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.

image

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.”

Book Review: March (Book One)

marchThis review was first posted on my Goodreads account over here.

It can be hard to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement. I think that, because we’ve all seen pictures and heard Dr. King’s Dream Speech, been told the broad strokes like, “The Freedom Riders did ______” and “The Montgomery Bus Boycott was _____,” it’s easy to think that it’s a story that you know. It’s kind of like the Holocaust–it’s a story that’s so huge, and been told so many times, that we forget that it took place on a small human scale, not not just a big social upheaval scale.

Congressman John Lewis’ memoir, written in the form of a graphic novel (also written by staffer Andrew Aydin, and drawn by artist Nate Powell), has been a pretty good antidote to that skittering, shallow version of history for me.

Book One starts with Congressman Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Alabama; his early experiences on his family’s farm, his early call to ministry and social justice, his college years in Nashville, TN and the first sit ins and protests he participated in. The framing device of the story is Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, so we sort of switch back and forth between 1960-62 and 2009. Book One ends in the middle of the Nashville lunch counter sit in protests. (Book Two covers the remainder of the sit ins, Congressman Lewis’ experiences as a Freedom Rider, his elevation to SNCC chairman, and his speech at the 1962 March on Washington.)

Gone are the days when a couple hundred African-Americans can bring downtown Nashville to a standstill simply by taking up space at lunch counters, when just 80 people could fill a county jail and max out the criminal justice system for that day. We’ve expanded the criminal justice system exponentially, and become accustomed to criminalizing an enormous percentage of our populace in the process. How many people are arrested and processed every single day in mid-sized American cities?

What shocked me (it shouldn’t have shocked me, but kind of did) was not the behavior of the white people in the story, but the way that the police and white civilians worked together to attack, undermine, and refuse to work with the black people. The perpetuation of segregation in the South was truly the job of every white citizen, policeman, lawmaker, or shopowner. White businessmen closed their stores and left black customers sitting at lunch counters in the dark, undermining their own ability to earn money rather than give in to the demands for desegregated lunch counters. White police departments delayed responding to black protestors’ calls reporting violence and asking for protection, and let white vigilantes attack black people with impunity. White police officers, of course, arrested black protestors, and Bull Connor turned dogs and firehouses onto them. White people destroyed property rather than share space. I wonder how far they would have gone to protect their racist interests and power, if the federal government hadn’t stepped in. The mayor of Nashville crumbled when challenged; but Bull Connor and the mayor of Birmingham, it seems, would have happily burned down the entire South rather than give in.

The other thing that this book made me think of is that systems–whether racist or not–exist because the populace tacitly allow them to exist. We give systems power by complying with them. When you take away that compliance–when you refuse to ride the bus, when you sit at the lunch counter, when you register to vote, when you try to buy a ticket to the movies–you are upending the system’s ability to continue operating as it has. And that is the real power of nonviolence.

That’s a lot of rambling for a short book, I suppose. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Aydin, who wrote the text, have done something powerful, in spite of the relatively few words they used to do it; helped in no small part by Mr. Powell’s drawings that accompany. It’s a quick read–I got through it in about a day–but is not shallow. Quite the opposite. This is a massively important book that should be read. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I think, and I hope, that it will be read by people who might not normally pick up a memoir or a biography. If I was a middle or a high school teacher, I would be handing out copies to all of my students.

So good. So so so good. So glad this book exists.

Bikes are Love. Hills are Death.

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I originally wrote this piece for a zine I put together in 2006 or so. These days, I actually really want a car, mostly because I’m job searching and in my city, the geographic considerations of how to get from Point A to Point B without a car and without having to take more than two buses is getting aggravating. But I’m going through my old stuff and feel kinda sad that so much stuff is just gathering figurative dust on my hard drive.

Oh, and I have a new bike. (Well, relatively new.) A steel Masi CX. It is much much nicer to ride than my old Mongoose. Although, I rode that Mongoose for more than eight years and never did get a flat, and the Masi gets flats ALL THE DAMN TIME because it is a sissy.

I used to have a car. I gave it away, to some friends of mine who were moving to a commune in Missouri and had no way to get there. After two years of paying $200 every six months to repair whatever new thing had broken, $400 every six months for insurance, $60 a month for gas and the odd $40 traffic ticket, I was broke. I didn’t have any money left for it. People say all the time that they can’t get afford to get rid of their car; I couldn’t afford to keep mine. My friends seemed shocked by my generosity, but really, I was just worried that I was passing my money trouble along to them.

So now I ride my bike everywhere. My bike is a purple Mongoose that I’ve had since middle school. I talked my parents into giving the bike new tires and a tuneup for my birthday (I’ve received the same bike for my birthday twice now), and now I roll along on the most energy-efficient machine mankind has ever devised. (Incidentally, I don’t know what kind of ridiculous armor-plated tires the bike shop gave me, but three years on I’m still waiting for my first flat.)

One day I was trying to figure out how to save some money so I could continue to live in the style to which I have become accustomed (which generally means eating every day or so), and I realized I’m a full-blown bike kid, checking out what other people ride, casting longing glances at the cute bike messengers that hang out on 17th and California, and generally hatin’ on cars, traffic, pot holes, and going uphill. I think of myself sitting in my old car—which was a Nissan Sentra—and all the space it took up, the thousand-plus pounds it weighed, just to get my relatively small ass to the grocery and back, and I wonder, how did I not feel absurd every time I drove that thing?

I loved my car when I had it, and I still harbor a certain affection that no human should ever hold for a machine. It got me where I needed to go to the best of its ability; and if the clutch pedal broke off once and the car stalled out a few times, at least it did it a block away from my house, and not while I was cruising down the highway. But the damn thing just cost too much money for me to love it like it deserved. Now I have my bike, which is a little heavier than I’d like (nobody’s perfect), but I’m way more fond of it than I was of my car. You want to borrow my car? No problem. Here’s the keys. Don’t crash. You want to borrow my bike? Not a chance. It’s mine. You might hurt it.

I like that I can’t do as much in a day with my bike. Actually, I can probably get about the same amount done, but I’m way less stressed because I don’t have illusions about how much I can get done. I like knowing what my neighborhood looks like. I like being able to smell the air and feel the breeze (by the way, you in cars have no idea how bad smog smells. Ew.) Going fast on a bike is so much more fun than fast in a car. I like having stronger legs, stronger lungs. I get to make fun of dorks in Spandex. I get to go faster than cars stuck in gridlock.

And riding my bike is just fun. Except for those first two weeks every year when my lungs are going to explode and my legs are turning to rubber and I think I just might be sick to my stomach if my heart rate doesn’t go down to something approaching normal, then it’s great. And after I bought long underwear for biking to work in 20-degree weather, it’s even better. Now I’ve memorized every available bike lane, and my brain possesses a fairly accurate topographical map of the city which helps me avoid hills (which are death). And I snicker at the indentured servants of Exxon-Mobil, waiting around to pay $3.50 a gallon so they can sit in gridlock every day.

Mighty Mighty Throwdown

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On December 26th, I woke up at 3am and caught a bus to the airport. We were leaving the city and crossing the plains (Denver’s airport is east of the city) when the sun came out for the day. It didn’t seem to rise as much as shine through a place where the night sky had been rubbed thin.

After sleep-stumbling my way through security, I caught a plane to New York City. I had a four-hour layover in the City, and then I caught a Chinatown bus to Boston.* When I realized that I was going to be in NYC, I admit I purposefully timed my bus ticket so that I could a little time in Manhattan. I haven’t been back since I moved away a year and a bit ago. So I took the train in from JFK and walked from the 49th and 8th subway station to Shake Shack (which was not as good as I remember), and from there to Penn Station, where I lingered and wrote in my journal and people-watched. I was in New York for long enough to remind myself of some of the reasons why I didn’t like it–the crowds, the smelly homeless people**, the dirt generally–but also some of the reasons I liked it, and still like it, the impossibly tall buildings, the number of stories you can tell. The feeling that anything can happen here.

By the time I got on my bus to go to Boston, the sun had fallen again (it had gone down while I was camped out in Penn Station), so we drove north through Manhattan at night. The bus was completely full, and the driver had the heat on high, and everyone was uncomfortable. The guy behind me–who seemed, like most of the bus, to be a college-age kid heading back to Boston after spending Christmas in NYC–was talking to somebody on the phone, helping them process what I think was a rough Christmas with the family, and didn’t think they were doing anything worthwhile in life. I admit I listened, because he was giving good advice. “Do you have any ideas about stuff you can create that the world needs?” he asked at one point, which I think is a good thing for anyone to think about now and again.

We went uptown on Amsterdam Avenue, past all the places I knew. The store I worked at. Stores I used to shop at and places I used to run errands. Past Roosevelt Hospital, Lincoln Center. A few blocks west of Columbus Circle, but I mentally noted it as we went by. We turned east at 106th, and then resumed our northward trek on Frederick Douglass Blvd, so we didn’t really pass the Columbia neighborhood.

When it comes down to it, I always liked New York best when I’m a little bit removed from it. On a bus going through Upper West Side, or on the Q train going over the Brooklyn Bridge, or on a boat in the Hudson River looking at the Statue of Liberty on one side of me and the skyline on the other. Anything that kept me from having to face the actuality of living there.

I’ve traveled the route from New York City to Boston and back several times, though always in the winter, always past the sad spindly deciduous trees that are waiting for spring. We passed by a Metro North train making its way to New Haven. The bus driver stopped a couple times to stretch, and finally noticed how broiling we all were, and turned the heat off with an apology (and distributed bottles of water, which was lovely, though I drank sparingly of mine because I didn’t want to have to use the bus lavatory). As we drove, I started seeing snow collecting along the edges of the road. Cold in Boston, at least in the recent past.

As I got closer, I started getting text messages from friends who were already in Boston, telling me to come to the Buckminster hotel, rather than my friend’s apartment (well, I could’ve gone to my friend’s apartment, but he wouldn’t have been there, since he was at the Buck). I finally got there around 11:00pm, EST, after sixteen hours of travel. Stashed my suitcase and my backpack in someone else’s hotel room and was greeted by smiles and hugs and beer. Hung out and talked, listened while other people talked. Eventually, the friend and me (after deciding that couches at the hotel were a terrible idea) took the T back to his apartment, where I fell asleep on a couch anyway, but a larger and more comfortable one than the hotel ones. And the next morning I got to watch Doctor Who and The Daily Show while we drink coffee. And then we went back to the Buck, back to Kenmore Square, back to the madness and the hilarity. I am not always relaxed and comfortable in big crazy groups, but I spent a fair amount of time leading up to this trip reminding myself to have low expectations, and give no fucks, and loosen up, and have fun. And knowing that even if the Buck ended up being a not fun place, the concerts I was going to go to would be.

Low expectations, keeping it simple, and playing it by ear turned out to be the key. Deciding that nobody will mess with me and my ability to enjoy the Mighty Mighty Mighty Bosstones. This, for me, is the recipe to knowing how to party.

*Turns out that traveling this way, while it takes about 16 hours, saves about $250.
**I understand that this makes me a total judgmental asshole. And not all of the homeless in NYC are smelly. But homeless people in NYC reach a level of decrepitude that I’ve never seen in any other homeless population in any other city. This probably says more about NYC than it does about the homeless.

Words of Wisdom

photo-1The last two years, when I was so depressed, one of the things I hated about it was how it skewed my view of reality (see this entry). How it made me think that nobody would even notice if I just evaporated. It created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d behave as if all the things that Depression was telling me were true–and it didn’t make it true, necessarily, but it did mean that I barely even tried to go to social functions, make friends, connect with people. Being isolated made me depressed, and depression made me isolate myself.

And you tell yourself it’s not true. That Depression is lying to you. And on your okay days, you can believe it. But Depression lurks in the space behind your ears, laughing, mocking you. “I don’t lie,” he whispers, “I tell the truth. I’m smart. Look around. You have no friends, you’ve messed everything up. If anyone’s lying to themselves, it’s you. Listen to me. I’m Depression. I’m an objective observer; I know what I’m talking about. Let me list all the things that make you a terrible person, because I’ve been keeping track. I’m the only one who loves you. I’m just trying to protect you.”

“I think you’re lying to me, Depression.”

“That hurts my feelings, it really does. Why would I lie to you? I want you to know the truth.”

“Could you leave me alone for awhile?”

“Of course not. We live together. We are one. I love you. We’ll be together for always and I’ll never let anyone else have you.”

I tell Depression he lies and he just laughs and sidesteps, and though I keep saying it, I’m never quite sure if it’s true, or if it’s something I need to say whether it’s true or not (because what’s my alternative, really?).

And then I run across this blog entry, (who got it from this other one), written by an actor I haven’t followed for years. Depression lies, he says. It is the thing I have been trying to tell myself, but could never quite believe, because Depression is rampaging around, chewing up my sense of self and shitting out uncertainty all over the inside my head.

Depression lies.

And because these words come from Wil, and not  me, Depression can’t eat them. They don’t come from me, so they can bypass my logic brain, which has so very many weak spots in it right now. Some little magpie in my heart, who has been keeping very quiet so that Depression can’t find her, reaches out of the crack she’s hiding in, and grabs this pearl, and pulls it into the crack and holds it close. Maybe, she reflects, it’s the sort of thing that can grow if it’s carefully tended. Maybe she’ll plant it, if it turns out to be the sort of thing that grows. But for now, it’s enough to look at it, to hold it, to learn the taste of it. Depression lies. Maybe she puts it on a shelf and marvels at it, sees how it catches the light. Depression. Lies.

He wrote that entry almost a year ago, and I read it then, and it still feels as new and marvelous as the day he said it. Depression lies.

In June, I went to see Neil Gaiman at his Last Ever US Signing Tour(tm) at the Tattered Cover in Denver. It was the sort of day that, if I was independently wealthy, I’d do all the time: spend six hours sitting on green carpet, surrounded by books, and read, and talk to people. Listen to Famous Author talk for an hour. Wait on green carpet for another 3 hours so that you can spend 42 seconds being smiled at by Gracious Famous Author. Ride bike home. Fall asleep holding signed book like a teddy bear.

I had him sign American Gods, because it’s the first book of his I read. My Gateway Gaiman, if you will. (He also signed The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, because that’s the book he’s publicizing. I thought about telling him he really didn’t have to sign that one because I really don’t need multiple Gaiman signatures [I’m a one-signature kind of girl], but then to turn down autographs seems rude, so…)

He smiled at me. And said nice things about how battered my book was. Inside, besides my name and his, he wrote “Believe!”

He didn’t say believe in what.

But the little magpie in my heart pulled that into her hiding place too, to turn over in her hands (yes, my magpie has hands. Shut up). Believe.

Believe in gods.
Believe in yourself?
Make good art?
Believe that you can make good art.
Believe that depression lies.
Believe.