Ripping off Scalzi, Day 3: Home

I am still (and maybe forever, now, at this point) trying to get into the habit of writing more than I am worrying about what I write about, so I am still taking inspiration from John Scalzi who wrote a 20 year retrospective on his blog, covering 30 different topics over the course of a month (it was in September 2018 if you want to go find them). Day three is home.

Since I’m one of the many millennials who can’t now/maybe can’t ever afford to buy a home, I think about this more metaphorically, I guess. Emotionally. Sometimes I think about my house, which doesn’t exist yet: It has hardwood floors, and windows that let in the sunlight. It’s an older house, not one of the modern boxy monstrosities they’ve been building in Denver for the last decade or so. There’s a garden in the back, though I imagine myself composting more than I imagine myself actually growing anything. There’s a dog or two. There’s a big wooden table where I can eat and work on projects. In this daydream, I am the sort of person who remembers to sweep baseboards and dust things and so everything is homey and clean and maybe a little shabby, but not dirty. I have hammocks in my backyard. I have a nice shade tree. I have money saved up to buy a new roof or a new water heater. I have a nice human that lives with me, whether a partner sort or a roommate sort isn’t important, but we agree on things like making soup on cold days is good, and a clean bathroom is healthy, and nobody eats anyone else’s food without asking first. I can walk to work, or bike there, in less than half an hour. Friends come over to play Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a very nice house.

Sometimes home is a place, right? We usually define home as a place.

I grew up amongst Quakers in the Western US, and for the past 15 years we’ve had our annual gathering in northern New Mexico, in this conference center in the high mesa country. It’s hot and buggy and the accommodations leave something to be desired (I just got an email that some of the older housing is not available this year due to “structural issues,” because they are letting buildings fall down instead of repairing or replacing them). It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. And it’s where some of the people I love best in the world go every year. But I don’t go for the mesas or the rocks or the sunsets or the little lizards. I go for the people. We’re changing sites next year, and some people have said that if the gathering isn’t in this one specific place, they won’t come. Which: what the fuck? You were never supposed to come for the scenery. We’re not there to worship the scenery. We’re supposed to be there for each other. You know that Billy Joel lyric, “I need you in my house, ’cause you’re my home”? Yeah. That. That’s how we’re supposed to be with each other. A friend of mine grew up in a lot of different houses during his childhood, and for him, when he thinks of home, he thinks of his church building. Across a lot of childhood moves, that was the place that stayed constant for him.

Other things that make me think of home: Roasting marshmallows over a campfire and making s’mores. Watching rain fall into a ditch in New Orleans. Powdered sugar down my front after eating beignets. Hanging my arms over the rail at a concert right before the band takes the stage. Standing on the top of a mountain, either after climbing it or right before bombing down it on my snowboard. Taking a deep breath while standing under the sky. Lying on a couch with a dog draped across my legs.

I’m in my mid 30s now (I don’t have to say late 30s until next year, fuck you), and am starting to realize that there’s some markers of “responsible adult” that I’m not just late in hitting, but may never hit. Home ownership is one of them. Having kids is another. And that feels fine, as long as I can remember not to compare myself to anyone else or what they’re doing and accomplishing. I would love to have my little square of the world all to myself, but it’s also a thing that I’ve learned to want because I’ve lived in the US for my entire life, and home ownership is huge here. So if I never get my own house, if I have roommates and apartments until the day that I head for the old folks home, how do I maintain that sense of home? Can I remember that home is a feeling, not a place? Is that how we win in capitalism?

Because love is free and life is cheap,
And as long as I’ve got me a place to sleep,
Some clothes on my back and some food to eat,
Then I can’t ask for anything more.
—Frank Turner, “If Ever I Stray”

On Being Bad At Things

snowhillI get off the gondola at the top of the hill and walk, carrying my snowboard, to the Schoolmarm trailhead. I take the gondola to the top as much as I can because de-boarding from a ski lift on my board still scares me (my fear is also justified; I fall over on maybe 4 of 6 attempts).

The top of the mountain is cold, and windy. Hard little bullets of snow hit my cheeks and fall into the collar of my coat. I walk to the top of the run, sit on a bench, and buckle my feet onto my board. Before I stand, I look around me, down the slope, readying myself to get up, telling myself that I can stand up and maintain control, that I won’t immediately go shooting down the mountain like a water slide.

This is my third time snowboarding this year, after fifteen years away from the mountains. The first time, I wouldn’t say I white-knuckled it, exactly. I butt-clenched it, sliding on my heel edge, staring straight down the hill, all my muscles from my hips down tense and shaking with the effort of keeping me upright. I didn’t do turns, I didn’t shift to my toe edge, I was afraid to build up speed. I had a tendency to fall on my rear. The act of snowboarding wasn’t fun, exactly–it was exhilirating, sure, and I was with my friend Christine and she’s fun, but I was too afraid of falling to loosen up at all. (I did fall, of course. The next morning all of my muscles hurt and my knees were multi-colored.)

But I went back another day, and took a lesson. Learned about placing my weight and how to hold myself (for instance: not like a rock) and where to look (up, up, always up), and how to make turns. I still fell, but it was in service of learning, not from trying to stand still while sliding downwards.

And now, here I am, ready to board down all three and a half miles of Schoolmarm. I’m still stiff and clumsy, and I have to think about every turn before I make it, but there’s also these moments where I’m sliding along, feeling comfortable and relaxed, feeling like there’s butter under my board, like there aren’t any edges that might catch on the snow and set me on my ass. And when I’m tired, I can sit on the slope and look at the mountains and the sky and take deep breaths and listen to the silence.

During the lesson that I took, my teacher showed us how to do flat 360s (spin in a circle without jumping off the ground), and to my enormous surprise I master it immediately. I do it until I’m dizzy, giggling and giddy, spinning in circles on a mountain slope.

I got a new job last year, and with that came an affordable gym membership, so I’ve been trying to supplement my running with gym classes and lifting. It has also, somewhat unexpectedly, been a place for me to battle with my anxiety, and my fear of being seen (to be more specific, to be seen doing something poorly or looking stupid in some way). The gym classes are all in a big room lined on two facing walls with mirrors. The weight area always has other people in it, and it feels like they’re all lifting more than me, like they all know than me. Intellectually I know that this is wrong, but my anxiety brain is full of people watching me. Getting into the gym sometimes is like waiting for Argus, with his thousand eyes and hypervigilance, to go to sleep. Some days I would fall asleep in my car instead of going inside. Some days I would change into my gym clothes, then sit in a chair and kill time on my phone instead of going to use the equipment. Some days I tell myself to just get on the exercise bike, because if I can do that for twenty minutes I can usually talk myself into doing something else. Some days I’ll do squat but then decide that I can’t do deadlift, not today, no thanks. 

I didn’t always used to be actively afraid of the gym, though when I look back on what I was doing in the gym at the time, it was almost always treadmill or pool. Challenging myself with new things—and, at the same time, becoming afraid of all of those things—is something that happened after I left New York City, when I was sad and broken and felt far away from everyone. 

When I was a student at Columbia, there was a gym on campus that students could use. The cost was folded into our tuition. At first, I went because hey, free gym. At some point I started going because I think I could sense that my mental state was not the best, but exercise is supposed to be good for depression. So I would go. I took a step aerobics kind of class, and tae kwon do, and ran around the quarter-mile loop that was in the center of the gym. Maybe that’s when the anxiety started to amp: the classroom where step aerobics and tae kwon do happened were in the center of the gym, with big walls of windows; the track was immediately around that, and the outer ring was the weight machines and treadmills and stationary bikes. It was easy to feel like you were being watched, but hard to see if you actually were. Also, I wasn’t going to the gym because it was fun and I wanted to; I was going because I felt like I should. And I was going to step aerobics feeling incapable of dancing, incapable of moving with any pep, any grace. I’ve never been a great dancer, but this was a whole other level. I felt like I was sleepwalking through gym class. Everything felt slow. Everything felt stupid. Everything felt unsuccessful. I always stood at the back (against the windows) and when class was over, escaped as soon as I could. I never spoke to anyone. I was a ghost.

So here I am, five years later, not feeling like a ghost anymore, but still feeling haunted by one. Still feeling the specter of Argus’ eyes.

It does get better. After almost a year in the gym, I found a program and I’m following it and that gives me something to lean on, something to focus on besides all the weight I’m not lifting, all the people who are (not) staring at me. Usually, these days, when I say, “I’m going to the gym after work,” I actually get there. And one happy side effect to global warming is that I’m still running in parks a few times a week, even though it’s December. I also made significant headway on a project at work, which was a big contributor to the “You’re dumb everyone’s going to find out you’re dumb and then they’re going to take your job away from you” feelings that I was having all fall.

Maybe someday soon I’ll feel that gliding feeling with my writing, that coasting-along-while-you-stare-at-the-sky feeling. That’s the feeling that I’m waiting for. But until then, I have to accept that I will suck until I don’t. That some days it will feel like pulling a car out of a lake with nothing but my bare hands. That I have to sit through some boredom and not knowing what I want to say. I might be bad at all kinds of things, but I’m trying really hard to not let that stop me.

2019 goals, man. Happy new year.

Ripping off John Scalzi, Day One

Over at his blog Whatever, John Scalzi (a science fiction writer who I first started following on Twitter and then I started following his blog and then, finally, I started reading his books) has been celebrating 20 years of writing said blog by posting about a different topic every day. As he said on September 1st, “I will pick a topic and then discuss it through the prism of two decades of time, from 1998 through to today.” And I thought, that’s a good idea. I am still searching for the magic button that will get me back to writing every day, or at least regularly (no such button exists, but I’m searching for it anyway), and while I haven’t been writing in the same place, like he has, I have been blogging on and off for almost 20 years. For me, if I look back to 1998 I was still in high school; while Scalzi was in his 20s and professionally established. But it could be fun, and if you can’t write for three straight weeks about yourself, well, I don’t know what to tell you. (Also, yes, it’s September 16th, and yes, I’ve been watching Scalzi post and thinking, “Oh, I really should get on top of this posting thing” every day for the last two weeks.)

So, with that,

1998/2018 Day One: Cats.

I’m allergic to cats, and so don’t have any. The end.

 

 

 

 

…….

 

Okay just kidding. But also I have zero thoughts about cats from my high school days. They were not on my radar. When I was a baby and we lived in Louisiana, my family had a grey tabby cat named Peter that I think I have one hazy recollection of. Peter didn’t come with us to Colorado, and I’ve never seen a picture of him, and I honestly don’t know if he was re-homed, or if he ran away, or if we abandoned him, or if a gator got him. Growing up, my family had dogs, two of them: Sandy (a Shetland Sheepdog that we got when I was 6) and Cheyenne (a mutt that we got when I was 10). Sandy was my brother’s, officially, but more or less surrendered to the care of my mom; Cheyenne was mine and I’m pleased to say that I remembered to feed her and bathe her and take her to the vet (and she slept in my room, as opposed to Sandy, who slept in the basement for some reason) until I moved out for college.

The culture of owning dogs has changed a lot since 1998, or at least, my awareness of it has. We never carried bags to pick up dog poo on walks with our dogs, and I have no idea if we were terrible, inconsiderate neighbors or if dog poo bags weren’t a thing back then like they are now. We weren’t very diligent about obedience training them, either, but as they were both pretty low-key dogs, this didn’t have any terrible consequences for us humans or for the dogs. I particularly loved Cheyenne, as she was “my” dog, and when I was in the middle of more than my share of teenage adolescent angst, both my sister and my dog did quite a lot to get me through it, without either of them realizing they were doing so.

These days, in 2018, I have a lot of dogs but also no dogs. My roommates have two dogs, Maggie and George, who are both wonderful creatures. Maggie goes running with me, and cuddles with me on the couch, and hides from crying babies in my room. George is enormous (he’s a Malamute mix) and hairy and is smart enough to decide if he really wants to listen to you when you ask him to do something. (Maggie understands that if she does what you ask her to, then you will love her, and more than anything Maggie wants you to love her.) So I live with dogs, and they’re great dogs, but they’re not my dogs.

georgemaggie
Good dogs.

I also (somewhat accidentally) have a dogsitting business, because I told my friends Erin and Tanya that I would dogsit for their Great Danes Scarlett and Luka, and I did a good job so they recommended me to at least half a dozen friends. There’s Toli and Ellie (and Tate); Sketcher, Benedict, and Abigail; Winny and Marty; Chunk and Sally; Frankie and Moby; Callie; and Jude; good dogs all. I also put up a profile on Rover and that got me a few clients, and now I’m out of my house for usually at least 7 days out of the month (one of my normal clients, Marley, I’m usually with for one or two weekends a month). As a dogsitter, I beg of you, please train your dogs to walk nicely on a leash if nothing else (especially if you have more than one of them). I’m used to dogs not listening to commands to sit or come, because I’m not their person, but oh god, if they could only walk on a leash, everything would be wonderful.

I also do catsitting sometimes, but as I said above, I’m allergic to cats so that’s not my favorite (I think I’m not their favorite either, since I don’t let them cuddle me.) It gives me some extra money to put towards my student loans, and some quiet weekends–besides me and my adult roommates, and the dogs, there’s also a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old in the house, who I love dearly but who are also not always very quiet.

marley
Marley found a ball.

 

I would love, someday, to have a home of my own and a dog of my own. I have had a dog that was truly mine since…about 1998, now that I think about it. I moved out of my parents’ house in 2001, and Cheyenne died a few years after that, and ever since then, I haven’t had a dog of my own. But all these lovely loaner dogs who hang out with me for a few days at a time, not to mention Maggie and George, do a great deal to fill up the dog-shaped hole in my life. Good dogs.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Medium Rare

mediumrare

The triumphal return, both of my Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ listening series, and of the Bosstones themselves. The album was released in 2007, and coincided with the return of the Bosstones from a three-year hiatus and of the Hometown Throwdown (which was suspended during said hiatus). I associate this album with a lot of happiness.

First up is “This List,” one of three original songs on the album (the rest are b-sides), which is about the current wars that the US was (and still is, sigh) fighting at the time. Bush #2 was still president, and if I recall correctly, it was also around the time of the troop surge and the re-taking of Fallujah and the whole war feeling like a mire we would never get out of. (This is also roughly around the time that the band the Street Dogs started to gain national punk prominence, in no small part to the leadership of Mike McColgan and his vocal support for vets and against the war). Dicky Barrett talks directly to GWB in this song, and it does feel more immediate than a lot of other anti-war songs I know. Maybe because it’s so specific and because it was a war I was so aware of and living adjacent to and watching and following. I mean, it’s one thing to hear the Clash sing about the Falkland Islands. It’s another to hear the Bosstones sing a song to the current president about the current war and telling him to go to hell.

Next up is “The Meaning,” a b-side from Pay Attention, and is up there as one of my favorite Bosstones songs overall (b-side or not). It’s got the sort of rapid-patter rhyming from Dicky that I love, and also it’s about the creative process, which I can relate to a good bit. Also, I love the line, “You don’t have to know the meaning, just know that there is meaning in what is being said to you.” I suspect Dicky meant it towards the fans (like me) who tend to ask him to explain this song or that song, but it also reminds me something that my mom—whether she knew it or not—was pretty good at when I was a teenager. I did a lot of shit as a teenager that my parents didn’t understand, chose career paths (or resisted career paths) they I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand. But my mom was better than my dad at recognizing when something was important to me, and that mattered more to her than her need to understand just what the hell I was doing. It was important to me, and that was good enough.

Also I love the guitar noise in this song. I guess it’s the wah pedal? Whow-whow.

“What’s in you, out of you, remember we love you, we’ve gotta go but you should know that we’ll be thinking of you.”

Third song! “Don’t Worry Desmond Dekker”! Instant fucking classic. Always makes me think of Boston and the Hometown Throwdown. Also one of the three new songs. Has the power to make me cry when I hear it live. “And I, I can hear laughter. It stays with me after all this time. And I, I’ve still got your records, the Clash and the Selecter. Don’t worry, Desmond Dekker’s doing fine.” (“Except he’s not,” as Joe Sirois says, “Because he’s dead.”) It’s about time and friendship and the good and bad ways relationships evolve. Hey there, 737, I’m thinking about you and the Buckminster Hotel and I’m going to get to see you all in a little over a month and it’ll be great. I know I’m not the biggest party animal but I fucking love you guys and want to give you hugs.

“From the dirt up to the sky, and we climbed up to the sky, and carried on the only way we can. Laugh on and live, learn how to forgive, what we have could be as good as what we get. If you’ve forgot, now I’ve still got what you gave to me way back when we first met.”

 I’ve still got what the Bosstones gave me. Laughter and new friends and more music than I could listen to in my lifetime. Validation as an imperfect person trying to muddle her way through the world. Trips to Boston and walks in the snow and the best goddamn hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life.

“To California” is a b-side that I’m pretty sure was never released before Medium Rare came out (unlike “The Meaning,” which is on the vinyl release of Pay Attention). According to Wikipedia it was recorded during the Jackknife to a Swan sessions in 2002. It’s the story of a guy who decides—impulsively?—to move to California to uh…make money, I guess. “Just like a modern 49er.” He only makes it as far as Atlantic City, though, so he is not successful at his goals. And then he stows away on a train. I love how the horns and the guitar work together in this song. I feel like there should be more songs about people make impulsive, complicated decisions with poor planning and low success rates.

“The One With the Woes All Over It.” Full of “whoa whoa whoas” in the chorus because what’s better than acoustic puns? About what happens when it all ends, and why it ends, and what happened to lead up to it. This isn’t a song that I relate hugely to my own life (it’s another of Dicky’s super-specific songs that’s clearly about one person’s experience), but I enjoy it all the same.

“So Many Ways.” God, I love this song. It was released as the b-side for a single back in the day (by which I mean, 1997 or thereabouts). The guitar is so good. Dicky’s vocals are so good. The lyrics are so good. This is one of those songs that finds its way into a lot of little cracks in my life. It’s not like, ohmygod, I can relate this song to this one big experience I’ve had. Instead, I relate this song to hundreds of little moments and choices that happen all the time. It’s always just below the surface. “There’s so many ways to do this, so many ways I must pick one.” Like you’ve got all these paths in front of you, and several of them might be successful, but when you pick one, the others disappear. “So many ways, I need someone to tell me what it would take to do this. And it’s out there, hell it must be, help me I no longer trust me.”

I no longer trust me. For a guy that I think of as confident, who has clearly made at least a few good decisions in his life and been a success, Dicky talks a lot about not trusting himself. He sings a lot about his own faults. I could probably learn something about giving voice to those doubts without (seemingly) letting them eat my life.

“A Reason to Toast” is another song from the Jackknife era. There’s definitely at least two versions of this song floating around. It’s a song about…toasting. Like what you do at Thanksgiving or at a wedding. And wherever else people raise glasses? You can write about literally anything in this world, kids. Anything can be a song. (That’s its own kind of creative confidence, really, to write a song about celebrating, and channeling those thoughts of celebration into…toasts.) Why are all of you writing songs about girls and loss of girls and how much you love girls and you never want to leave girls when you could be writing about raising glasses in a toast.

“Who’s Foolin’ Who.” This song was on a comp in the late ’90s that I had. Give me a minute and I’ll think of it. It was all ska. It also had the Pilfers on it, which is how I got into the Pilfers, and a Smooths song, which is how I got into the Smooths. “Sure the whole world might be fooled, make sure no one’s foolin’ you.” Fun, bouncy, but slightly nostalgic horns. Dammit what’s the compilation. I could look it up but I don’t want to. It was volumes 3&4 of a comp, the first of which also had the Bosstones on it but came out in like 1990. MASHIN UP THE NATION. Damn straight. That’s it. Such a good comp. If you ever see that floating around on ebay, grab it. I can’t imagine it’s still in print. 

“Katie.” About…Dicky’s ex-wife? Ex-girlfriend? Ex-friend? About walking away from someone who has hurt you, someone who sucks up all your energy and just isn’t worth it anymore. Fits thematically with “Over the Eggshells” on Pay Attention (though I don’t actually recall when this song was written/recorded) (edit: I just checked Wikipedia and apparently it was recorded during the Jackknife sessions). About wrapping yourself up in some armor, pulling away from someone that’s hurt you, turning your back, and walking away. A song about self-care, oddly. I take reminders from wherever I can about how it’s actually okay to protect myself.

“This Time of Year.” If anything can get me thinking of a flashing wall of Santas, a stage covered in Christmas lights, pinning myself to the rail in front of the stage, standing in the cold outside for hours…it’s this song. It’s about how December isn’t just about Christmas and holidays and presents and whatever. December is Throwdown time. I can see the stage at the HOB in my head. I’ve got a smile on my face. I’m going to see my friends soon. “This time of year, it gets me and it never lets me act like I don’t care. This time’s my favorite time of year because all of us are here together.” I’ve been saving up for Throwdown since January. And it’s almost here. All of us will be here together. The Bosstones will play this song. And many other songs. And I’ll see my friends. And there will be beer and pizza and friends.

“Chocolate Pudding” is not, as appearances would lead you to believe, a cover song. The Bosstones wrote it, and it’s one of the few songs not sung by Dicky (on lead vocals here is Tim Burton, one of the sax players). Pre-hiatus, this was one of the rarest songs to hear them play live, though I’ve heard it enough post-hiatus that I think some of the shine has worn off. Also, kids, you can write songs about anything. Including chocolate pudding.

Years ago, I made my sister a mix tape of songs that I did not hate (she likes Destiny’s Child and Miley Cyrus and Brittany Spears and car rides with the two of us were not the easiest, from a radio standpoint), and I put this song on it. My sister will now just randomly start singing this song. I am so proud to have gotten my sister to like a Bosstones song (at the time that I made the mix she was really into those snack pack pudding cups). And now we have some common ground. Not over eating pudding (I don’t like pudding that much), but over listening to songs about it.

“Is It?” I love this song. It’s another b-side from the Let’s Face It era. I got it on a CD single, either “Rascal King” or “The Impression That I Get.” It’s about getting all that you wanted…and having that not be everything you hoped for. Joe Sirois has some awesome drum playing in this song. I’m not a drummer, so I don’t even know what the fuck he’s doing or if it’s good compared to other drummers, but I like everything he’s doing here.

Now that I think about it, and now that I’m trying to write about them, I’m realizing that lots of these b-sides have a weird personal feeling to them. I only ever listened to them in my car, usually by myself (my friends did not share my taste in music). The Bosstones didn’t play them live back then. They’re not songs that I ever shared with anyone, not the way that I share the experience of hearing “Devil’s Night Out” live with 2,000 other people, or the way that so many of us Bosstones fans can relate to hearing “Impression” on the radio or on MTV and having that change our lives. A lot of these songs–like “Is It,” like “Storm Hit” (which is not on this album but is an amazing song), like “The Meaning”—feel like they’re just between me and the Bosstones. The fact that a lot of them are demos, a little more raw, a little less layered from a production standpoint, helps with that feeling.

“Thank You For the Records.” A slow song, or at least one that starts slow, as final Bosstones tracks seem to do these last few albums. I don’t know who Dicky is singing “to” in this song—who he’s thanking—but when I sing along, I’m thanking him. I’m thanking the Bosstones.

Thank you for the records.

Thank you for the shows.

Thank you for the music.

Thank you for the friends.

Thank you for the standard you set, how you seem to treat each other and how I know you treat us fans.

Thank you for introducing me to this world of ska and punk and all of the beautiful people who are also here.

Thank you for your generosity.

Thank you for your humor.

Thank you for taking every possible opportunity to take a shit on Spin Magazine.

Thank you for all the wisdom and the common sense.

Thank you for the Hometown Throwdown.

 

Thank you for the records.

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.

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.

Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 4)

This is the final installment of my four-part series on a concert festival I went to when I was twenty. For the first entry, along with a more detailed explanation of why I’m posting such a thing, go here.

I Ran All The Way Home (Doo wah doo wah doo)

The conversation the next morning consisted almost entirely of groans of exhaustion and pain. We were all sunburned (I think Dan, Joe, and me took prizes for the worst), and Andy had sprained his ankle somehow, and the everyone was sore from eight hours of dancing and standing on concrete. We all wanted to go home and talked Dan out of bungee jumping, but had to stop for souvenirs at the World’s Largest Souvenir Shop, and eat breakfast (steak for breakfast! Okay then, Vegas) so it was past 10:00am by the time we got going.

Conversation faded in and out, mostly restricted to what needed to be talked about. We would stop for gas and get out and talk a bit and get revived, but as soon as we got back in the car the conversation would fade away. We were all tired and kind of cranky, too tired even for post-ska exuberance. But it was stored away, we’d take it out and think about it and then put it away.

“We should do this again next year, only spend more time in Vegas.”

“Catch 22 needs to play next year.”

“And the Mad Caddies. And Less Than Jake.”

“And the Pietasters.”

“And the Smooths. Well, if they got back together.”

“Or did a reunion show like Attaboy Skip this year.” (If there’s any former members of the Smooths reading this, one more tour, please, just one.)

We got through Utah without incident, hitting 128mph in Andy’s car and passing a van that had “Ska Summit 2003” written on the back window in soap. As soon as the sun sank behind Utah, I fell asleep.

 

One Week Later

April 6, 2003

I finally got a decent night’s sleep on about Thursday (we’d driven back to Denver on Sunday). I’m writing this sitting at Action Shot’s band practice. Life is back to its regular routine. I told everyone my Ska Summit stories, but left out the total exhaustion part because that’s not what sticks in your head. The image that comes to mind is the Toasters onstage, Bucket (guitar player/lead singer) bobbing back and forth on the balls of his feet like he does, his eyes shut against the bright stage lights; Jack Ruby (other lead vocals) rolling around onstage and throwing things at Sledge. Sledge looking angry and then, at the last minute, breaking into a grin. Dave Waldo, the keys player, hoisting his keyboard onto his shoulder like a boombox. The saxophone player and the trombone player dancing, holding their horns away from their bodies; the people around me gently bumping shoulders as we danced.