Harry Potter is 20

1200px-Harry_Potter_wordmark.svg(My writing life is still slow. Which is why this is being posted a week after everyone else posted their Harry Potter reminisces.)

 
I work in a public library, which means I have frequent (and frequently random) conversations with customers about books and local politics and the idiocy of computers. Yesterday, a customer came up to me and started telling me that Harry Potter was 20 years old and all about her Harry Potter memories (she did this with no introduction or conversation opener whatsoever; just walked up to me while I was shelving holds and started chattering at me about Harry Potter). So that was basically how I celebrated the week, which is (in some small way) in keeping with my relationship with Harry Potter for the last 20 years.

 
I started reading the Harry Potter series in 2000. I remember because I read it on a road trip with my family, our last big trip as a family because I was graduating high school and my brother was graduating college and moving to Seattle. I started working at a bookstore the next year, and for the last three books (which came out in 2003, 2005, and 2007), I worked the Harry Potter release parties. When the Deathly Hallows came out, I was also working at a public library; I got to stay late the night before the release date and process the holds so that they would be ready for customers first thing in the morning. In short: I have been a part of getting the Harry Potter books into people’s hands for almost as long as I’ve been reading them, and in a lot of ways, this is fundamental to why I find them important books, and what they mean to me, beyond just being a fun and enjoyable story.

 
I was a reader, all through my childhood. It was one of the things that made me weird in school. I was never teased for it, I was never ostracized just because I was a reader, but I was definitely the kid that maxed out all the reading lists, got in trouble for reading in class, read while I was walking home from school, fucked up the curve on writing assignments because I read so much that my writing skill just followed right along. The other kids just acknowledged that this was a thing that I did. When I started reading Harry Potter (well past the magical formulating years of reader-hood when one book drops into your life and changes you), it was just another book, another fun story. This was also before social media; certainly before I was on the Internet with any regularity, before fandom became the behemoth it is today. Those early years of Harry Potter, maybe even up to the first book release party, I certainly knew that Harry Potter was popular, but it wasn’t the sort of thing it is now–where people discuss and bond over it.

 
It was the book release parties where I got to see the fandom for the first time, and more importantly, got to see something that I think adults who grow up reading (and who were often the “weird kid who reads” in their class at school) always want to see more of: kids who are fucking excited about books. Weird Reader Kids, all over the place, all in one bookstore, instead of scattered from classroom to classroom. Kids up past their bedtime, getting chocolate frogs and butterbeer from the bookstore coffee shop. Kids dressed up in wizard robes. Kids waiting in line for hours. Kids getting handed their books at midnight, and then sprinting for the door to get to their parents’ cars to get back home so they can start reading.

 
They were late nights, after the book release parties, when me and my coworkers would be at work until the wee hours of the morning cleaning up the remnants of chocolate milks and fire whiskies and double espressos that the parents needed to stay up. Cookie crumbs and pastry wrappers. Dirty coffee mugs and plates. I didn’t care. I loved it. I wanted to make books exciting and fun for these kids in a way that I never got to experience.

 
The movies kept the community going, I think, in between books, and then after the books were done. The movies pulled in a lot of people who weren’t Weird Reader kids, and even though I haven’t seen most of them since they were in theaters, they broadened and cemented the fandom. I went to a couple movie release nights and they were much the same mix of fun, overwhelming, noisy nerddom as the book releases. And by then, the books had been around long enough that older siblings were indoctrinating younger siblings. Livejournal was a thing. Tumblr started to exist. Fan fiction started leaking out of its previously-ironclad hinterlands. And Harry truly stepped out of the books and into our heads.

 
Even though I don’t actively participate in the fandom that much, so much of that fandom is what Harry Potter is for me. I don’t write fanfic or cosplay or draw fan art or even really get into long discussions with people online. I like the books. I like the stories. But really, what I love–what I adore–is that this books are so huge, took over so much of the culture. And maybe the kids who read during class feel a little less weird these days than they did when I was young. Maybe they can talk about Harry with their classmates, as well as in online forums. I don’t know exactly when nerdy fandom went from a thing that only happened at Comic Cons to a thing that happened all over the internet; it seemed fully fledged and omnipresent by the time I happened upon it. But I’m really happy that this is a thing in the world that exists, even though I only ever observe it from the sidelines.

 
At some point (and I resisted doing this for a long time because I hate having to give my email address to things because then everyone sends you email) (Also, come on, I’m an adult, I don’t need Sorting, I am too old, sniff sniff), I went over to Pottermore and got myself Sorted. It was…weirdly emotional, and resonant, and flattering, when I got Sorted into Hufflepuff. So, here’s me:
House: Hufflepuff
Patronus: Occamy
Wand: Willow wood w/dragon heartstring

 

PS. Also, one thing I discovered in the week it took me to write this: Harry Potter might be 20, but “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls is apparently 21 this week, and that makes me feel old in a way that Harry Potter does not.

Don’t Go, Carrie Fisher

leiaCarrie Fisher’s death is hitting me way harder than I thought it would. I keep tearing up at random moments, thinking about her and her legacy, which I don’t think I’ve done with any other celebrity death this year. Not that I thought about this in advance, but on the surface, Richard Adams’ death should have way more of an effect on me: Watership Down is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve read it countless times since middle school. Bigwig is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. (“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.”) Harper Lee, another one of my favorite authors, also died this year. Maybe the difference with them is that they were both in their 90s, had both “finished” their contributions (at least insofar as their formative influence on my life, which I realize is 100% secondary to the loss and sorrow that their families must be feeling, because they loved Adams and Lee as people, and not as authors.) But Carrie Fisher? She wasn’t done yet. Not with life, not with work, not with her effect on me or all the rest of us.

I basically missed Star Wars growing up. Neither of my parents were into it (they were slightly older than the target audience, being newlyweds in 1977, and if they saw it in the theaters it didn’t grab them the way it grabbed so many others), so we never had it on VHS around the house. We never had cable television either, so I never saw the movies until the special editions were re-released in theaters when I was in high school in 1997 or whenever that was. It took me even longer to appreciate the effect that Star Wars had on culture and fandom and science fiction. And in 1997, I had not yet reached the point in my life where I needed role models and fangirl objects that were specifically girls. I was still doing fine with my music collection that was 97% male. I was doing fine with Watership Down, whose rabbit cast is probably 85% male. My favorite movie was The Princess Bride, and don’t get me wrong, it is still one of my favorites, but there’s two female characters in the whole thing (Buttercup counts as one character; the mom and the queen combine to be the other). I hadn’t discovered Patti Smith, or riot grrrl, or bell hooks, or the need for diverse and powerful women in my life. So Leia the Princess slipped right by me.

But General Leia Organa?

I saw The Force Awakens last year (age 33, for context), and the movie, the characters, all were great. I like the story, the dialogue, the music. It’s not my favorite movie ever, but it’s a solid, enjoyable flick and I wouldn’t mind seeing it for a third time. I didn’t think about it until this week, but it’s also a movie that is filled with active characters. Rey, Finn, Chewie, Han, even Kylo, all are constantly doing stuff. Reacting to stuff. Running away from explosions. They don’t really have time to stop and reflect on what’s happening and why.

But Leia? And to a lesser extent, Maz Kanata? In some ways, they’re the heart of the story, because they’re removed enough from the action that they can think about how they got to where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re the calm at the center of the storm. Leia looks at Han and holds their entire history together—good and bad—in her heart. Leia can see how lonely Rey is, how hungry for family. General and Senator Leia Organa knows the weight of responsibility and power, she’s held it her whole life.

And as much as I need and enjoy Rey, badass female character who fights with a bo staff and survives basically on instinct?

I need Leia too, in a way I didn’t know that I needed her before this week, when suddenly she was gone. I need that calm female leader, the one who’s accomplished greatness, the military and political professional, the one who’s made mistakes but who keeps going forward anyway, the one who takes time to both lead and nurture.

We still don’t have enough female heroes that we can afford to lose this one. Who is my badass female hero leader now? It’s not like when we lost Obi-Wan, because his role then got filled by Yoda. It’s not like when we lost Dumbledore, who stepped aside because Harry could stand without him. And it’s not like losing a Batman actor, because there’s literally seven other Batman actors. There’s nobody else like Leia. Maybe it’s just because I’m sad and full of feelings, but I can’t think of another character who fills the same archtype who could stand into the gap that’s suddenly in my sad little nerd heart. There’s just her. And now she’s gone.

And look, it’s not even that I need Leia as a badass female to look up to. It turns out I needed Carrie Fisher. Who else is so perfectly imperfect? Who else owns her experiences—good and bad—with the aplomb and humor that she does? Who else is so likable precisely because she doesn’t give a shit if you like her? She had a tempest of a life. She fell down and got up and kept moving forward by any means necessary. Like Leia (or maybe Leia was like Carrie), she made mistakes, but kept going forward anyway. I don’t mean to idolize her in any way, because it was the public difficulties she had (living with bipolar disorder and being a recovering addict; and living those experiences in the public eye had to be so much more difficult than just living them on their own) that made her strength so powerful to me. She let us see her weaknesses, and that shone a light on how truly strong she was. She let us meet Gary, she was open about his role as one of her coping mechanisms. She was not ashamed. I think that’s the thing that breaks my heart open, just how blunt and unashamed she was, and how rare that is to see in a woman, and how brave that makes her.

There was nobody else. Just her. And now she’s gone.

Down in the Hole

“Well I’ll tell you one thing that I know.
You don’t face your demons down, 
You gotta grapple ’em, Jack, and pin ’em to the ground.”
–Joe Strummer, “Long Shadow”
Every June, I go to a conference in the mesa country in northern New Mexico. There’s a couple hundred people of all ages, no cell phone signals, sleeping in rustic cabins that have spiders and occasionally rodents, bitey juniper gnats, no cars. It’s great.
The high school and college aged kids stay together in their own building, and most of the rest of us only see them at mealtimes or maybe for an hour or two a day. They do their thing, and their thing is good. In less than a week they assemble and foster a community so strong it carries them the rest of the year (or at least it did, when I was part of that group, and I see no signs that it’s changed with the passage of time. If anything, the creation of social media has helped them keep the community connected over the rest of the year). This year, even though I never saw the kids for more than an hour or two a day, I found myself buoyed up every time I was with them or thought about them. They are such a great and fantastic group of kids (they are not all kids, as the age group goes up to about 22, but I considered myself a kid when I was part of the group and the terminology stuck). Strong and funny, grappling with the world, struggling and dancing and listening to each other. They’re not angels, they’re just regular human teenagers, and they amaze me. I am in awe of them even though/because I know they struggle. I know some of them have mental health issues or substance abuse issues. General life-as-a-teenager issues. Some of them have lost dearly beloved family members, and that shreds you at any age. But they’re stunning people all the same.
It’s hard to even try to describe how happy they make me, partly because there’s no way to do it without sounding hokey, and partly because I’m afraid that if they knew how much someone was watching and enjoying them, it would make them feel self-conscious and weird and they would stop being so fabulous. But they’re the light of the world, okay? They’re great and amazing. I see differences in how I was as a teenager/young adult and how they are now and they are so far ahead of me and so wise. I can’t wait to see these kids run the world. That’s what I was thinking that week, six months ago, in June 2016.
And then on the drive home, still going in and out of cell service, I started checking Twitter and Reddit and found out about the shooting in Orlando that had happened the night before. And just like that, all my rosy and optimistic thoughts about The Youth, they all evaporated, replaced with dread and sorrow and regret.
Because I was supposed to make this world safe for the queer kids of the future, black kids of the future, Latino kids of the future, Muslim kids of the future. I was once The Youth, and I charged myself with changing the world. But I haven’t. We haven’t. Shit like Matt Shepherd’s murder and the shooting at Columbine, those were supposed to be the high water mark of shittery. Not the floor. Michael Brown’s death, Trayvon Martin’s—hell, Emmett Till’s—were supposed to be the cultural turning point. Not the beginning of a new season of violence on black men. And now we have these beautiful kids—queer and not—that are going out into a world that isn’t safe for them. And what do we do? What do I tell them?
So I’ve been carrying that around with me, trying to figure out how to write about it, trying to find some wisdom, and in the meantime 2016 carried on being the oozing Vogon of a year that it is, and now it’s December and some aged orange troll is going to be president and it’s so much worse. I admit that I was one of those who was just waiting for the election to be over, because I assumed that Clinton would win and we could all move on with our lives. I did not give one second of thought to what would happen if Trump won. (This is, incidentally, me showing off my White People Problems, because when I read post-election reactions of PoC on Twitter, I was reminded that African-Americans—particularly older African-Americans—have always known just how racist America is, and that white people still don’t know.) A bunch of old white people who will die before the world fully catches on fire have burdened us (and the world) with a 70-year-old man-baby who may very well destroy the country and/or the planet and/or all the civil rights gains we’ve spent the last 100 years trying to attain, and we’re going to be paying for that decision for decades. Now it feels like I have to fight the battles of my mother and grandmother all over again. And I still don’t know what to tell these kids, these kids who don’t even know how amazing they are.
In my worst moments, I think that maybe we should be raising our kids to be harder. If I had less of a “saving people thing” (as Hermione puts it), if I didn’t care so goddamn much, this wouldn’t be so hard to live through. I know there’s some that do that, that teach their kids to encase themselves behind walls so that the world can’t crush them. But then, I don’t know the difference between hiding your light and extinguishing it. Maybe there isn’t one. I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you, you beautiful kids. I’m sorry. I wanted the world to be different. I assumed it was different. Getting bruised by the world is inevitable, and nobody can keep you safe from that. But now I’m worried that you might just get crushed, and that’s different.
I don’t know what to do to survive this, to fix it.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine when we were 17 or so. She’s social justice-y like me, and in our fabulous teenage naivete we both felt like the larger historical battles against injustice were done. Slavery had been abolished, Jim Crow was over, women could vote and have abortions. It seemed like the last big cultural battle left was gay civil rights, and then after that we’d just mop up some of the leftovers that hadn’t 100% gotten the message about how we do things now, places like Jasper, TX. But, we thought, we could relax. It was done. We just had to finish what had been started, tackle the totally surmountable problems of injustice in Palestine and famine in Africa, and we’d be good. The world would be good.
But progress isn’t inevitable. I learned that this year (more importantly, I learned that that was a thing that I thought was true). There is no moral arc of history, there’s nothing about our culture or species that says we can’t also go backwards, erase everything we did fifty years ago. There’s nothing in our culture or history that is assured. We are stuck in this shitshow for the duration. Water goes over the wheel and right straight back into the same fetid pond.
I don’t know if it’s a silver lining, precisely, but there is one small comfort in the whole “progress is not inevitable” truth: we need you. We won’t be okay without you showing up and demanding better of us. You can’t sit this one out because on some lower level you think it’ll happen with or without you. It won’t happen. We won’t move forward.
So do the thing.
Write the story. Go to the protest or the city council meeting. Start the band. Sign the petition. Plant the garden. There are millions of things that won’t get done unless we do them.
One of my favorite shows is The West Wing. And one of the most famous and quoted pieces of dialogue, from anywhere in the whole series, is in the second season, when Leo (the White House Chief of Staff) convinces Josh (the Deputy Chief of Staff) that it’s okay to need help. That it’s okay to not be okay. This is the story that Leo tells Josh:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
I’ll be honest: I don’t know the way out of the hole. I don’t know if anyone really does. What the United States is trying to accomplish, has been trying to accomplish since our infancy, is knit together many disparate groups into one cohesive and just whole. It’s not something that’s ever been successfully done, on a large scale, in the history of the world.
But I’m in this hole with you. Because you’re my friend. The rest we’ll figure out together.

The Inadequacy of Perception

booksOne of the things that is both bad and good about working at a library is that you get to see these little chunks of people’s lives. A piece of the whole. Since I mostly re-shelve books, for me that often looks like going through the bookdrop and finding a little pile of books on “parenting through divorce,” or “how to file for bankrupty,” or “understanding your autistic child.” When stuff like that happens, I typically say a little prayer for that person, hope that they’re finding the support that they need, and move on.
But sometimes, it’s more complicated. Sometimes, it’s a homeless guy trying to tell you about all of his problems getting housing assistance, and he’s asking about help applying for jobs and he has a resume and you look at his resume and you have this sinking feeling that nobody’s going to hire this guy, but you don’t say that, because you’re really not qualified to edit people’s resumes. Sometimes, it’s a guy who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse trying to figure out the internet enough to apply for jobs online, jobs that don’t require any computer skills, and you think, This. This is what the digital divide looks like it is a huge fucking problem and I don’t know any way around it except to teach what it is to double-click, one person at a time. And also indefinitely extend their computer time because they’ve never used a keyboard before and it takes them ten minutes to type a single sentence. Sometimes it’s that.
I heard most of this second hand, but we had a group of teenagers (like 13- and 14-year-olds) playing games on our public computers. They were a little loud, as teenagers tend to be. Our security guard talked to them, but they apparently didn’t get as whisper-quiet as another patron on the computers would have liked, because he went outside and called the police and told them that a kid was “talking about buying ammunition.” (The kid may have been talking about ammunition, but if so it was computer game ammunition, and I’m pretty confident that the surly customer knew exactly what the kids were actually talking about.) The customer didn’t tell anybody that he’d called the cops, so the first we knew of the whole situation was when four cops came in to the library, made a beeline for one of the kids (one of the only black kids, as it happens), hauled him out of his chair, and started searching him.
The kid looked fucking terrified. The cops hadn’t explained themselves to us, but more importantly didn’t explain what the hell was going on to the kid, just hauled him up and started putting their hands on him. He’s fourteen, and he’s got this look on his face like he’s sure he’s about to get shot.
They didn’t find weapons, obviously. The kid was playing a game. They didn’t really apologize either, just shook his hand like, “Haha, still friends, right?!” and left.
I assume that the cops were responding to the description that the customer gave them. Why the customer picked out the black kid, I don’t know (the disgruntled customer was also black). But to the kid, and to everyone watching, a bunch of cops just marched into a public building and beelined straight for the black kid.
To the cops, they were being prudent and cautious, and maybe trying to catch a suspect in the act of looking at ammunition online (which is a crime since when?), to the rest of us, they were grabbing and terrifying a kid who might be obnoxious but who is not (to the best of my knowledge) a criminal of any sort. I want everyone to feel safe in the library, and when cops march in and haul people out of their chairs at the public computers, that undermines that goal.
And as an employee of the library, I can’t really go up to the kid and say, “Dude, that totally sucked and was racist and I’m sorry,” because then I’m speaking for the library. And what black kid wants a random white woman to label his experience, library employee or not? What commiseration can a total stranger of any race offer? “Oh, so you saw this racist shit go down, recognized it as racist shit, and did nothing, but now you want cookies from me for recognizing it? I think not.”
I know a lot of white people with this problem. We’ve gotten better about seeing racism, maybe; we’ve gotten better at listening to our friends of color and at reading blogs about the experiences of people of color. We want to be compassionate and woke while also being cognizant of when we’re overstepping, when we’re taking up too much space, when we need to shut up and listen instead of taking over a situation. We want to help create safe spaces but are painfully conscious that sometimes our mere presence feels unsafe. The fear of doing the wrong thing leads to doing nothing–but that is also the wrong thing.
First world problems? Oh god, yes. I swear this is not some poor-me-white-girl sadness rant. I’m just trying to articulate the rock-and-hard place spot that some liberal progressive whites (or at least, this liberal progressive white person) can find themselves in. And trying to meditate on how to move past it (this is where the entry ends on a disappointing cliffhanger, because I don’t have the answer to that question). I’m not so bad on the internet, where we so often talk about things that happened instead of being asked to react in the moment. But reacting in the moment–not just to racist shit, but to all violent shit and not-okay shit and people-who-need-our-help shit–is part of what all of us humans need to get better at. I work in a library, I work in customer service, I work with the public, and part of being good at that is being able to recognize and talk to people about their own experience when they want me to.
Postscript: The incident I described above happened about a week ago, and I’ve seen the boys in the library since then, playing their game and talking to each other. So thankfully, they were at least not so badly scared/unwelcomed that they stopped coming to the library. 

I Live in a Town Where You Can’t Smell a Thing

I’ve been reading Columbine, by Dave Cullen. It was published in 2009, but I put off reading it, because I have this weird disconnect in my head when it comes to Columbine stuff. I both want to know everything, to try and understand, but whenever I think about it for long I go into my 17-year-old headspace of being confused and angry and other emotions that I don’t understand. So mostly I avoid Columbine stuff. But recently, Sue Klebold (Dylan Klebold’s mother) released a memoir, and I read that, and decided to finally read Columbine while I was on a roll, so to speak. (If you want to read other thoughts of mine on school shootings, I wrote an entry after the shooting in 2013 at Arapahoe High School here.)

So I’m reading this book. About the murderers and about the victims and what happened that day. And before and after. And something struck me.

When Cassie Bernall was 13 or 14, she went through a bad bout of depression (my word, not Cullen’s). She threatened to commit suicide, she cut herself, hit her head against walls and bathroom counters. In a journal that her parents found after she died, Cassie said, “I cannot explain in words how much I hurt. I didn’t know how to deal with this hurt, so I physically hurt myself.” Cassie’s family was(is) deeply Christian, so their method of coping with this behavior, after consulting with their minister, was to pull Cassie out of public school and put her in a private Christian school, take away the phone in her room, and basically forbid all activities that weren’t church- or youth group-related. This strategy worked, and Cassie stabilized enough that they let her return to public school when she was a freshman, to Columbine High School. She said that she wanted to bring the word of Christ into the public school.

A little over a year before the massacre at Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were arrested for theft. They broke into a parked van and stole some electronics equipment out of it. They’d gotten in trouble a few times before this, the sort of trouble that involves parents and school administrators, not the police. But getting arrested for anything when you’re 17 is a big deal in suburban white-collar Littleton, so both sets of parents took it seriously. Eric Harris’ parents, in particular, besides grounding him and taking away his computer and the usual punitive parental things, sent him to a psychiatrist who got him started on anti-depressants (both boys were sent to counseling as part of their sentencing, but Harris’ dad was apparently moving towards putting his son into therapy within days of his arrest). Both boys completed their court-ordered Diversion program, and Harris was on his full dose of antidepressants right up until his death (as shown by his autopsy).

So. These kids. All with significant emotional and/or behavioral issues. All at Columbine High School.

One family did the textbook version of “everything right.” Sent their kid to therapy, tried to get underlying causes diagnosed, let legal consequences stand. The other went with a strategy that would strike a lot of people as abusive or harmful, or, at the very least, not helpful. But two kids ended up murderers, and the other kid ended up murdered.

I’m not trying to make a broad point about either of these treatment options, if we can call them that. Eric Harris got sent to therapy, and it didn’t help him; but Dylan didn’t ever go to a therapist outside of his court-ordered counseling, but he probably had depression and was definitely suicidal (as evidenced by journals found after his death), and getting properly diagnosed and treated could have made an enormous difference to him–and, by extension, an enormous difference to the people he ended up terrorizing. Similarly, just because Cassie’s outward mood and demeanor changed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was no longer depressed or that she wasn’t still in need of treatment besides whatever comfort she found in church. If she’d lived, she may have had a recurrence once she went off to college. She could have been faking happiness so that she could leave her house and use the telephone (I have some friends who have diagnoses of depression who think she was doing exactly that). Or, maybe she really did feel better, feel loved, feel like she was a person of value. I don’t know. I know that Leelah Alcorn, when subjected to a similar parental plan of therapy-by-Christianity, ended up killing herself by stepping out into freeway traffic. I also know that my own religious community has been a comfort to me when precious little else has. I also know that there doesn’t seem to be a reason why either of those outcomes happened. Why Cassie chose one direction and Dylan chose another.

If anything, I guess I’m making a broad point about how scary humans are, not to mention how scary it is to be one, especially when adolescence and mental illness manifest at the same time. I’m not a psychologist by any sense of the imagination. I’m also not a parent. It just seems insane, the leap of faith parents have to make. You can pretend all you want that kids are a computer, that behavior is a science, that when you input Software Program A into Port 1, it will update the drivers and your beta human will respond and improve in a predictable, quantifiable way. And that just isn’t how it works. I know that every parent knows this in a way that I don’t, but also, it seems like one of those things that’s easier to deal with if you just don’t think about it. I don’t know how you decide on a course of action when the potential consequences range from “everything fixed” to “dead kid.” I don’t know how you do that.

The scary thing, the risky thing, is that I think the strategy that has the best chance of working is anything that brings people closer. That broadens a community and brings more people in. And I’m not talking anymore just about school shooters, but anything to lessen the violence we humans seem to inflict on each other. You need to be an empathic person in order to make a commitment to not hurt people, and some people can’t be taught that no matter what, but some people (most people?) just need to be reminded. But you never know who’s who until you try, and that’s the hard part. The part where you’re asked to risk literally everything for an outcome that has no real assurance of actually happening. When you’re in a situation that your culture and your upbringing and your education and your experience with humans has not prepared you for, you have to trust a human and put your faith in them, and humans–for all the power that our religious institutions have these days–are actually really bad at having faith and trusting each other.

But what else is there to do?

A Mutant Origin Story

mutieI’m near the younger end of my cousins. I have four cousins younger than me, and twelve that are older, so when I was a kid and we went back to Louisiana to visit them, I was almost always one of the youngest ones there. So sometimes, while my parents talked with their siblings, I ended up doing not-entirely-age-appropriate stuff to entertain myself. Like when I was seven or eight and ended up in my cousin Daniel’s bedroom digging through his X-Men and Spider-Man comics and reading them. I didn’t know anything about the X-Men canon. It was in the middle of Chris Claremont’s epic run on the series, and a lot of it went over my head, but a lot of it settled in my subconscious, and planted seeds in my memory. I certainly learned the names of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Jean Grey. When Fox started airing the X-Men animated show in 1992, I was all over that shit like white on rice. The universe became clearer, and I started reading X-Men comics more regularly (but still pretty piecemeal, since I didn’t have access to a comic book shop) and assembling the universe in my head. The X-Men and the Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. Sentinels. Senator Kelly. William Stryker.

(Note: It was a mystery to me what X-Men story I had read first, because all I had was a memory of a single panel: of Nightcrawler lying unconscious and bleeding from his ears while the other X-Men stand over him in concern and a vague understanding of mutants as an oppressed minority rather than a crew of superheroes. It wasn’t until recently that I read God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and realized that that was the comic I had read decades earlier at my cousin’s).

Early on in the Fox series, there’s a plotline in which two scientists discover a “cure” for mutantism. I forget how the X-Men find out about it, but they do, and their reactions all fit their personalities and personal histories. Wolverine immediately sees it as a tool to eliminate mutants’ powers and neutralize the perceived threat of mutantkind; Rogue, not so much. As one of the mutants whose powers are both an ability and a curse, Rogue (as well as Beast) tend to be the most ambivalent about their mutations, and tempted by the idea of a cure. Peaceful, optimistic Charles Xavier disagrees with the very premise. “Don’t say ‘cure,’ Moira. Being a mutant isn’t a disease. It’s something you’re born with,” he tells Moira McTaggert, one of the scientists. (This is the same plot line that Joss Whedon would handle for his run writing the Astonishing X-Men comics in 2005). It is, basically, the neurodiversity argument, only written in 1992 for a grade school-level audience.

I think it’s this storyline (and others like it), rather the ones that deal with a planet in danger or intergalactic space war, that drew me to the X-Men. Pretty early on, I picked up on threads that I translated into the X-Men being code for people with disabilities. One of the earliest questions that I remember being asked about my sister (besides “What’s wrong with her?” and “What’s it like having a sister with Down’s?”) had to do with whether I would change her if I could. Magically suck the extra chromosome out of every single one of her body’s cells. I don’t remember how young I was when I first heard about the high abortion rates for fetuses with Down’s, but it’s been in my head since at least middle school. And even though I never witnessed people being cruel to my sister, I did witness neurotypical classmates of mine being cruel to disabled kids at my school, and being mocking in general of anyone in special ed or remedial classes. It became really easy, in my head, to equate “Do mutants have the right to exist?” and “Do people with disabilities have the right to exist?” To see “retard” and “mutie” as linguistic cousins. The fear and hostility that mutants experience when they interact with regular Homo sapiens sometimes feels familiar when I hear people talk about people with disabilities. The parallel ran so deep in my head that I was honestly surprised when I got to high school and college and started talking about the X-Men with other people and realized that for them, the parallel was between straight people and queer people, or white people and people of color. That there might be many parallels had honestly never occurred to me, so deep and solid was my understanding that “mutant” was code for “disabled.” (This was before I read Chris Claremont’s statement that for him, mutants could stand in for any outsider population. In the introduction to the trade paperback version of God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont says, “Mutants in the Marvel Universe have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders; they represent the ultimate minority.”)

It crystallized slowly for me, over the course of years. Not all–or even most–storylines have to do with mutaphobia, after all. The X-Men fight against Magneto and fight against the Shi’ar (and fight with the Shi’ar), and there’s the Phoenix Saga and numerous interpersonal dramas and secondary mutations and all that. To read the X-Men is to get to know them from the inside first, their individual histories, their powers, how they feel about those powers, their flaws and foibles, their courage and tenacity, their creativity at solving (or blasting through) problems. You know the X-Men as individuals, make friends with them, and as the stories pile up it slips your mind that the rest of the comic universe world doesn’t see them as individuals, but as a blanket population. You don’t always have to be aware of the fact that a small but significant percentage of the non-mutant population hates mutants, fears them, and wants them dead.

I came to knowledge of my sister’s disability in much the same way. I was three–almost four–when she was born, so I didn’t have any concept of what Down syndrome was. She was just an eating, pooping, crying (and eventually giggling) machine. Your basic human baby. By the end of elementary school (when she would’ve been around seven and me around eleven), I had a pretty good handle on the definition of Down syndrome, but I had an even better knowledge of my sister. I knew how much she loved Barbie and Full House and that cheese was a fundamental dietary building block. I knew her love and her smiles and her stubbornness. I knew how much she was distressed by bees (and flies that might be bees) and automatic garage doors and anybody crying. I knew her. It’s hard to put all that aside and look at my sister from an outsider’s point of view and remember that there’s people who think that my sister is a waste of space. That she’s stupid. That she’s a burden on society and/or my family and that she shouldn’t exist. And there’s people out there who don’t think those things, but who are happy to tell me such things over the Internet because they know it’ll get to me.

I truly believe my sister is a gifted person, though not in the academic way that most people think of when they label kids “gifted.” Her gifts are of a more abstract sort: a deep and instinctive knowledge of chesed, of loving-kindness, of human joy. But the same genetic error that gave her those gifts also gets in the way, too. Gets in the way of her desire to live independently and have more friends. Gets in the way of my family’s desire that she live with economic stability and a reasonable amount of personal safety. Would she welcome the chance for a cure? I honestly don’t know. Like Rogue, her extra chromosome is both a gift and a curse. She can do many amazing things, but also misses out on a lot of opportunities that are easily available to “normals.”

It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized the other parallel. The angry one.

Because people with disabilities get abused at disturbingly, shockingly, unacceptably high rates in modern America. And every time I see it, in the news or wherever, it makes the muscles in my arms harden, and I stop breathing, and start looking for something to hit. Of course there’s never anything to hit. In those moments, though, I wish I was the mutant Pyro, so I could literally set the world on fire. In Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, when Dr. Rao announces a cure for the “mutant disease” on television, Wolverine’s claws come out and he can’t retract them. “She called us a disease. Do you know how that feels?” he says.

Yeah, Logan. I think I do, at least a little bit.

I would set the whole world on fire. I understand Magneto’s fury in the face of human intolerance and bigotry, and why he’s given up on humans and on Charles Xavier’s idealism. Xavier wants to teach people tolerance and compassion, but that is the long fucking way around the problem, and in the meantime people are straight up fucking dying and why do I have to talk to you about not calling people retards when those same people are getting murdered? I don’t have time for that bullshit. It would be so much easier, so much more satisfying, to just throw cars at people and silence them.

When it was my own sister that got hurt, it didn’t feel like enough. Her getting hurt by somebody else felt like the end point of a long chain of dealing with the stupidity and apathy of “normals” and the inevitable vulnerability and invisibility that disabled people experience because of it. There had been decades of people asking, in so many words, “Why does your sister exist?” And then someone came along and decided that she existed to be his victim. He picked a vulnerable, invisible person, and he did it on purpose, because he knew he could get away with it. He thought she wouldn’t fight back. And he was largely right, because how do you teach somebody to defend herself when her default setting is that everyone is her friend?

And that is when I understand the anger that allows Magneto to channel enough power to lift an entire football stadium into the air.

That is when I understand the Scarlet Witch’s anger and desperation when she says, “No more mutants.”

That is when I understand Pyro throwing fireballs, because that’s what I would do, that’s what I wanted to do, to set the whole fucking world on fire for leaving my sister helpless and invisible and vulnerable to somebody who decided to hurt her.

I want to incinerate the world. I want claws like Wolverine’s. Because that’s the biggest thing that X-Men in the Marvel Universe have going for them, that’s their trump card. They can do astonishing things. Uncanny things. Amazing things. They can save the world when no one else can. And that’s a really good argument in favor of their right to exist. When all else fails, when morals and ethics and human compassion fails, mutant usefulness is still there. My sister, and people like her, aren’t stupendous. They aren’t awe-inspiring. They do not astonish, unless you’re willing to examine something quieter and more subtle than telekinesis. Given the chance, much as I like to imagine myself as one of Xavier’s noble X-Men, I’m probably closer to one of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. More interested in defending, in fighting, than explaining. At least where my sister is concerned. Because it makes me so, so angry, the way this world treats the most vulnerable people in it.

But there’s this: I think Magneto feels very alone. At least, on days when I want to blow up the world, that’s how I feel: like nobody cares about this–either not enough or not at all–except me. And if their apathy was neutral, it wouldn’t matter. But apathy isn’t neutral. In the vacuum of apathy, people like my sister get hurt. They die. They’re left all alone. And that is when I have to go for a walk and calm down until I can hear the Charles Xavier voice in my head again. The one that insists that normal humans are worth teaching. The one that believes that humans and mutants can co-exist. The one who would never commit genocide, even though he has the mental power to make everyone’s brains ooze out of their earholes. I remind myself that I’m not alone. That there’s a lot of people–and not just in my family, either–who love my sister, who want to help her, and who are helping her.

My sister loves me. And I love her. She never gives up trying to do anything you ask her to do. There is nothing on this earth that could shake her faith in me. And maybe that makes me selfish, to want to keep that. Almost certainly it is. No more selfish than keeping her around because she’s the only one powerful enough to fight the Brood, but hey. We haven’t had much luck with convincing the world that the ability to love is enough of a utility to exist in a capitalistic society.

Sometimes I think about Ian McKellan (who is, as far as I’m concerned, Magneto’s alter ego) and the fact that, despite dealing with homophobia on a personal and professional level his whole life, he has not himself turned into a supervillian. The fact that, in spite of all they’ve been put through, oppressed minorities in this country (whether it’s disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, mentally ill folks, people of color, etc etc) have, without exception, never turned into evil supervillians. (I know I’m generalizing here, but keep in mind that this is what I tell myself in order to not let my heart get eaten by a murderous rage that burns with the heat of a thousand suns and cut me some slack.) Sure, there’s warlords in Africa and drug cartels in Mexico and Kim Jung-un in North Korea, and they cause enormous amounts of heartache and human damage, but they’re not exactly on the world-endangering level of Dr. Doom or the Red Skull. From a power and world domination standpoint, Barack Obama is the closest thing we have to a supervillain. Maybe Donald Trump. From the oppressed minority contingent, we don’t get Magneto. We get Martin Luther King, Jr.; a human of intelligence and courage that we certainly did not ask for, let alone deserve, but are so fortunate to have had in our midst. We get Helen Keller and Harvey Milk and Nelson Mandela. Bayard Rustin and Vincent Harding and Temple Grandin. Artists like Toni Morrison, Leslie Feinberg, Maya Angelou, Jeremy Brett. We get the beautiful people that I know from the progressive/leftist/anarchist organizing community in Denver, who have taught me about putting love into action and validating and standing up for yourself and others. We get community groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement and the AIDS Quilt and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. And that’s just in this past century. The world is full of thousands and thousands of heroes that we don’t deserve, and often don’t recognize while we have them among us. And that is the truly amazing, awe-inspiring, human superpower: The fact that, in the face of oppression and systematic violence and apathy, more often than not, humans choose to love and hope. They default to trying to teach other humans to be better. The fact that we have as many heroes as we do should send us all to our knees.

Thousands of Charles Xaviers walking among us, disguised as regular people. I like that.

All I know is that I don’t know, All I know is that I don’t know nothing.

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I met some people along the way,
Some of them split, some of them stay,
Some of them walk, some walk on by,
I’ve got a few friends I’ll love till I die.
From all of these people I’ve tried to learn,
Some of them shine, some of them burn,
Some of them rise, some of them fall,
But good or bad, I’ve known them all.
–Bouncing Souls, “True Believers”

A bit over a year ago, a friend of mine fell down a flight of concrete steps and cracked his skull, and ended up in a coma in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I live 1500 miles away and am not close with his family, so I had to wait on infrequent facebook updates to get shared around mutual friends and eventually show up in my timeline to follow how he was doing. The exact ins and outs of what happened, I still don’t know.

It’s weird, being deeply worried about a friend that nobody else in your local area knows. There was an extra layer of inexplicability with Bill, because one of the defining struggles of his life thus far has been drug addiction, and it’s almost impossible to talk about him without it coming up (for example, in this situation, I don’t know the answer to what made him fall, but alcohol would be a reasonable guess at an aggravating factor). It’s effected his employment, his criminal record, his education and who he hangs out with. But even though I’m friends with this addict, somehow, his using has never come between us. We don’t talk about it, and on the rare occasions when we do, he’s the one to bring it up. I’m sure the distance helps. And (either by his choice or by virtue of said distance), I’ve never caught the fallout of addict behavior that makes loving addicts so hard and complicated. He’s never borrowed money from me he didn’t return, never stolen from me, never shown up blasted on my porch at 2am needing a place to crash, never tried to store illegal materials in my home. The only thing that’s happened is that once his PO made him take a surprise drug test at the same time that he was supposed to be getting me into a show, and when that happened, he scrambled around until he found a band member to get me in instead. Our friendship has managed to be remarkably uncomplicated over the years, and it’s all the more valuable to me for that. Bill has always been stand up with me. Maybe he’s not with everyone, but he is with me. And it bothers me that, if he dies, I won’t know how to explain how important he is to me–even though he is an addict, even though we only talk once a year or so. His official obituary will probably be something like, “Bill died from complications/got jumped in a bad neighborhood/succumbed to alcohol poisoning. He worked as a cafeteria worker at a local school, and has no wife or kids.” And nobody will miss him, because nobody will know the first thing about him that makes him important to me. That make him worth knowing. Nobody else cares that when I was just a random kid standing next to him in line at a show, he made friends with me. Nobody will write about his generosity, or his general good heart, or how I always feel like he’d be willing to protect me from all comers. Nobody will write about how goddamn funny he is (sometimes unintentionally so) or how he’s one of those guys that always has a story to tell. He’ll just be another dead junkie in the gutter, and his obituary another article on which I should not read the comments, because they’ll be full of people who think they know what they’re talking about but really don’t know the first thing.

I had exactly that experience about a month later, actually, when a girl I know got murdered in Phoenix. She was 17 years old and (as news articles noted at the time) had a history of mental illness and runaway behavior. She was adopted out of an abusive situation as a toddler, along with her older brother and sister, but was never really able to leave it behind, and yeah, grew up to exhibit a lot of behaviors that are really common in at-risk teenagers. The troubles that threatened to swallow her were really obvious to anyone who knew her for more than ten minutes. I wasn’t involved in her day-to-day life, but I remember thinking, if we can just get her past puberty, and her body hormones and chemicals settle a little, she’ll be able to tackle the really hard stuff. She can do that. She was a stubborn fucking kid, and I thought that, in a few years and with her stubborn pointed in the right direction, it would’ve started to serve her, instead of getting in her way. There were so many people hoping for that kid, and pulling for that kid. I said that if you knew her for ten minutes, you could see some of her problematic behaviors. But if you knew her for five, you could also see the things that would get her through: how fiercely protective she was of herself and her siblings. The way her whole face softened when she smiled. The way she’d hang out on the edges of groups, assessing them before slowly wading in. The line she walked between being utterly guarded and surprisingly trusting. The steps she was taking towards self-care and self-awareness. This was a special fucking kid, you guys. And one person (or small group of people) decided he could ruin it, had it in his power to cancel all that out, wrecked our hopeful house of cards and left her beaten in an alley. He thought he knew better than us what mattered, and Brianna wasn’t anywhere on his list. Afterwards, trying to find information, I made the mistake of reading the comments (local news did several articles about her, because the police were in need of leads or information), which were full of people who always knew exactly how Brianna would end up, even though they never knew her, because the label “adopted out of foster care” or “runaway” told them everything that they thought they needed to know.

I wish I could say it didn’t bother me, these people not knowing but passing judgment anyway. But it does. I want them to know how she smiled and how she loved her brother and sister. I want them to know how much she cared for the family dogs. Or, at least, I want the peanut gallery to be aware that it knows nothing. But there’s no way to accomplish this, so, best just not read the comments.

Have you been listening to the second season of Serial? I’ve been listening to the second season of Serial, which this year is covering Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his imprisonment (and eventual release) by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I didn’t follow his story closely when he was released and all the media kerfuffle happened about whether or not he was a traitor and whether he should’ve been rescued at all, or left to rot in a cage in Pakistan. I didn’t follow it closely, but I remember every talking head on cable news and Twitter having an opinion (as they are paid to do, admittedly). And I wonder, did they follow it more closely than me? Did they know he was kept in a cage, beaten? Did they know he escaped? Did they know he had diarrhea for months, and no toilet, and no toilet paper? Did they know he was kept in solitary confinement for years, surrounded by people that he couldn’t talk to because they didn’t speak English? Maybe they did; maybe I’m the last one aboard this knowledge train. And maybe knowing the details of his capture shouldn’t be allowed to muddy the waters of judging whether or not he committed treason (or something) when he walked off his army base. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does for me. It complicates things. There’s a difference between some guy I don’t know walking off an army base and Bowe Bergdahl, Person. It at least makes me less likely to expend my energy on trying to figure out what the army should do with him (there are many good reasons why that is not my job, and why I should not pretend that it is by voicing an opinion on the internet or anywhere else). I would be a terrible criminal court judge, never feeling like I have enough information about a person to be able to, in good conscience, send them to prison and blow up their lives (I know, I know. They blew up their own lives. This, again, is why I’m not a criminal lawyer).

One of the great lies about the information age is that we can know everything. And we can, most assuredly, know many many things. We have recorded an astronomical, mind-boggling amount of information and facts and reflections and thoughts into our many data-holding mechanisms. Our species’ ability to store information outside of the currently living, single generation is perhaps our single greatest evolutionary gift. But the thing that we forget, while we’re drowning under all this information, is how little we know. About ourselves, about each other. About people on the internet whose names we barely know, and whose existence we’re only aware of because we scanned their obituaries. I just think we need to be careful about thinking we know anything about anyone. For years, I’ve thought of people’s lives and their effect on the world as constellations. Sparkling ephemera of connections and people and jobs and hugs and attitudes and feelings, which aren’t patterns in and of themselves, but where patterns can be inferred without much trouble. We can never know the true shape of our constellation that other people see. But there’s another, even better way of looking at it. Earlier today, I was listening to the Moth podcast, and one of the storytellers was Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier and author of the memoir A Long Way Gone and the novel Radiance of Tomorrow, and he said this about his transition from child to child soldier:

“I did not realize that a year later, I would be one of those same people, one of these same young men that I was seeing; that I would be one of these people going around and starting a different kind of narrative in the library of my own mind. But not only that, I grew up in a place where we also believe that when an older person dies, a library is destroyed, or burned. And now we were going around, destroying the very same knowledge, the source of knowledge, that could add to our narratives. And we didn’t know what kind of library we were creating. And worst of all, we were destroying a source of knowledge that, perhaps, could help us understand how our narratives could actually pan out.”