Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 1)

I’ve been going through boxes of old papers (and thinking that someday maybe I’ll go through the Documents file on my computer), seeing what I can get rid of, when I came across this travel journal from 2003 written on looseleaf notepaper. Originally, I was going to just type it up and store it on my hard drive, but I decided to post it here for a couple reasons. One is that I wasn’t actually a bad writer when I was 20 (when I was typing it up I did clean up some grammar/sentence structure things, but really not that much). I’m a little disappointed that I’m not a demonstrably better writer 13 years on, actually. I feel like I should be embarrassed by my 20-year-old writer self, but skill-wise, she’s still pretty close to my 34-year-old self, I guess. The other thing is that I considered myself to be a pretty timid and non-risk-taking teenager/adolescent/young adult. I was never a sneak-out-at-night-and-go-drinking teenager. My friends and I never bombed down I-25 at 110 miles per hour with the music as loud as it could go just to see if we could (well, there was that one time…). But I was reading this and realizing, I did some potentially stupid things, I just didn’t think of them as stupid at the time. And still don’t think of them as stupid, which is maybe partly why I identify as a non-risk-taker. But impulsively driving to Vegas with five other kids and sleeping in a hotel on the strip and going to a ska show? Potentially dangerous. Potentially dumbass kid thing. It was weirdly reassuring to know that I was a dumbass when I was 20.

So, here it is. Broken up over several entries, I’m sure. Also I don’t have pictures to go with this because I didn’t have a digital camera in 2003. Use your imagination, I suppose.

 

Part One

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Colorado

Friday, March 28

6:00am


A god-awful hour for high school and college kids. We–Andy, Dan, Joe, Kyle, Nick, and me–met at King Soopers while the sun is still streaked across the sky in purple and orange. A quick run through the store to grab donuts, beef jerky, Mountain Dew, coffee, and water; another quick stop for gas, and we’re on our way.

It snowed on Thursday night and Colorado was cold and windy, the highway slushy and wet. We piled into two cars with a walkie talkie in each. Most of the first several hours were spent trash talking each other through the walkies.

The quickest road out of Colorado going west is I-70, which climbs through the foothills and goes up and over Vail Pass, and then slides down the other side, into the mesa country of western Colorado and then out into Utah. People live all along it. It’s the road skiers take to most Colorado ski resorts. Mining towns are littered all along it (or, more accurately, it was built along the old road that connected mining towns to Denver). It’s our way out of Colorado, and almost all the way through Utah, until it dead-ends at I-15 and we turn south.

We had to stop in Vail because the slush kicked up so much dirt behind the cars in front of us that Kyle’s car ran out of windshield wiper fluid. We tried to get to an exit but Kyle ended up pulling into a turnout–he couldn’t see at all and was hanging his head out the window, Ace-Ventura style.

If you’ve lived in Colorado for a long time, like I have, and spent a lot of time camping and backpacking and skiing in the mountains, like I have, the mountains develop a personality. They’re huge megalithic chunks of rock that alternate between not caring if you live or die, and actively trying to destroy you. There is no such thing as friendship with the mountains–the most you can hope for, if you know them well enough, is a sort of benevolence. Everything you need is there, if you know where to look, but the mountain won’t help you find it. It’s put it there, and that better be enough. You don’t think about jet streams and cold fronts in the nature, it’s more like nature being in a bad mood. Once I was one an eight-day backpacking trip. It rained for six of the eight days. By the fourth or fifth day, we were tired of the mountain and cursing the weather gods, because it felt like they were toying with us. That’s what the mountains do: they toy with you. It can be beautiful sunny weather at 11:00 in the morning, and by 1:00 it’s raining and you’re hiding from lightning and digging in your pack for long underwear. Beautiful and stunning landscapes hide loose rocks that can sprain your ankle (a minor injury, normally, but potentially lethal when you’re twenty miles from the nearest road and nobody knows where you are). The mountains are full of deer and elk and everybody wants to see them, while avoiding attracting the attention of a cougar or a bear, forgetting that the supposedly harmless herbivores kill more people every year. What’s beautiful is dangerous, the seemingly harmless can be deadly, and only bitter experience can teach you the difference. That’s what the mountains have taught me.

Humans’ attitudes towards the mountains vacilate between changing it, controlling it, and leaving it exactly the same. We build towns and highways, carve trails, put houses on hilltops. We chop trees and control the animal population, which can no longer control itself. But then something happens that’s out of our control, like a wildfire that destroys thousands of acres of vegetation. It’s a vicious and brutal process, but a natural one, part of the mountain reforging and renewing itself, keeping a balance. Given time, the landscape can renew itself, but humans are impatient. We don’t give the mountain any time anymore. After a forest fire we go in and plant quick-growing seeds that will take root and lessen the eroding. Back and forth, hot and cold, that’s how the mountains are. You learn to live with them because they sure as hell don’t care if they live with you. And they won’t ever be subdued.

While I stared out the window for a good four hours thinking about all this, the mountains slid past us, the highway threading between and around and through the peaks. We held our breath going through tunnels (except for the Eisenhower tunnel, which is too long) and listened to music. Traveling to a show, getting there is half the fun. You listen to music and in the back of your mind is the thought, “By this time tomorrow I’ll be hearing this music live and it will rock.” As for me, I don’t have a lot of friends who will tolerate ska, let alone seek it out. Dan and Andy are the only guys on this trip that I really know, and everyone else is friends of theirs.

When we stopped at a gas station in Grand Junction, Andy helped himself to some of Dan’s CDs in the other car. We weren’t five minutes out of the gas station when Dan came crackling over the walkie talkie. “Hey fuckers!”

“Yes, bastard?” returned Andy.

“Do you have my CDs?”

“Define ‘have’.”

“Are you holding them in your possession, asshole.”

We couldn’t answer for several seconds because we were laughing too hard. Finally Andy managed to say, “Well, maybe.”

“Fuckers.”

We turned up the music and held the walkie talkie up to the speaker.

Utah

Stupid Utah.

The first impression that I have of Utah is a big blank tan expanse of nothing. The sign that says “Now Leaving Colorful Colorado” is painfully accurate and it seems like not only have you left Colorado, but all the color as well. The sign that said “Caution: Eagles on Highway” caused some discussion. Eagles doing what? Something dangerous?

We also spent some time in Utah seeing how fast we could get Andy’s car to go. I-70 in Utah is long, flat, and empty, and there’s nothing to hit (except eagles, apparently). We got up to 122mph before fear got the better of us. Best not to die a horrific fiery death before the Ska Summit.

We stopped in a town called Green River for gas and lunch. One thing I’ve observed about people: if you’re a freak wandering around alone, no one takes any notice of you. I can wander around Denver by myself in all my punk/ska clothes and nobody cares, except sometimes to ask polite (if silly) questions. “Toasters? So you like kitchen appliances, eh?” “Avoid One what?” “H2O? I also like water.” But when you’re part of a posse of freaks, people are a lot more likely to fear and despise you–and a lot more likely to show it. In Utah, a bunch of spiky, blue- and red-haired freaks wearing trench coats and patch-covered hoodies, are trouble. The ladies at Burger King wouldn’t speak to us, the customers all stared at us, and the gas station attendant wouldn’t sell us cigarettes.

Our growing feelings of dislike toward Utah increased when Andy, Brian, and Nick were pulled over by an unmarked state trooper. He didn’t use radar, didn’t check the ownership of the vehicle, and told us there was snow and ice on the (totally dry) mountain pass, and that they might crash and “not know what happened.” (“Wow, we seem to be at the bottom of a canyon. How’d that happen?”) What’s more, Kyle, Dan, Joe, and me in the other car kept going and pulled off at the next exit, but Andy and them didn’t. We wasted an hour trying to find them. Stupid Utah.

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.

johnny the homicidal maniac, a tragic hero

johnny_the_homicidal_maniac-1191559I wrote this in high school, fifteen or sixteen years ago, but found it recently. The comic book referenced throughout is this one, one of the first independently published comics that I ever got into. It’s wildly violent but also wildly funny and sad. I think I mostly wrote this essay to prove to some English teacher that I learned something from her class; I suspect she was not amused.

 

Required reading: JTHM: Director’s Cut by Jhonen Vasquez, or Johnny the Homicidal Maniac comics #1-7.

Recommended reading: Squee, “Happy Noodle Boy,” the “Meanwhiles” and “Wobbly-Headed Bob” comics by Jhonen Vasquez.

Tragedy: “A story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man of high estate, and a story of the human actions producing exceptional calamity in the death of such a man.”

Point the First: There is only one tragic hero. Johnny is the only character in his world that is subjected to intense mental suffering. He inflicts suffering on others, but none of them truly understand the magnitude or implications of it; they just want to stay alive in as non-painful a way as possible. Thus, since they want to avoid pain, they also avoid joy. Most of the characters besides Johnny are self-absorbed and immature, and exist to drive Nny to the brink of psychological extinction. Nny is utterly alone in the world, with no one to alleviate his suffering or understand what he’s going through.

Point the Second: They are exceptional beings. Though not a nationally known politician or royal figure, Nny is noticed wherever he goes. He is hideously skinny, wears knee-high steel-toed boots, spiky hair, and has a way of looking at people that tends to creep them out and cause them to either ponder death or make fun of him. Not only are tragic heroes conspicuous, but they possess qualities which inspire awe or fear in others. They are made of the same stuff as us, only magnified and more intense. Johnny is the human embodiment of all our frustrations and anger. The waitress in the restaurant who spit in your food. The high school kids who taunted you. The driver who cut you off. What do you want to do to them? No, what do you really want to do? Johnny actually does it. Johnny indulges his demonic inner child.

Point the Third: The tragic story leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero. In Part 4, Johnny, after many failed attempts, finally manages to shoot himself in the head. This is ironic because he does it accidentally, immediately after he’s decided he doesn’t want to die (ohhh, irony, another lesson from high school English). In Part 5, he actually dies, and in Part 6, he goes to the afterlife and discovers he belongs in neither Heaven nor Hell, and gets sent back to Earth.

Point the Fourth: The suffering and calamity are exceptional. Throughout the comics, Nny does hardly anything but suffer. People make fun of him for how he looks. He has no friends. The Psycho Doughboy and Mr. Fuck torment his mind. He has to keep the wall coated with blood so nothing comes out. The ice-sucky machine gets turned off at 2:00am. He disembowels people, pulls their arms off, crushes their skulls, and stabs them with sporks (while listening to Beethoven). His head is blasted into pieces. He tries to kill the only woman who seems to have a chance at making him happy, because he can’t get happy lest it all come crashing down. About the only benign presence in the comics is Squee, the small neighbor boy that Nny tries to help but ends up terrorizing.

Johnny’s suffering is so much more calamitous not because events are out of his control, but because of the exact opposite. He actively destroys anything that might bring him happiness, rather than have it ripped from him just when he starts to enjoy himself. “You don’t understand; I’m happy!!” he screams to Devi, the only girl who treats him like a human. “I can’t let you go, we’ve begun something lovely, and, as with all things that start, it, inevitably, ends! The beginning is always so fine!! But decay soon follows, a degeneration into the tired old situation. The rot sets in.” (JTHM, Part 2).

Point the Fifth: The catastrophe will be of monumental proportions. The basic formula for tragic heroes, particularly the Shakespearean variety, is “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.” Humpty starts on high—a man of rank, often of royalty, and then he falls as low as you can go—specifically, dead. Johnny’s tragedy is not so much where he starts out as it is in the total and utter depths of his fall. You would think that you can’t get more monumental than dead, but Johnny isn’t allowed to stay in Heaven or Hell—even in death, he belongs nowhere.

Point the Sixth: Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are responsible for their own falls—they have a tragic flaw. We’ve already discussed how Nny destroys anything and everything that might make him happy or, at the very least, lessen his misery. Much of his pain is the result of his refusal to take a chance at being happy. Johnny also pulls the trigger of the gun that kills him. Johnny’s tragic flaw is that he grows so obsessed with being unhappy. He kills hundreds of people in gruesome ways, and all he feels is the desire to kill more, as well as despair and guilt that that the killing will never stop. He writes in his diary, “You seem to be enjoying yourself. Quit it.” (Part 3) What makes Johnny great, his intelligence and clarity, is also his undoing, driving him to insanity, murder, and eventually suicide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Border Wall

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I wrote this in about 2007. It originally appeared in my zine Spandrel #2. It was before the unattended migrant children that came through in the summer of 2014, before the Tea Party halted all useful talk about our immigration system, before the cartels and the murders got really bad. It has since been published in an e-book. Some of the stuff in the essay (like the minimum wage) is out of date.

The drive south is cold and windy, because the heat doesn’t work and because a crash dented the passenger side of the VW bus, and as a result there’s gaps in between the windshield and the frame of the car for the wind to whistle in through. I huddle in a slightly sheltered corner, staring at what I can see of the scrubby Arizona landscape in the light of the bus’s headlights. Jason, driving the VW, tells me about the tunnels that run under the highway we’re driving on—drainage ditches that stretch under four lanes of blacktop. There are probably people down there right now, he says, waiting out the night, hiding from the Border Patrol. It’s cold. A bad night for crossing the border.

Between 1810 and 1850, the Underground Railroad in the American Southeast smuggled between 30,000 and 100,000 slaves to freedom in the American North and Canada. Escaped slaves moved alone or in small groups by night, assisted by a select few who knew the route. They didn’t know the way, had often never seen a map, but they journeyed through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, dodging authorities, bounty hunters, and dogs. They risked dying of hunger and exposure, and all for the smallest chance that they might find freedom at the end of the line. As many as two out of three didn’t make it.

Today in the American Southwest, there is a different kind of Underground Railroad. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America pay money to guides to bring them across the border. Migrants who cross the border have a long walk with a choice between the rock—the mountains—or the hard place—the desert—over which to cross. It’s a five day walk from the border to Tucson, and it’s impossible to carry enough supplies with you to get yourself there.

Jason and I pull into a roadside campsite in Nogales, about 100 yards on the Mexican side of the border, next to a customs station where we’re spending the night. I am introduced to Miguel, the gangster who controls this part of the border. Everything that crosses the border in this town illegally—drugs, guns, tropical birds, people—crosses because of him. He knows the gringos, the federales, the Border Patrol. I imagine that very little happens that he doesn’t know about or doesn’t want to happen.

When I meet him, he is a mild-mannered, quiet-looking Mexicano who is shorter than me, wearing jeans and a coat that look like they came from Wal-Mart. I try to reconcile him in my mind with the Al Capone character that’s been described to me, and I can’t.

Migrants pay coyotes roughly $2,000US to cross the border (or about $20,000 Mexican). Minimum wage in the United States is $5.15 an hour. In Mexico, if a person is making about $10US a day they’re doing pretty good. Most people have help crossing the border from friends and family who are already here.

Migrants pay $2,000 to cross the border. How far into the country they come depends on the coyote and on how much the migrant pays. Migrants aren’t always knowledgeable about US geography, or living in the open, and they don’t have maps. There have been incidents of migrants dropped in Tucson and told they were in Phoenix, or within walking distance of Miami. Unconfirmed reports of migrants dropped in the Mexican desert and told they were in Arizona.

They break limbs jumping off freight trains. They die of exposure, dehydration, or hypothermia. They drink bad water in the desert. They come equipped with nothing but what they can carry and their own considerable determination. They get caught by the Border Patrol and deported, and return and get deported again. And still they come.

There’s an underground network to crossing the border, but unlike the conductors on the Underground Railroad, the coyotes are motivated by money, not by their conscience, and not all of them can be trusted.

It’s a bad night to be crossing the border. I shiver in my sleeping bag and I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s the coffee I drank before we left Tucson, maybe it’s the floodlights that we’re sleeping under, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m under this cold Mexican sky, with federales on one side and Mexican gangsters on the other, and I’m separated from my home by a fifteen-foot high wall of steel and barbed wire and heavily armed men with Black Hawk helicopters, humvees, and guns.

Before dawn, unable to take the cold anymore, I crawl out of my sleeping bag and pull on my jeans and shoes and coat. Someone has built a fire, and as I hop out of the van, Jason comes over and meets me. Four of the people at the fire—a man, a woman, and two small kids—are part of a larger group who have huddled all night in a nearby ravine, waiting for the signal to try the border. The other four men who have arrived are coyotes who brought the woman and her kids up to get warm. These coyotes, Jason assures me, are some of the good ones.

With all this in mind, I approach the fire. The woman—who is my age or even younger—looks at me for a moment, her eyes dark and exhausted. Her kids look maybe three and five, and are wrapped in a sleeping bag that Jason took off his bunk. We exchange no words. The coyotes ignore my presence completely. They are young men, again perhaps my age, and are engaged in a raucous and enormously funny conversation that I don’t understand because I don’t speak Spanish. One of the coyotes goes out of his way to stand between me and the fire, blocking me from the warmth, moving to the left to block me again when I move to the left to move away from him. I think about saying something, about moving forward so he can’t move sideways without stepping in the fire, but ultimately, I say nothing. You don’t belong here, he’s telling me not so subtly, and I can’t in all confidence say I disagree.

The sky in the east has started to lighten when there’s an invisible signal from somewhere and the woman and her kids leave the fire to make their try for the border. The coyotes at the fire don’t go with them. At the critical point, the border itself, the coyotes don’t go with the immigrants. The woman and her kids will meet another coyote on the other side.

The coyotes hang around until full daylight, when a semi-truck piled high with bales of hay driving past our camp fails to clear a power line. The telephone poles are pulled askew, there is a loud crackling noise, a lot of cursing in English (from me and Jason) and Spanish (from the coyotes), and the truck continues on, leaving the power lines dangling just low enough to snag any car that comes down the road. Jason goes to tell the federales (the wing of Mexican law enforcement that is sort of a combination Border Patrol/FBI) and the coyotes take off. Some policemen come, and someone that looks like an electrician, but they wander around and talk and then drive away, leaving the power lines dangling across the road.

In 1961, East Germany began construction on what was not, they insisted at the time, a wall. Tired of the drain on their economy because of East Germans leaving the Soviet Bloc every day to go to work in higher-paying West Germany, and frustrated by the 2.5 million people who had defected in the sixteen years since the end of World War II, the Wall put an effective halt to travel between the democratic and communist halves of Berlin. Any East Berlin citizen who tried to cross the wall was killed by the East German guards, and in the Wall’s twenty-eight year existence, probably fewer than five thousand souls managed to cross it illegally. The Wall was guarded with booby traps, armed guards, watchtowers, anti-tank tetrahedrons, and self-firing guns to keep people on the Communist side. Far from being the idyllic system of government that the Communists claimed, it turned out that they had to forcibly contain their citizens to prevent them from fleeing. When the Wall came down in 1989, symbolically reuniting Berlin, it was seen as a victory for freedom and democracy, and one of the final blows to the Soviet system.

Also in the 1960s, when the Berlin Wall was going up, American soldiers were fighting Communism in the backwater jungles of Indochina. Fighting to keep Korea and Vietnam from falling into the control of guerilla fighters, the Americans strafed the jungle and tore it down to build army bases and camps. After clearing land for airstrips, however, the ground was still too soft for planes to land, so the jungle was paved with corrugated iron sheets that could be picked up and moved to wherever the planes needed to land.

In 1975, when the American presence in Vietnam ended, one of the things that the Americans packed up and took with them was their iron landing strips. Ten years later, after the victory of democracy in the West and the end of the Cold War, the United States decided to build a wall of their own in an effort to stem the economic stress that immigration puts on rich countries when people flee from their poor country. To build it, they brought the sheets of iron they’d used to try and defend democracy in VIetnam and divided the sky with them, then lined it with barbed wire and armed guards. The Border Patrol uses the same unmanned aerial vehicles, motion sensors, infrared detectors, radar, and wireless communication systems that the US Army is using in Iraq. The fence cut towns in half and separated families. Whether they have actually decreased illegal immigration—as the Berlin Wall succeeded in doing—is another question entirely.

There was a time not so long ago, Jason tells me, when the “wall” was just an eight-foot-high chain link fence. People crossed to go to work in the morning, then went back to their homes at night. Illegal immigration was common, but few people stayed in the United States for long periods. People played volleyball games using the fence as a net. Then the wall went up, fourteen feet of steel and barbed wire. It pushed migrants trying to cross the border into rural areas (and increased mortality rates drastically) and forced them to stay in the U.S. for longer periods, since crossing the border is more dangerous and more expensive than it used to be.

The wall is peppered with graffiti and murals trying to give border crossers a taste of what they’re in for. There is one portrait of a migrant worker on his knees, about to be shot by a man looming over him with a gun. The caption says “Arizona.” A dollar sign with wings. La frontera es grande porque estamos en sus rodillas (The border is big because we are on our knees). Deporte la migra (Deport the Border Patrol). Si yankee es un terrorista.

Jason and I leave the roadside camp in early morning to go get breakfast supplies for the deportees who will be arriving soon, driving along a road that runs parallel to the border. On our way into town, we also pass a cemetery, which is a riot of color and flowers and decoration. Ribbons are laced through the fences around the family plots. There are silver pinwheels several feet across spinning over tombstones. Mexicans apparently take good care of their dead, and though this is utterly unlike any American graveyard I’ve seen outside of New Orleans, the colorful graveyard somehow makes me feel less like a foreigner.

Deportees are dropped off just this side of the border, usually thirty or forty at a time, regardless of where in Mexico they’re actually from (and, sometimes, regardless of whether they’re from Mexico at all). They carry everything they own with them and shuffle flatfooted because the Border Patrol takes everyone’s shoelaces (and does what with them?). We give them food, which is far from fancy—tortillas and beans, or Wonder Bread and baloney—but the deportees take it anyway. Jason and another volunteer named Ramón have medical training, and they circulate amongst migrants who have been hard hit by the desert or have gotten hurt along the way. I hand out sandwiches for a little while, and then circulate among the crowd, explaining in my broken Spanish that I have sheets with the addresses of shelters in the area for folks who have nowhere to sleep tonight and small, wallet-sized card with the phone number of the Mexican consulate and an explanation of the rights people have in the United States, be they natives, citizens, immigrants, or deportees. A few take the shelter lists, but everyone wants the consulate cards. Everybody wants to know their rights. I hand them out as fast as I can, trying to explain what they are and practicing my one decent Spanish phrase: “Mi español está muy mal. Lo siento.”

They don’t say much to me. They’re tired, it’s obvious that I don’t speak much Spanish, and I can’t imagine that their experience with the American Border Patrol has left them with much energy or motivation for trying to make new friends with the random American chick who’s greeting them. They rest for awhile, eating and talking and drinking hot coffee, and then they gather their bags to go, raising their hands in farewell. Adios. They walk south into Mexico. Jason tells me that most will cross the border again; he knows one man who has been deported eight times now. If you’re from one of the southern Mexican states, it’s easier to try the border again than it is to try and get home.

One of the volunteers at the camp—a Mexican who was deported and stayed here, at least so far—takes a break between busloads and crouches on his heels some distance away and smokes a cigarette. He sits on top of a small rise, his back to me, staring out at the fence, the Border Patrol, and the scrubby hills of los Estados Unidos. I ask him, later, if he wants to go back to the United States, and a smile flashes across his face. “Sí.”

In this rhythm, the morning passes, waves of deportees and border crossers interspersed with periods when there’s no one at camp but the volunteers. Jason tells us about the history of this camp and what they’re trying to do, and shares stories of border crossers he’s met. We talk about New Orleans and Louisiana and the loss of the coastal wetlands on the Gulf Coast. We tease Ramón about secretly being a woman. We watch the federales chase a man who left his car and whatever illegal item was inside of it and make a run for it—back into Mexico, oddly, not out of it. One of the volunteers shakes his head on hearing that the man fled south. “If he ran into México, he not going to make it,” he says matter-of-factly. “He a goner.”

We spend the morning there, and then it’s time to go, to get in line at la frontera and be interviewed by the Border Patrol. Much to Jason’s surprise (and mine too, given the hippie van we’re in) we are not searched, and thanks to the federales’ willingness to take bribes and let cars cut in line, we get through the border in less than an hour. And then we’re back in the States, which of course looks exactly like Mexico until we’re about five miles over the border and we come upon a Holiday Inn and a Conoco station that’s filled with white people who look like they want to visit Mexico but don’t want to stay overnight there. Something in my head relaxes, because now I’m back on my side of the wall, and even though this side really isn’t any less dangerous than that one, simply by virtue of language and long habit I feel more able to cope with this side. I don’t know if it’s like this for the migrants, if, in spite of their determination and obstinacy and their persistence in getting on our side of the wall, they don’t feel a tiny sigh of relief when they find themselves back on their side of it.

Subterranean Job Search Blues

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“What you need to do is open a retirement account and put money in your 401(k).”

I raised my eyebrows. “Find me a full-time job that offers me even a possibility of that, and I’d be more than happy to.”

This happens, so much, when I’m talking to people over the age of fifty. They just don’t seem to get how much the job market has changed. How much jobs have changed. How much less training employers are willing to provide, how much less they’re willing to pay, how much more expensive health insurance is. I know so many people who work more than forty hours a week on a regular basis and still barely get by. And I admit I feel so unprepared for all of it. To change where I am now, I would’ve had to go to a different college when I was 18. I would’ve had to go to a different college completely. And 15 years ago (when I was 18), I didn’t have the wherewithal to make that choice. And even since I was 18, the world has changed so much.

I’ve never had a job that would allow me to make plans, either. Through college I worked at a series of coffee shops, a habit that carried on after college. I worked in a public library as a shelver, but never for more than 20 hours a week. I majored in what I thought would be a practical major in college (audio engineering), but all I could find after that would pay me was a part-time job on the A/V crew at a hotel setting up projectors for clients, most of whom were fine but a few of whom were rich spoiled brats, paying me $15/hr and no benefits. Frustrated and bored, I went back to school for something impractical but more emotionally rewarding: sociology. But before I could graduate, I fell down an emotional hole and couldn’t claw my way out. I slunk back to Denver, tail between my legs, heart crushed, no job, credit card debt, personal debt, and student loans all weighing me down. I’m back to shelving at a library for $10/hr, 40 hours a week. I’ve been applying for jobs to get something better-paying and more interesting for two years now. The transition from college-era, hourly-wage, dead-end jobs to something with benefits and potential and long-term upward mobility and interest is still a mystery to me. I don’t know how people do it. I don’t know how to make it happen for myself. At some point in the last six months, I feel like I passed some invisible line from “still growing and transitioning into what I want to be” to “well, now I’m stuck here,” and feeling like my resume sucks and nobody will ever hire me for anything other than boring, stupid, unchallenging stuff.

I don’t have a good conclusion here or even really any cogent observations here right now. Just…it kind of sucks out there, guys. Hey, job creators? The market you’ve created sucks.