Curley and Sammy Gravano. So citing “gin joints” here is working on multiple levels.

Then there’s pin points, like how many angels (or devils, in the case of the Bosstones) dance on the head of a pin. Like just how many guys can you fit on a fucking stage. Or maybe pin points like pointallism, the drawing technique (Dicky is also an artist and has designed most, if not all, of the Bosstones’ album art). Pin points are also legal citations that direct a reader to a specific paragraph of a judgment or report, which I did not know until I started looking into the etymology of “pin points,” but now that I see it I don’t think it’s an accident. There’s a lot of introspection in this album, a lot of Dicky thinking about specific moments in his life and how they influenced where he ended up, for good and for bad. In fact we go straight from “Nah Nah Nah Nah Nah,” where he’s thinking about his dad’s abandonment of him and how that affected him growing up, to “The Route that I Took,” which is about his early history as a punk and as a musician and has some of my favorite lyrics on the entire album.

Without really knowing I took all the wrong routes
The misguided monster in the Doc Marten boots
In the wrong directions against all of the grains
Got off at all the wrong stops, back on to all the wrong trains…

I can just continue quoting the song here, that’s cool, right?

Without suggesting to you the routes I took were never wrong,
I took a look and still I took and somehow I stayed strong,
And I just stayed on the course with very few deviations,
One of two situations, some other odd altercations.

And when my days were too dark, well I had something to sell,
I am the carnival barker with some stories to tell.
There’ll be apologies made at every fork and each bend
And I’m so glad that I stayed and I will stay till the end

There’s also the absolutely glorious line, “While I made up my mind, I had some choices to make/Should I leave hell far behind me just for heaven’s sake?” And, “Without a drop of the sense that god had gave to a stone/But in my own self defense, I was not all alone.”

I love the way Dicky is able to do this. He takes idioms and sayings–got off at all the wrong stops, leave hell far behind, for heaven’s sake–and uses them in a way that is both true and accurate and yet also sort of literal in a way that idioms generally aren’t used. I’m also a sucker for multiple rhymes in the same line, like “I stayed on the course with very few deviations/One or two situations, some other odd altercations.”

I also love the story of the song. It’s very specifically Dicky, and I can’t relate to it on a literal level–I’ve been blessedly sheltered from drug use, and drug abuse, my entire life, and a lot of this song is about being around people using drugs (something he’s also written about in other songs). I also wasn’t nearly the agent of chaos that it sounds like he was in his youth. But there’s an overarching theme of being in the shit, and going through some shit, whether it’s of your own making or just bad luck. And not knowing if you want to hang around or not (either in the environment you’re in or, like, at all), but doing your best to get through it, any way you can. And then looking back and going, well, if I had to do it again, I would sure not choose to do it that way, but ultimately I have no regrets about what I did, or where I ended up. That’s not a song that many 25-year-old punks ever have the chance–or the wherewithal–to write.

(On another note, here and there there are old punks writing songs about being an old punk, which, as an old not-quite-a-punk-anymore, I appreciate. As I grow older, it makes me sad that songs that I stitched onto my heart when I was 17 don’t always sound like they’re about me anymore, now that I’m 38.)

“I am the carnival barker with some stories to tell”–a reference to both Dicky’s role as a lead singer, one with a very distinctive voice, and his role in the band as primary lyricist. He’s also the ringleader on stage, the guy who’s most likely to engage with the crowd and talk to folks. Historically, a carnival barker is the guy who stands outside the circus tent and invites people inside to see the best show of their life. They’re hucksters, fast talkers. salesmen. The label does fit him, in a way. And not just because he wears loud plaid suits and wields a microphone.

I like “You Left Right,” aside from the wordplay in the title (and the missing comma) because it articulates the confusion that often comes in the wake of a breakup (or at least, that comes in the wake of mine), when the anger mixes with still feeling protective or tender over this person that you cared for, because emotions have the turning capacity of ocean liners.

Sitting in the car with the engine off
And I’ve got no where to go
I need to be somewhere away from here to think
….I sift and sort and come up short
So far past my last resort.

After that, we take a break from the introspection for “Too Many Stars,” an anti-war song. The album came out in 2009, but this song may have been written or conceived around the Iraq Troop surge of 2007? Or just a reaction to being eight years into seemingly endless wars that fought on two fronts. And how we make these decisions to rain fire down on people thousands of miles away. I do find it interesting that this sounds like any number of anti-war/anti-imperial songs that were written during the Bush presidency, but was most likely written (and was definitely released) during Obama’s first term.

Way too many stars falling from the skies
An open invitation sent to open up their eyes
A monumental diplomatic moment that was missed
Too many make their living off it hand right over fist.

(Once I was at a Bosstones show and I was on the rail, at the front of the crowd, and I accidentally made eye contact with Dicky as we both sang the lines, “A monumental diplomatic moment that was missed/Too many make their living off it hand right over fist” and for some reason that moment is now burned into my skull as a cool thing that happened at a show.)

Next up is “Your Life,” which is my favorite favorite favorite (yes, I know. All the Bosstones songs are my favorite. They’re like puppies that way. All the best.) For some reason I keep inserting this song into my queue when I’m listening to the Bosstones’ newest album While We’re At It, right after the song “Unified.” It fits, for some reason. Either a similar tempo or a similar key or something that I can’t articulate because I’m not a musician, but my brain clicks into it. It also has a lot of the wordplay and idioms that I mentioned above that I just completely love.

You were warned from the day you were born,
You were to young so you blew it off.
You were told you were gold but as you got older,
You discovered that you were to soft.

“You were told you were gold and then discovered that you were too soft,” oh my god.

This is another one of those songs where, even though my life has been drastically different from Dicky’s, and even though I don’t know what events he was thinking of when he wrote this song, there’s also ways in which we’re the same. Maybe all humans. I hit the rocks so, so hard as a teenager and young adult, as my idealism and naivety crashed into the reality of how the world actually is. This song is about that, in a way that articulates the experience in a way that I would have said it, if I was as good with words and rhymes as Dicky is.

The last three verses of something are something that, every time I sing along to it, I feel like I’m singing to my younger self. She went through so much shit, and a ton of it was due to not having any real mental health support even though she really needed it (and didn’t know how badly she needed it, and didn’t know that it was a thing she could or should ask for). I try to keep her safe these days, while not keeping her locked away. She earned it.

The bottom was coming up quick
I guess it just has to be hit
The secret the key and the trick
Is learning to deal with it

It’s uphill from this point on out
And the pinnacle’s up at the top
It hasn’t been reached, only practiced and preached
So at this point you might want to stop

You might but might I suggest
I suggest it’s best just to climb
Continue you’ve still got it in you
And be thankful you’ve still got the time
You’ve still got the time.

The outro of this song is the chorus over and over, but behind it, in harmony, one of the Bosstones is repeating, “You’ve still got the time” over and over. “Be thankful you’ve still got the time. You’ve still got the time.” That’s a thing I need to hear, to remind myself of, a lot.

(Also, does Dicky have a list somewhere of idioms somewhere of plates and their many metaphorical meanings? In “Desensitized,” on their 1997 album Let’s Face It, Dicky wrote, “Let’s get to the bottom/And blow off the lid/I’m trying to keep a balance/Like the plates on top of sticks…”)

Next up is “I Wrote It,” a song that I know some Bosstones fans super adore, but I confess it’s not my favorite. It’s about the narrator (I really should stop assuming that the narrator is always Dicky) writing a song in a borrowed notebook, in a bar in Boston, wearing a suit jacket that I think he bought at a thrift store. There’s no indication in the song that the lines he’s writing are great, or worthy, or that they’re any of the songs that made the Bosstones “big.” There is a drum lick in the chorus here that I love, where Sirois hits the toms with a sort of *womp womp* which is just fun. There’s also a repeated line in here that, “I wrote, I wrote it for you,” which always gets kinda emphasized when they play it live. “FOR! (womp womp) YOU! (womp womp) (horns horns horns hooooorns)

I just noticed that this song starts with Dicky finding a golf pencil in his blazer, and he ends with leaving the pencil in the empty shot glass, for someone else to find. Back to one! Full circle! Craft! Something something.

And now we are up to “Not to Me on That Night,” which I’ve just realized I’ve  been mentally squishing together with “You Left Right,” to the extent that I’m surprised that there’s three songs in between the two on the album. Dicky might very well still be sitting in his car with the engine off. But there’s also….something darker in this? Like Dicky notes that “That’s when the sanity ceased,” and then later he says, “I noticed something was wrong, and I took it seriously.” He could be talking here about discovering his partner is cheating on him, or about noticing that his partner is having serious mental illness symptoms and needs to go to a hospital. “You had nothing to say/But it took several hours to say it.” Is Dicky just mad and done and not listening anymore, or is the other person in the song honestly prevaricating? It’s hard for me to tell. And sure, I know, I am almost certainly over-interpreting.

Side B: Soon!

Happy New Year

(Okay, but seriously, me making a timely post within two weeks of the actual time? I am fucking on it, you guys.)

Thank you, to all the vigilant/anxious/conscientious people in 2020 who worked really hard to make wearing a mask and not leaving home the norm in 2020. It helped. I’m a person who wants to be vigilant and do the right thing, but ultimately I’m also lazy, and keeping my attention on something in a consistent way for weeks and weeks and weeks and months is impossible for me to do if I’m not around other people who are also doing it. (I don’t know if this is typical? If people in low-compliance areas would wear masks if it was more the norm? In some ways I notice myself being really susceptible to just rolling along with what everyone else is doing; in some ways I’m super ornery.) Surrounded by different people (or surrounded by no people), I know I would have continued to wear a mask, but I’m not sure if I would have stayed out of restaurants. I maybe would have forgotten about staying away from people at the grocery. I might have given up on social distancing at work. I would have just made doctors’ appointments and dental appointments and kept going to starbucks.  I admit I did keep going to get my hair cut, partly because I couldn’t stand it and partly because my stylist owns her own business, but that was one of the only “That’s a really stupid thing you’re doing” things I did all year, and on balance…well, at least I didn’t have to pay a price for it.

Throughout this whole thing, I’ve underestimated the danger and the longevity of it. I started getting anxious about my work needing to shut down only a day or two before it actually did. I didn’t really think, in April and May, that we’d be settling in for doing the whole year like this, even though people said we would. I am still only half-believing the people who are saying that we need to be prepared for this to be our life for another six months. By this time I know to trust other people and not my instincts, and that my disbelief/disunderstanding is probably more self-preservation than anything else.

Thanks to the people who tweeted about non-instacart grocery ordering apps. Thanks to the people who tweeted about mental health and the agony of combining grief with waiting. Thanks to the people who normalized Saying No To Everything. Thanks to the people who gave me words with which to say, “No, I’m not doing that right now/this year/etc.” Thanks to the people who figured out how to have writer’s conferences online. And movie parties online. Thanks to the people who made me feel guilty for even considering doing a thing, which then steered me away from doing that thing. Thank you to the people who know that human life matters, and that all the lives we lost this year mattered, and that they all left holes behind. Thank you for making pushing back against boomer parents who still want to go to restaurants and to church a thing that we can do with love and humor and compassion.

Thank you to the pets, the dogs and the cats and bunnies and bearded dragons and iguanas and chickens and whatever, who made staying home a tolerable project. Thank you to the lady who let me keep coming over to watch her dog and hang out with him even though she probably didn’t need to. Thanks to the dogs for giving me a reason to leave the house, walk around, and look at the sky. Thanks for keeping me company on zoom meetings. And for interrupting zoom meetings. Thank you for the snuggles, for collapsing across my lap so thoroughly and heavily that my legs fell asleep.

If you still exist in the world and are reading this, thank you. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’ve survived this long. Thank you for helping all the people that you helped. I’m glad you kept on as best you could. I hope you have something good to look forward to in 2021.

Thank you to all the activists who took to the streets in 2020, risking literal life and limb to do so. Thank you for telling your stories. Thank you for telling me what were the good orgs to donate money to. I hope in 2021 we can make progress on defunding police and treasuring black life, and not have to take to the streets and protest every time the police kill a black person.

And to thousands of firefighters, across a dozen states, who left their families (in the middle of a pandemic) to fight the worst wildfires ever (during a pandemic). Thank you for working to keep the homes of total strangers safe. I’m really sorry that the season was so long, and hard, and relentless. I hope you’ve had a few good nights’ sleep since October.

Thank you to the people who gave me stories to read, listen to, play, or watch in 2020. Thank you to everyone who figured out how to find the bandwidth to do creative things in 2020. Thank you especially to the people who made things lighthearted and compassionate, things that seemed as far away from 2020 as possible.

Thanks to the kids, the little ones. I know that in a lot of ways you don’t even know how fucking weird this year was. Thank you for being adaptable, for being bouncy and bubbly and bringing us all up with you. I know that I spent a lot of the year wishing that everything would be less noisy, but the truth is, if you were less noisy, I would be a whole lot sadder. Thank you for continuing to find fun and excitement even within all of this nonsense of a year. I hope I was able to support you in a way that was helpful.

Here’s to 2021 being better in any number of ways than 2020.

Companion Who?

Awhile ago, I started watching Doctor Who (the new series) from the beginning. Again. I do this every few years, especially when a new season starts and it’s been a minute since I’ve seen it and I worry that I’ve forgotten details. When Jodie Whitaker’s turn as the Doctor began, BBC America aired almost the entire back catalog of Doctor Who episodes from 2005-2019, and I used up most of the space on my roommate’s DVR to record them, and I’ve been working my way through them ever since.

A lot of Doctor Who fandom (me included) gets wrapped up in discourse about the Doctor. This is the obvious thing to do, it being his show and all. It’s easy to have conversations about the Doctor, away from the screen. But when I’m actually watching, I’m completely taken in by the Companions. In the original series (at least into the 1970s; I haven’t seen any stuff from the 1980s yet), the Companions were often just assistants, people for the Doctor to talk to. And they were inconsistent, changing around based on whatever the plot needed that week. But today, it may be the Doctor drives the story, but the Companions are often the heart of it. They’re our human way in. Donna, reacting to the plight of the Ood, or stopping the Doctor from killing the spider-lady thing at the beginning of the fourth season. Rose, wanting to like the new Doctor after he regenerates, but not sure she can trust him, not sure if he’s the same. Rose’s reaction to the Tenth Doctor helps us, the audience, get used to this new person too. Her journey into loving and trusting him is the same as ours.

I love Rose Tyler. People talk about “Their Doctor” (mine is Ten), but Rose is “my companion,” if one can have such a thing. I love her passion, how she jumps right into the Doctor’s mission and his lifestyle. Her smile. Billie Piper has one of the all-time great smiles. If Rose had the opportunity, she would absolutely be a superhero. Put on a cape and fight the baddies. She’s an adrenaline junkie. She loves dropping in at the last moment, saving the day, making a difference in people’s lives, and then traveling away again. The chemistry between The Doctor and Rose has led to a generally-accepted theory in fandom that they had a physical relationship (I think Steven Moffat has made clear that he’s always believed this to be true), but I don’t know that Rose finds The Doctor sexy. I think adventure is the sexiest thing in the world to her. When the Doctor sends her home at the end of the first series, stranding her, she was upset at the loss of the Doctor, but what really drove her crazy was the idea of being trapped on Earth, of having to live a “normal” life. Working at a shop and eating fish and chips forever. Knowing the whole exciting universe was out there, and she couldn’t get to any of it.

And I love how honest she is about all this. She constantly and repeatedly trashes the idea of a normal life to her mom and (ex?)boyfriend Mickey, the ones she leaves behind over and over. She disparages the lives they lead (and which they prefer compared to the dangerous nonsense that she gets up to). She leaves them behind. She asks them to do things for her, often pretty big things, but doesn’t do much for them in return. They give her these looks of loneliness and disappointment and resentment that she barely notices while she’s asking them for help, to upend and/or risk their lives, and they always come through for her, but (like The Doctor in some ways) she’s always on her way somewhere else. Rose might be the only Companion who sort of has her own set of Companions, people who always stand willing to help her.

By the second series, Rose is the Doctor’s equal in some ways. She can’t fly the TARDIS without risking her life, but they work in tandem, they’re in sync, they can work together without consulting each other. The Doctor trusts Rose. It’s the closest, most intense relationship of her life, forged in fire and gravity wells and ghostly aliens and werewolves. Rose and the Doctor are the same: they never give up. The episode “The Satan Pit” really shows this. They both have solid reasons to think the other is dead, or at least lost forever. And they can’t get to the TARDIS. But they trust each other, and keep trying, and they win (and live to fight another day). When the Doctor gets sucked into a child’s drawing, Rose keeps working, keeps going after a solution. She can’t do as much as a Time Lord, but she can do a damn sight more than an average human. She stares death in the face and says, not today.

Donna runs a close second to Rose. Sometimes I love her more. She doesn’t have a specific agenda, really, as long as she can get out of her rut of a life and away from her terrible mother. When she finds her way to the TARDIS, it’s all she ever wanted, and everything else is a bonus. If Rose is attracted to the adventure part of the Doctor’s life, Donna connects to the people. She’s the most human human. Even in her very first episode, “The Runaway Bride,” where she is mostly a person that the story happens to, rather than a person making choices, she connects to the Doctor and decides that her job is to help him. After discovering that she’s been poisoned, that her fiance secretly hates her and is in league with an alien that wants to conquer Earth, after she’s been kidnapped by the TARDIS and spends most of the episode screaming at the Doctor (Donna’s tendency to get angry and snarky when she’s really terrified is one of my favorite things about her), at the very end, when the Doctor is fully prepared to drown the Racnoss as well as himself, and in spite of every mind-blowing and unbelievable thing that’s happened to her that day, Donna shouts, “Doctor! You can stop now!”…and he does. On her very first episode, Donna saves the Doctor.

In her third episode, Donna travels to Pompeii, and though she knows that there’s no stopping the volcano, she convinces the Doctor save just these ones, this one family, like a kid on the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. In her fourth episode, she meets the Ood, and their plight–and their song–are enough to make her want to go home, back to Earth, where she can feel less horror at the way the universe hurts things. The more Rose sees of the universe, the more active and smiling she is. The more Donna sees of it, the more she learns how much it hurts, its power to make her sad. For Donna, more than for Rose and Martha, the universe is equal parts beautiful and terrible. She makes the choice to keep going out to see it, even though she knows what’s in store for her. Rose was not moved to tears by the experience of meeting of Madame de Pompadour. I think that Donna would have been. And she knew–and so did the Doctor–that her tears and her compassion were good for the Doctor. They kept him human. As human as a Time Lord could be.

Of the first three companions–Rose, Martha, and Donna–Martha’s probably my least favorite. Which is not her fault. It’s clear that she’s crushing on the Doctor, and I love how determined she is, ultimately, to save the Doctor and save the Earth. But she’s in love with the Doctor, and I’m profoundly uninterested in any Doctor-involved love stories. (I also really don’t like that they eventually made her a soldier in U.N.I.T. She was studying to be a doctor. Let her go on and be that doctor. She’d be a good one.)

The first three primary companions of the reboot–Rose, Martha, and Donna–all have their own reasons for following The Doctor onto the TARDIS. Rose loves the adventure. Martha loves The Doctor. Donna understands that The Doctor needs her (or needs someone, at any rate) to remind him of his own humanity. (And then there’s Wilf. Lovely Wilf. And Jack Harkness.) Each Companion has her own internal hole she’s trying to fill (and, thanks to Murray Gold, also her own music theme). They all bring out different qualities in The Doctor. They’re not just there to hang around next to him. They have their own skills, talents, choices to make. They don’t follow him onto the TARDIS just because it’s fun and exciting, or because the Doctor needs somebody to talk to to keep the show from being boring. They have an independence and a completeness that later Companions (coughcoughAmy and Claracough) don’t have.

Other thing I love about the first three Companions: they’re not jealous. Rose is, a little bit, when she first meets Sarah Jane, and I don’t think Martha ever gets into a situation where she has to think about anyone as being in competition with her for the Doctor (well, there was the episodes where the Doctor hid himself inside a human life), but when Donna meets Martha, she just…she’s so warm. And open. And making fun of the Doctor. She likes Martha the minute she meets her. And Rose. They can all relate to each other in a way that nobody else on the planet can. They gang up (in a good natured way) against the Doctor, instead of competing for the Doctor’s attention or affection. And that’s not something that you see among female characters very often. (One of the reasons why I hate the “TARDIS is actually the Doctor’s wife/sentient space ship” story is because then there’s this whole rigamarole with the TARDIS deciding it doesn’t like Clara and causing trouble until they eventually make friends and I hate it because the TARDIS isn’t like that, and there’s no reason for women/apparently woman-identified disembodied spaceships to compete over the attention of a Time Lord like they’re fucking toddlers or puppies and argh either the TARDIS is fine with human women, it’s not like Clara is the first one she’s met, or there’s something wrong with Clara, and since there’s nothing wrong with Clara I just assume this is another one of those times where Steven Moffat doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing with his women characters and throw the whole thing out the window) (and yes I know there’s the whole “she’s a temporal anomaly” thing but don’t get me fucking started on the whole reason why Clara is a temporal anomaly in the first fucking place).

The loyalty that the Companions show to the Doctor, their willingness to help him, their reasons for traveling with him, their joy at discovering this whole entire universe–it’s one of the things that makes their various endings–especially Rose, stuck in the alternate Earth, and Donna, with her memory erased–especially sad. Not just they can’t travel with (or remember) the Doctor, but that they can’t talk to anyone else about it either. I used to have a whole story worked out for how the Doctor could go back and get Donna and reunite with her and her head wouldn’t explode, though unfortunately I don’t remember how I worked out the kinks anymore. Rose at least got a Doctor Clone, but Donna? Donna had to go back to Chiswick, be a temp. She didn’t even know that all her dreams had come true. And I find that just so unbearably sad.

Pithy conclusion? I’m not sure if I have one. If you write “assistant” characters, make sure to give them their own heft and weight and choices in the story. Also, as you walk through life, if you do it with the adventurousness of Rose Tyler, and the loyalty and faith of Martha Jones, and the compassion of Donna Noble…well. You won’t be doing half bad for a human who can’t regenerate.

A Semi-Monthly Blog Post

(Maybe if I just tell myself that updating my blog every other month is a fine goal to have, I’ll stop feeling like a blogging failure?

Anyway, I managed to write a thing that felt like a blog entry, on running and crutches. This whole post is one long subtweet, yes it is.)

In a lot of sports and sports-like activities, particularly ones where adults get involved to “challenge themselves” and “reach their potential,” (anything that involves SCIENCE and GEAR and THE SCIENCE OF GEAR, plus a certain percentage of participants with a certain amount of disposable income), there are plenty conversations in forums and stuff about what’s the Best Way to do the thing. Which shoes? Which heart rate monitor? Which bicycle? Which weight lifting routine? And most of these conversations are fine and fun to have (and essential for newbies and the empowerment of newbies). But sometimes they tip into this weird space where people start buying into some objective “best” way to do the thing, rather than understanding that “best” is whatever way works for you, individual person who is doing the thing. They talk about things like “finding the limits of the human body” and “being my best self” and avoiding “crutches,” like there is this space where the human body can operate outside the constraints of space, culture, and learned human experience. They talk about things being Optimal.

When I first started running, I didn’t have a smart watch or a smart phone, and was without a reliable way to measure my speed or distance. I downloaded a Couch to 5K app to my iPod, so I had audible cues (in the form of a very nice British lady) that told me how long the next run would be, when to start, when to stop, all that. But since I was using an iPod, which has no data plan and thus no GPS, I had no way to track the distance I covered on my runs. I just stepped out my door, started running when the lady told me to run, turned back toward home when she said we were halfway through, and stopped when she told me to stop. I made a very specific playlist that was arranged in a certain way to supplement the app’s audio cues. Eventually I transitioned away from running with the C25k app, but by that time I’d imprinted on the playlist, and continued using it for years.

The first song was “The Foggy Dew” by the Chieftains, with Sinead O’Connor. There’s tension in the song, but it’s slow, and it’s almost five minutes long. It was my walking warmup song. This was immediately followed by “Swagger” by Flogging Molly (the studio version off of Drunken Lullabies). “Swagger” is when you pickup your feet and start running. (The song is mostly an instrumental, with the only words being in the chorus: “Tell me where are you going? I don’t know where I’m going,” which seemed apt.) Somewhere in the middle of the playlist there’s always a song either by Koko Taylor or the Blind Boys of Alabama–upbeat enough for me to keep running if I wanted to, but if I was really struggling, it was a song where I could stop and walk for a few minutes. Immediately after the “take a break” song, though, is “I Am The Doctor,” the Eleventh Doctor’s “action theme” from Doctor Who. You do not walk during the Doctor’s song. Not ever. Pick up your feet and go.

Second to last is “Graffiti Worth Reading,” by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, which starts with the trombone player yelling, “The end is near!” Last song was “Walking Is Still Honest” by Against Me!–another song that I could run to if I wished, but if I was wiped out, I could walk to it too. Walking is still honest, as Laura Jane Grace says.

I added songs in the middle, as I got better and better at running and was setting out for longer/farther runs, but the bones of it–beginning/middle/end–stayed the same for years. I have a pavlovian response to certain bits of it now. “Swagger” is always a song that makes me want to pick up and run, for example. Same with a lot of Doctor Who music. If I listen to one of the songs, my brain will automatically cue up the next one on the list.

At some point, I started getting a better sense of my pace, and also the circumference of a lot of the parks in my city, so I no longer have to approximate distance based on the length of my playlist. Now when I leave my house, I plan on doing a certain number of laps of the park, not a certain number of songs.  I’ve even branched out musically! I’ll listen to the Hamilton soundtrack and just imagine it in my head as I run. Act I, at least, is great for running. (Not so much Act II where there’s multiple songs that make me cry, but I’m a really slow runner so I can go for five or six miles before Act I ends.) I’ve been trying to get back to my running playlist so I don’t overplay Hamilton (can you overplay Hamilton? Unsure). I don’t have unlimited data so I still don’t run with playlists from Spotify or whatever. I make them in my music app.

I like running to music, clearly. Making playlists and such is a way for me to interact with running outside of the actual part where I have to leave my house and put my feet to the pavement. And it’s also–especially as my listening time gets more and more dominated by podcasts–often where I end up listening to music, these days, instead of to podcasts.

There’s some that say that they don’t want to run with music because it’s a “crutch,” like a run that you do with headphones is somehow less legitimate, or not as big of an accomplishment, as one done without music. I would posit that Crutches Are Good Actually? Literal crutches are a tool that gives increased mobility and stamina to people who don’t get enough of either of those things from their bodies. If it gets you out and running (or walking) that’s good. Using aids is good. If you’re new to running, you should definitely experiment and see which works better for you (some folks run better without music), but with music or without, neither is inherently better than the other. (Unless your music is so loud that you aren’t aware of your surroundings and you get run over by a park attendant in a golf cart. That’s bad.) If you’re the sort of person who hates running without music, don’t subject yourself to it just because you’ve bought into some weird paradigm that running without a tool is better than running with one. There’s nothing about running with music that makes it inherently worse than running without–there’s only what works for you, an individual person.

When I first started running, I was depressed as hell. I was living in New York City and doing a lot of exercising because a) I had access to a gym for free and figured I should use it because when do you ever get free gym access, and b) you’re supposed to exercise when you’re depressed because exercise makes you less depressed (I understand that the actual argument/science is more nuanced than that, but in my depressed and nonthinking state, that was basically the extent to which I was able to explain it to myself). I do remember trying to build a running routine in Colorado before I left, so on some level I was carrying on with that, but also I was running explicitly because I knew that running was Good and binge-watching entire seasons of The Biggest Loser on my computer before falling asleep was Bad. I didn’t even have real running shoes (just vegan saucony jazzes) or shorts (just these cotton cargo pants from Old Navy with an elastic waist). I remember running at night through Columbia’s campus, or up and down the Riverside Park. I never felt like I was going fast. I never felt like a runner. I don’t remember ever feeling a “runner’s high.” I ran because it was supposed to be good for you. In my memory, I never even got my feet off the ground. I just…puttered. That’s my memory colored by depression, though.

When I moved back to Colorado, I tried again, this time with my roommates’ dog to help motivate me. I finally built up some momentum, and finally started running regularly and building a habit. I still had a pair of tights from when I’d played soccer like 15 years before, and umbro shorts. A pair of cotton yoga pants. I bought trail running shoes (for running in the park and on the roads), and that was my gear. That first year, I wore out the crotch in the old soccer tights. I bought new running tights, on clearance at REI, and that’s how I ended up with a thick, winter-weight pair. But I ran in them anyway, in all weather. I ran a mile without stopping, then I ran 20 minutes without stopping, then I ran a 5k. Then a 10k. Then a half marathon. I ran to Wash Park (a few miles from my house) and back.

(Then last year, I got tendonitis in one knee, and something else made the other one hurt, and then I stopped going to the gym to lift and then the pandemic happened and my running slowly petered out. Every time I try to run right now, my knees/legs hurt for the first mile and a half.)

I still don’t have a smartwatch. I had a fitbit for a little while, but it made my wrist itch and I never used the information in a way that actually helped with my training or made me faster. I still don’t have a heart rate monitor. I still buy all of my running tights on clearance, and my running shirts are all the free ones that you get when you sign up for a race. I splurge on running shoes, but that’s because I’ve learned that lesson the hard way. So I have this one running playlist, and my semi-fancy shoes. Those are my crutches, and if I thought anyone was actually going to take them away from me or even cared that much, I would say that you can pry them from my cold dead hands.

If an NBA player listening to a specific playlist to hype himself up before a game, is that a crutch? Or a baseball player who wears the same socks throughout the playoffs? Or a hockey player growing a playoff beard? What point of expertise do you have to reach before crutches/routine/superstitions are no longer frowned upon, but are just cute and quirky? Or part of being a professional?

tl;dr: Just run. Do the thing. You don’t have to be fast. You don’t need fancy tools. You can run with crutches, or not. Anything that gets you out the door is a good thing. Are you doing it for fun? Let it be fun, whatever that means.

Fiction Free Write

I signed up on a mailing list from storyaday.org to get a writing prompt every day for the month of September. Yesterday was the first day I actually tried one of the prompts (I set a timer for fifteen minutes, which is why it just kind of stops), which came from excellent writer and human Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked how it turned out, so here it is. The first sentence in quotes is Mary Robinette’s:

“Of the things that could go wrong while crocheting, opening a portal had seemed like a low probability.”

Especially since she had just learned to crochet this morning and was, if she was honest, still unclear on the distinction between crocheting and knitting (why do you need multiple ways to make cloth out of string and sticks?). An hour of laborious work had given her a pitiful start on the potholder she was supposedly making, but then, spooling off the yarn she had strung together, a sparkly little void opened, dripping off her crochet needles like extra-dimensional drops of water. They held together into a little window that was about as big across as the palm of her hand.

Well, she thought. That’s interesting. She poked her fingers through the window. It was raining, over there in Wherever. As she pulled her hand back through and marveled at the water on her fingers, she smelled damp grass and decaying leaves. Rain. She leaned down to try and see into Wherever, but the window was too small to get a good look. Just a closeup of tree bark. Of course her first interdimensional window through time and/or space would faceplant her into a tree.

If I keep crocheting, she thought, maybe the portal will get bigger, and I’ll be able to see more.

If the portal gets bigger, she replied to herself, what if it starts sucking this world into it, like a hole in the side of an airplane? What if I fall into it and it turns out the portal is 30 feet up in the air?

Do you even know how to close it? another part of her asked. Open it further or close it completely. You can’t leave an interdimensional portal through time and/or space open in your living room. Not even a small one. “What’s this?” “Oh, nothing, just my portal.” “Really? Where does it go?” “I dunno, it just opened up one day and then I did literally nothing about it and went back to watching The Good Place for the fourth time.” “Ah ha. I see. Yes, I can see why you would make such a discovery here, in your living room, and then do nothing.”

She stopped the internal hypothetical conversation because it was starting to sound too much like an XKCD comic strip.

So she kept crocheting. In another hour, she had a wobbly doorway about the size of her cat (now there was a whole other set of worries: a cat that travels through time and/or space by disappearing through a portal to chase birds). Big enough that it was less like looking through the peephole of a door and more like looking through a small basement window. Still, there was the tree, which looked like a pine or a fir or something carniverous (no, not that word, the other one. Conifer-us) and she could see the horizon and a hill nearby, and hear the patter of the rain coming down through the leaves, and knew she could go through the portal without falling to her death.

How many possible deaths do you cross off the list, she wondered, before you had an acceptably low number of possible deaths, such that stepping through an unknown magical portal into an unknown land didn’t seem like a suicidally mad thing to do?

On the other hand, and again, the other part of herself told herself, are you really going to just…not go through? How long does the list of possible ways to die have to get before you decline to enter the magical portal in your living room?

I should call NASA, she thought. I bet they would know how to explore it. Or at least do a risk assessment.

NASA can’t even explore the Moon. You’d be better off calling Bezos or Musk or some other mad billionaire.

So they can make money off of it and then toss in a car for shits and giggles? No thank you.

Well, before you go in, just remember to text somebody about where you’re going and when you expect to be back, so they can report you missing and/or avenge your death if you don’t return. Basic safety.

Three Memories

A minifigurine shaped like a panda, and several D&D dice, including a D20 and two D10s.
I don’t have a good picture of Comic Con, so here is my panda minifig from my D&D game.

July, 2017. I’m at Denver Comic Con, in a room full of rows of chairs, and a projector on a cart set at an angle to find the screen in the corner. I find a seat on the aisle (I always find a seat on the aisle), as near to the front as I can get. We’re in a mid-sized breakout room for this panel, which is called “Marvel: Then and Now,” and it’s crowded enough that people are filling the seats, standing along the back wall, shuffling bags and cosplay weapons to try to make space for someone next to them.

The panel has three generations of Marvel writers and artists: Two old guys (like, in their late 80s, they rolled into the panel on mobility scooters) who were at Marvel in the 1950s, a white English man who started at Marvel in the late 80s, and a black woman who works there now and whose titles include Black Panther, Iron Man, and World of Wakanda.

The first question that the moderator asks is about how Marvel has changed since each panelist got into the business. One of the old guys said (and in spite of the quotation marks, I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t want to get political” (so don’t then) “but” (uh oh) “I started at Marvel during World War II, and the nation was one. And I think we need to make America great again.” (please be being ironic right now) “We need to just give him a chance” (oh dear) “He’s going to take down the Mexican mafias just like he made it safe for a black woman and her kid safe to walk down the street in New York” (stop talking) “and why can’t we be as one” (seriously though stop talking). He goes on citing “fake news” and random crime stories for several minutes. I’m not sure why the moderator didn’t interrupt or redirect; he certainly should have. The few people of color who were in the audience get up and walk out. I noticed some white people too. After a weirdly agonizing minute, as my ingrained training about being “civil” (or at least “not rude”) battles with my desire to not look like I was endorsing this shit by continuing to sit here and listen to it, I get up and walk out too. I feel like everyone is staring at me, even though I’m sure nobody was. Someone sitting on the floor probably crept into my seat and that was that.

Of course, the minute I got out into the hallway, I realized, well shit, now I don’t get to hear Alitha Martinez talk about her career, the things she’s done and what she enjoys about drawing for Marvel. Ain’t that always the way: old white dude takes up too much space, too much oxygen, pushing out other voices or making them impossible to hear. I find her booth later in Artist Alley, and buy whatever I can. She’s really nice, there with her teenage son, who’s helping her sell art and books when he isn’t off doing his teenage son thing.

Artist Alley. Remember Artist Alley? And how close everybody had to stand to each other in order to move around at all?


Laura Jane Grace from the band Against Me! sings at Riot Fest. The picture is of the large screens so Laura can be seen from far away.
Big Laura Jane Grace is big.

September, 2019. I’ve been awake since 2:30am, and only had four hours of sleep total anyway. Showered and walked to the train. Didn’t manage to fall asleep on the train. Got to the airline gate with enough time to spare to buy a bagel and cream cheese at a Smashburger, the only food place that’s open on the concourse. They don’t spread the cream cheese on the bagel even though they have a full kitchen. Just drop a couple of individual servings in the bag.

I doze on the plane, at least for a little while. I was the sort of tired where everything around you and inside you starts to feel fuzzy and unreal. Being locked in a dark tube as it hurtles through the air doesn’t help with this impression. After we land, I take the train into town and and find the hostel I’m staying in. Check in time isn’t until like 4pm, but they let me store my stuff in the luggage room so I can head right back out and take the train to Douglas Park, where Riot Fest is happening.

I have almost always gone to concerts, music festivals, things like that, by myself. It’s not weird to me. And I like being able to choose my own schedule, decide which acts I want to see, and not have to discuss it with anyone else. I like being able to pull up a patch of grass and read a book when I need some downtime. Chicago in September is sunny, and warm, but not unbearably hot. The Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now) looms in the distance like a giant, hibernating Transformer. Riot Fest rents out lockers so I don’t even need to keep my backpack with me most of the time. The lines to the port-a-potties, though on the long side, move quickly. Same for the water bottle refilling stations. People are handing out free individual packets of Pedialyte to keep everyone moving and hydrated. I am not filled with the amplified excitement that I used to get when I was younger and looking at the lineup for Warped Tour, and I’m not interested in getting myself clobbered in the mosh pit anymore, but I am perfectly content, standing in the shade to see H2O over here, dancing in the sun to The Selecter over there, buying ice cream that is way too expensive, checking the Riot Fest subreddit and meeting up with a random guy who happily gives me a pair of foam ear plugs. There are a whole lot more Latinx people here than I remember seeing in the scene in Denver, and I remember how multiracial punk is, or could be, or should be, or has been.

I see Anti-Flag, who are still singing about how dying for your government is shit after all these years, calling for a circle pit “everywhere” (please no). I randomly see a band named the Thin Lips, they were good. Wander around the merch tents, the usual collection of tie dye and Bob Marley posters and skate decks and anarchist bookstore tents. I sit under a tree and watch Hot Water Music from a distance. I have a locker that I can lock and unlock, so every now and then I take out my homework and work on it in the grass while I wait for Andrew WK or the Village People to take the stage. .

There’s old punks, with grey hairs and battered Vans. Young punks, with shellacked hair and pristine Docs. It’s like Warped Tour, but more low-key, and with more older punks. There’s a breeze, trying to clear out the humidity and the smoke from various types of stimulating leafs. The grounds crew tried to fill in the soft spots in the ground with wood chips to prevent mud pits, and it’s…slightly effectual.

The last day, Sunday afternoon/evening, is the reason why I really came to Chicago for this. Against Me!, Patti Smith, and Bikini Kill play one after the other on the same stage. Sometime over the summer, I jokingly tweeted at Laura Jane Grace that I needed her to make sure that her and Smith’s and BK’s sets didn’t overlap because I needed to see all three of them. I know that LJG doesn’t have any control over stage order at a huge fest like Riot Fest, but I got my wish, and I decide it’s because of her. I head over to the stage almost an hour early, and get as close as I can. In the manner of fests, there are two big stages next to each other and they alternate which one is in set up mode and which one has a band playing on it, so even though I’m only seeing three more bands, I’m going to be in this spot for about six hours. I have already peed and also monitored my fluid intake so I won’t have to go to the bathroom. I have clif bars in my backpack. I have a book to read. I am not front and center, but I’m close enough to see the band members’ faces, far enough away to not have to worry about the pit, and near to the big screens on either side of the stage that I can look at those if I need to (and when I take pictures on my phone, I mostly take pictures of the screen, because as dusk falls my already-crappy phone camera gets even crappier). I’m surrounded by other women, and we are all so so ready.

The bands are great. How do I describe how great they are? What are the words I can use to convey how happy I am? Laura Jane Grace laughs her way through her set and Patti Smith rules the fucking stage. Bikini Kill is still making their own clothing and digging through thrift store discount bins for stuff to wear on stage. And to see Bikini Kill, who (along with their friends and the rest of the riot grrrl community) started their own revolution, who stand for so much and who put their voices in the mouths of so many girls and queer kids, to see them play for thousands and thousand of punks, to see them close out Riot Fest, to hear Kathleen Hanna talk on stage about the same things I’ve heard her talk about in 500-capacity theater venues…that was something. That was great.

Dare you to do what you want
Dare you to be who you will
Dare you to cry right out loud
“You get so emotional, baby”

Double dare ya,
double dare ya,
double dare ya

Girl-fuckin-friend yeah
-Bikini Kill, “Double Dare Ya”


A medium-sized brown dog, standing on a gravel path, stares across green grass to the ocean beyond. Her back is to the camera and she's wearing a green harness.
Hazel Dog checks out the ocean (sound? bay? big thing of water).

February 2020. Some friends of mine, who I used to dogsit for until they moved to California, ask if I want to dogsit for them in California. Instead of giving me money, they’re giving me a free trip to California, and use of their car. They live outside of San Francisco, at the tail end of one of the BART lines, in what seems to be a working class neighborhood that can’t decide if it’s sliding downward or sliding upward. Hazel (the dog) and I go to a different park every day, this one a big off-leash park on the coast where she can sniff at and play with other dogs, that one a walk through some redwoods up a big hill (though never quite high enough for a big vista). The air is sunny and crisp, and I find a little park on the coast a mile from their house, where I can go running every morning and appreciate doing a cardio workout at low altitude. I carry a jacket with me but hardly ever wear it. I go see Hamilton (yes, again) in San Francisco. I know the soundtrack by heart but every time I go to see it live, there’s too much to see and it’s overwhelming and my brain forgets to remember what happened. So, I go see it whenever I’m in a city that’s not NYC with tickets that are vaguely affordable and buy a beer in the lobby that costs like $15 fucking dollars holy shit. I’ve never seen Hamilton in the city where I live–just when I’m traveling. I find Chinatown by accident while I’m trying to find the City Lights Bookstore. I think to myself, I could live here, I just need to figure out how to quadruple my income. I understand why people want to live here. The air is just fucking fantastic, and since I barely need to leave the house once a day, I don’t care about the traffic. I write. I go on walks with the dog. I sleep as late as she’ll let me in the mornings. I cook messy things in the kitchen (everything I cook is messy to some degree). I have takeout burgers and takeout Korean food and a random gyro because that’s all I can find right before Hamilton. I see the ocean. I watch classic movies like Silence of the Lambs and Swing Time, and have a long conversation with a friend about genderqueerness and -phobia and Silence of the Lambs. It’s like a staycation, but since it’s not my own house I’m not distracted by all the projects and cleaning that I’m not doing. It’s just me, and my brain, and the dog. I’ve been casting my mind back to it the last six months, those last feelings of freedom, before I knew what was coming. Appreciating the sun and the sky with no impending sense that it might be gone soon.

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.