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.

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

fiftyshadesI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I try to be fair with reviews. I really do. If I don’t like something, I tell you why I don’t like it, and/or what I typically DO like, so that you (Gentle Reader) can evaluate my judgments, and decide for yourself if the things that bother me about a book are also likely to bother you. I’m not the arbiter of taste. I understand that.

And it’s not like I have super high standards. I don’t need my books (or any of my entertainment, really) to be High Art. I don’t hold a lot of truck with high falootin’ lit’ry achievements. I’ve given positive reviews to Stephen King. I find Tom Clancy and John Grisham entertaining. I enjoy Jodi Picoult. I watch more CSI and Law and Order than any self-respecting human should. I don’t need my stories to change my world. I don’t need them to be soaring artistic achievements. I just need solid tales, decently told.

All that said: I cannot even with this book. 50 Shades of Grey is bad, Gentle Readers. Infuriatingly bad. I know it’s popular (it’s outsold Harry Potter in the UK), but if ever there was an exemplar for the idea that popularity and quality do not necessarily overlap, this is it. I’m sorry if you like it. Not just sorry that I’m about to spend the next 2000 words offending and angering you (though I am), but also sorry that you apparently haven’t been exposed to more good stories, the better to compare this to. I suggest you branch out and read other things and expand your tastes, because this is bad.

As I read the book, I was so annoyed and frustrated that I started taking notes on the things that annoyed me. To whit:

  • It’s in present tense. Gah.(This actually works in the book’s favor during the sexy scenes, but for the rest of the time, it’s just jarring and annoying. There’s a reason why 98% of novels are written in the past tense).
  • In the opening scene, Ana is preparing to interview some tycoon (Christian Grey, who becomes her sexual partner) for the school paper because her roommate, the newspaper’s editor, can’t make it. I can tell you as a veteran of a school newspaper: This would not happen. First of all, in an interview as important as this one, more than one student reporter would go (and the photographer would go as well, making the whole scene in the other chapter with the photographer moot). If Kate (the roommate) couldn’t go, she’d call another editor on the paper (there are likely several), not rope her roommate into pinch hitting. Second of all, the interview is apparently a three hour drive away. Does this school not have Internet access? Skype is not a thing? Phone calls? The interview has to be in person?
  • Ana describes an elevator as “whisk[ing her] at terminal velocity.” Elevators do not do that, not even super fancy modern ones.You would be dead. The elevator would stop at the top floor and your body would continue to fly upward and would splatter you into pieces against the elevator ceiling.
  • A conference room in the office is described as having “at least 20 chairs.” Seriously? Pick a number. She’s sitting there waiting for her interviewee to become available, it’s entirely plausible for her to count them. Also, it’s a work of fiction, there’s no reason to be vague about the number of chairs.
  • In the interview, Christian Grey says he employs over 40,000 people. That makes his company twice as big as Enron. And he seems to have founded the company, not inherited it (though EL James is not specific on this point). This makes the company maybe five years old at the outside. Enron existed for 15 years before it folded. I’ve heard of fast growing companies and all, but this stretches credulity.
  • During the farcical school newspaper interview, Ana asks Christian if he’s gay. She, at least, is horrified and embarrassed (as she should be), but this comes out of nowhere, with no lead in, and at no time is Ana’s roommate (who came up with the question) challenged on her ridiculous premise that Christian must be gay because he’s never photographed in the society pages with a woman. (He’s spent the last five years building a company that’s become twice as big as Enron. I think a much more logical assumption is he’s never photographed with women because HE’S WORKING.)
  • Christian Grey is the CEO of his company, but he says he doesn’t have a board. Now, apparently, this is not a contradiction: The only companies that must have boards are ones that are publicly traded (something I’m sure Grey, control freak that he is, wouldn’t do). Most companies past a certain size have boards whether they’re publicly traded or not, but they don’t have to. And while a CEO is a common board position, there’s nothing that says that a company can’t have a CEO on his own. But still: It took me like fifteen minutes and asking four people about this before I came to the conclusion that EL James wasn’t actually wrong about this. 15 minutes that I could’ve spent reading the book. Fiction isn’t supposed to send you on fact-checking hunts, especially not this early in the game. I already distrust this author and that’s not a good sign.
  • Ana drives three hours, asks seven questions that were written for her and maybe another seven that she thought up herself in the moment. That is an extremely crappy interview, maybe half an hour long (I would read the conversation out loud to see, but I can’t bear to open the book again). It took 9 months to convince Grey to schedule the interview, and this is supposed to be an in-depth profile, and you ask seven questions? I’ve had interviews over an hour long for a 500 word article. I couldn’t even tell you how many questions I asked–I started out with a list that was maybe a page long, that I used as a guide when the conversation needed steering. Also, Christian Grey asks Ana if she wants to be shown around, and she says no. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. YOU ALWAYS SAY YES TO THAT. Even somebody with no journalistic instincts whatsoever says yes to that. Again with the “Why is Kate sending her roommate on these shenanigans and not calling another editor on the newspaper staff, especially since this is so important, and Ana is so clearly bad at it.”
  • EL James explains characters’ jokes for us after they say them: “Obviously, he’s referring to my earlier less-than-elegant entry into his office.” Yes. Obviously. So obviously you don’t need to tell us that, Ms James. Your readership is not stupid.
  • Ana goes home and offers to make her roommate a sandwich, and her roommate accepts. Even though she just had the flu a few hours ago. If the roommate–driven, tenacious roommate–was too sick to do the interview, she’s too sick to be eating a sandwich now. And yet here she is, eating a sandwich.

And that’s just Chapter One, Gentle Readers. It goes on like this. I tried to stop taking notes, I really did, but I couldn’t because this nonsense is just so frustrating:

  • Everyone mind’s everyone else’s business whether it’s needed or wanted. At a bar, Ana’s roommate Kate is about to leave the bar with a guy she just met. Ana tries to follow her on the grounds that she needs to give Kate “a safe sex lecture.” Kate is 22, and Ana is not her mother. I really hope that Kate’s learned about safe sex by now. Also, Ana is drunk, making her impulse to be the responsible mom figure somewhat laughable. Leave Kate alone, Ana. (This is outweighed by my total annoyance at Kate generally, who keeps going out of her way to make Christian angry/jealous on purpose. Interference of Roommate into Ana’s relationship aside, playing stupid high school games with guys is just….stupid, immature, and high school.)
  • At some point, Christian scolds Ana about her hair being damp. Of course it is. She just got out of the shower, Christian. Which you know because she’s in your hotel room. And you’re the one who told her to take the shower. Shut up.
  • Ana has apparently gotten through four years of college, from 2007-2011, without an email account. I refuse to believe that a middle class American girl born in 1989 did not have an email account before now. (On the other hand, I was so relieved when they started emailing each other, because James included header and signature text from all the emails, which made turning the pages that much faster.)
  • Christian has told her to start her BDSM research on Wikipedia. Sigh.
  • The narrative voice is inconsistent. Ana is the narrator, yet halfway through the book I still don’t feel like I know her. At the beginning of one chapter, she takes a moment to “admire the pretty” that is Christian standing in front of her. Later on, she says,”His gaze is impassive; his eyes cold shards of smoky glass.” It’s jarring to just switch tone and mood this way. Either Ana is Hannah Montana, or she is Jane Eyre. She cannot be both.
  • For someone who says she’s never been drunk before, she drinks a lot of wine, with almost every meal, whether she’s with Christian or not. She also never eats.
  • And this is without even getting into the assumption, which goes completely unchallenged here, that everyone who gets into BDSM is messed up or damaged. Or Ana’s assumption, also completely unchallenged, that Christian just needs to be shown what true love and acceptance are to mend his ways, and thinks that that fixer mission makes it okay to completely disrespect his needs and desires–which he went out of his way to state to her, clearly and honestly.

A few chapters into the book, I started thinking of John Laroquette’s rant from his appearance on the West Wing about hitting people with cricket bats, and couldn’t stop. And I hadn’t even gotten to the sexy tying up parts yet. (I also started sending angry texts to my friend Skippy, who doesn’t want to read this book, and didn’t want to hear about it, and now knows more about it than he ever wanted to. But he didn’t tell me to shut up once. Patient man, is Skippy.)

And yes. Most of these are petty details that I should overlook. I know. People read this book because they want to read the sexy tying up parts. They don’t care about Ana’s graduation ceremony, or the length of the interview with Christian, or the fact that EL James doesn’t seem to know that “army” should be capitalized when you are referring to someone’s employer or profession, ie, “ex-Army.” But you know what? The little details irk me. They pull me out of the story. By the time I get to the sexy tying up parts, I’m angry and frustrated and I don’t care anymore. And frankly, it’s insulting. Because if EL James doesn’t have the barest minimum of respect for me as a reader–if she did, she’d notice that she said “besieged” twice in two sentences, or think for three seconds about whether Ana can see Christian’s feet and tell us about the shoes he’s wearing when there’s a desk between them–she’d care enough to get this stuff right. I can’t tell you how aggravating it is when I just want to fall into a story, but I keep getting knocked out of it by these stupid little details. I respect you enough as an author that I spent a week reading your story. The least you can do is not treat me like I’m stupid.

We deserve better than this, Gentle Readers. We deserve solid tales decently told. Even if all you want is a story that, in the words of James, “makes desire pool in your belly,” you can do better than this (or you can search on the internet for files put together by helpful people who excerpted all the sexy bits of the 50 Shades series and put them in a single document, so you don’t even have to bother with the story). The internet has entire terabytes of bandwidth devoted to better erotic and/or BDSM tales than this. (And if this book has made you curious about BDSM and/or you want to try this with your partner, for the love of god, use something besides this book and ever-loving Wikipedia as sources/inspiration/guides.)

To make matter worse, (though it was, in retrospect, a really useful juxtaposition for reviewing purposes), I read 50 Shades of Grey the same week that I listened to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on audiobook, specifically the part where Whitman is recounting his experiences as a nurse in a Union Army hospital, dressing the wounds of injured Civil War soldiers. One is a story about a silly girl whose biggest problem is that there’s a disconnect between what her brain is telling her she should want and what is actually giving her orgasms. The other is about the indomitable human spirit and the sacrifices that men make, about pain and courage and friendship and humanity. I don’t understand half of what Whitman wrote, but I feel like a better person for having read it. 50 Shades just made me want to hit things, and not in a fun sexy way, either.

I think if I was offered a choice between reading this book again, watching The Human Centipede (a movie which is, I’m pretty sure, the absolute nadir of creative human output), or getting punched in the face, I’d have to think about it. And then I’d probably choose getting punched in the face. Immediately after reading this book, I started listening to the audiobook for Stiff by Mary Roach, about human decomposition and what cadavers donated to science are subjected to. It’s gooey and mushy and contains phrases like “intracranial steam,” which is what happens when the inside of your skull gets so hot that your brains literally melt out of your ears (don’t worry, you’re dead by the time this happens)–and it’s so much more entertaining and less disturbing than 50 Shades of Grey.

Approach this book with extreme caution, Gentle Readers. I wouldn’t have given it even one star but the computer didn’t give me the option of negative numbers.