Fiction Free Write

I signed up on a mailing list from storyaday.org to get a writing prompt every day for the month of September. Yesterday was the first day I actually tried one of the prompts (I set a timer for fifteen minutes, which is why it just kind of stops), which came from excellent writer and human Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked how it turned out, so here it is. The first sentence in quotes is Mary Robinette’s:

“Of the things that could go wrong while crocheting, opening a portal had seemed like a low probability.”

Especially since she had just learned to crochet this morning and was, if she was honest, still unclear on the distinction between crocheting and knitting (why do you need multiple ways to make cloth out of string and sticks?). An hour of laborious work had given her a pitiful start on the potholder she was supposedly making, but then, spooling off the yarn she had strung together, a sparkly little void opened, dripping off her crochet needles like extra-dimensional drops of water. They held together into a little window that was about as big across as the palm of her hand.

Well, she thought. That’s interesting. She poked her fingers through the window. It was raining, over there in Wherever. As she pulled her hand back through and marveled at the water on her fingers, she smelled damp grass and decaying leaves. Rain. She leaned down to try and see into Wherever, but the window was too small to get a good look. Just a closeup of tree bark. Of course her first interdimensional window through time and/or space would faceplant her into a tree.

If I keep crocheting, she thought, maybe the portal will get bigger, and I’ll be able to see more.

If the portal gets bigger, she replied to herself, what if it starts sucking this world into it, like a hole in the side of an airplane? What if I fall into it and it turns out the portal is 30 feet up in the air?

Do you even know how to close it? another part of her asked. Open it further or close it completely. You can’t leave an interdimensional portal through time and/or space open in your living room. Not even a small one. “What’s this?” “Oh, nothing, just my portal.” “Really? Where does it go?” “I dunno, it just opened up one day and then I did literally nothing about it and went back to watching The Good Place for the fourth time.” “Ah ha. I see. Yes, I can see why you would make such a discovery here, in your living room, and then do nothing.”

She stopped the internal hypothetical conversation because it was starting to sound too much like an XKCD comic strip.

So she kept crocheting. In another hour, she had a wobbly doorway about the size of her cat (now there was a whole other set of worries: a cat that travels through time and/or space by disappearing through a portal to chase birds). Big enough that it was less like looking through the peephole of a door and more like looking through a small basement window. Still, there was the tree, which looked like a pine or a fir or something carniverous (no, not that word, the other one. Conifer-us) and she could see the horizon and a hill nearby, and hear the patter of the rain coming down through the leaves, and knew she could go through the portal without falling to her death.

How many possible deaths do you cross off the list, she wondered, before you had an acceptably low number of possible deaths, such that stepping through an unknown magical portal into an unknown land didn’t seem like a suicidally mad thing to do?

On the other hand, and again, the other part of herself told herself, are you really going to just…not go through? How long does the list of possible ways to die have to get before you decline to enter the magical portal in your living room?

I should call NASA, she thought. I bet they would know how to explore it. Or at least do a risk assessment.

NASA can’t even explore the Moon. You’d be better off calling Bezos or Musk or some other mad billionaire.

So they can make money off of it and then toss in a car for shits and giggles? No thank you.

Well, before you go in, just remember to text somebody about where you’re going and when you expect to be back, so they can report you missing and/or avenge your death if you don’t return. Basic safety.

Three Memories

A minifigurine shaped like a panda, and several D&D dice, including a D20 and two D10s.
I don’t have a good picture of Comic Con, so here is my panda minifig from my D&D game.

July, 2017. I’m at Denver Comic Con, in a room full of rows of chairs, and a projector on a cart set at an angle to find the screen in the corner. I find a seat on the aisle (I always find a seat on the aisle), as near to the front as I can get. We’re in a mid-sized breakout room for this panel, which is called “Marvel: Then and Now,” and it’s crowded enough that people are filling the seats, standing along the back wall, shuffling bags and cosplay weapons to try to make space for someone next to them.

The panel has three generations of Marvel writers and artists: Two old guys (like, in their late 80s, they rolled into the panel on mobility scooters) who were at Marvel in the 1950s, a white English man who started at Marvel in the late 80s, and a black woman who works there now and whose titles include Black Panther, Iron Man, and World of Wakanda.

The first question that the moderator asks is about how Marvel has changed since each panelist got into the business. One of the old guys said (and in spite of the quotation marks, I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t want to get political” (so don’t then) “but” (uh oh) “I started at Marvel during World War II, and the nation was one. And I think we need to make America great again.” (please be being ironic right now) “We need to just give him a chance” (oh dear) “He’s going to take down the Mexican mafias just like he made it safe for a black woman and her kid safe to walk down the street in New York” (stop talking) “and why can’t we be as one” (seriously though stop talking). He goes on citing “fake news” and random crime stories for several minutes. I’m not sure why the moderator didn’t interrupt or redirect; he certainly should have. The few people of color who were in the audience get up and walk out. I noticed some white people too. After a weirdly agonizing minute, as my ingrained training about being “civil” (or at least “not rude”) battles with my desire to not look like I was endorsing this shit by continuing to sit here and listen to it, I get up and walk out too. I feel like everyone is staring at me, even though I’m sure nobody was. Someone sitting on the floor probably crept into my seat and that was that.

Of course, the minute I got out into the hallway, I realized, well shit, now I don’t get to hear Alitha Martinez talk about her career, the things she’s done and what she enjoys about drawing for Marvel. Ain’t that always the way: old white dude takes up too much space, too much oxygen, pushing out other voices or making them impossible to hear. I find her booth later in Artist Alley, and buy whatever I can. She’s really nice, there with her teenage son, who’s helping her sell art and books when he isn’t off doing his teenage son thing.

Artist Alley. Remember Artist Alley? And how close everybody had to stand to each other in order to move around at all?


Laura Jane Grace from the band Against Me! sings at Riot Fest. The picture is of the large screens so Laura can be seen from far away.
Big Laura Jane Grace is big.

September, 2019. I’ve been awake since 2:30am, and only had four hours of sleep total anyway. Showered and walked to the train. Didn’t manage to fall asleep on the train. Got to the airline gate with enough time to spare to buy a bagel and cream cheese at a Smashburger, the only food place that’s open on the concourse. They don’t spread the cream cheese on the bagel even though they have a full kitchen. Just drop a couple of individual servings in the bag.

I doze on the plane, at least for a little while. I was the sort of tired where everything around you and inside you starts to feel fuzzy and unreal. Being locked in a dark tube as it hurtles through the air doesn’t help with this impression. After we land, I take the train into town and and find the hostel I’m staying in. Check in time isn’t until like 4pm, but they let me store my stuff in the luggage room so I can head right back out and take the train to Douglas Park, where Riot Fest is happening.

I have almost always gone to concerts, music festivals, things like that, by myself. It’s not weird to me. And I like being able to choose my own schedule, decide which acts I want to see, and not have to discuss it with anyone else. I like being able to pull up a patch of grass and read a book when I need some downtime. Chicago in September is sunny, and warm, but not unbearably hot. The Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now) looms in the distance like a giant, hibernating Transformer. Riot Fest rents out lockers so I don’t even need to keep my backpack with me most of the time. The lines to the port-a-potties, though on the long side, move quickly. Same for the water bottle refilling stations. People are handing out free individual packets of Pedialyte to keep everyone moving and hydrated. I am not filled with the amplified excitement that I used to get when I was younger and looking at the lineup for Warped Tour, and I’m not interested in getting myself clobbered in the mosh pit anymore, but I am perfectly content, standing in the shade to see H2O over here, dancing in the sun to The Selecter over there, buying ice cream that is way too expensive, checking the Riot Fest subreddit and meeting up with a random guy who happily gives me a pair of foam ear plugs. There are a whole lot more Latinx people here than I remember seeing in the scene in Denver, and I remember how multiracial punk is, or could be, or should be, or has been.

I see Anti-Flag, who are still singing about how dying for your government is shit after all these years, calling for a circle pit “everywhere” (please no). I randomly see a band named the Thin Lips, they were good. Wander around the merch tents, the usual collection of tie dye and Bob Marley posters and skate decks and anarchist bookstore tents. I sit under a tree and watch Hot Water Music from a distance. I have a locker that I can lock and unlock, so every now and then I take out my homework and work on it in the grass while I wait for Andrew WK or the Village People to take the stage. .

There’s old punks, with grey hairs and battered Vans. Young punks, with shellacked hair and pristine Docs. It’s like Warped Tour, but more low-key, and with more older punks. There’s a breeze, trying to clear out the humidity and the smoke from various types of stimulating leafs. The grounds crew tried to fill in the soft spots in the ground with wood chips to prevent mud pits, and it’s…slightly effectual.

The last day, Sunday afternoon/evening, is the reason why I really came to Chicago for this. Against Me!, Patti Smith, and Bikini Kill play one after the other on the same stage. Sometime over the summer, I jokingly tweeted at Laura Jane Grace that I needed her to make sure that her and Smith’s and BK’s sets didn’t overlap because I needed to see all three of them. I know that LJG doesn’t have any control over stage order at a huge fest like Riot Fest, but I got my wish, and I decide it’s because of her. I head over to the stage almost an hour early, and get as close as I can. In the manner of fests, there are two big stages next to each other and they alternate which one is in set up mode and which one has a band playing on it, so even though I’m only seeing three more bands, I’m going to be in this spot for about six hours. I have already peed and also monitored my fluid intake so I won’t have to go to the bathroom. I have clif bars in my backpack. I have a book to read. I am not front and center, but I’m close enough to see the band members’ faces, far enough away to not have to worry about the pit, and near to the big screens on either side of the stage that I can look at those if I need to (and when I take pictures on my phone, I mostly take pictures of the screen, because as dusk falls my already-crappy phone camera gets even crappier). I’m surrounded by other women, and we are all so so ready.

The bands are great. How do I describe how great they are? What are the words I can use to convey how happy I am? Laura Jane Grace laughs her way through her set and Patti Smith rules the fucking stage. Bikini Kill is still making their own clothing and digging through thrift store discount bins for stuff to wear on stage. And to see Bikini Kill, who (along with their friends and the rest of the riot grrrl community) started their own revolution, who stand for so much and who put their voices in the mouths of so many girls and queer kids, to see them play for thousands and thousand of punks, to see them close out Riot Fest, to hear Kathleen Hanna talk on stage about the same things I’ve heard her talk about in 500-capacity theater venues…that was something. That was great.

Dare you to do what you want
Dare you to be who you will
Dare you to cry right out loud
“You get so emotional, baby”

Double dare ya,
double dare ya,
double dare ya

Girl-fuckin-friend yeah
-Bikini Kill, “Double Dare Ya”


A medium-sized brown dog, standing on a gravel path, stares across green grass to the ocean beyond. Her back is to the camera and she's wearing a green harness.
Hazel Dog checks out the ocean (sound? bay? big thing of water).

February 2020. Some friends of mine, who I used to dogsit for until they moved to California, ask if I want to dogsit for them in California. Instead of giving me money, they’re giving me a free trip to California, and use of their car. They live outside of San Francisco, at the tail end of one of the BART lines, in what seems to be a working class neighborhood that can’t decide if it’s sliding downward or sliding upward. Hazel (the dog) and I go to a different park every day, this one a big off-leash park on the coast where she can sniff at and play with other dogs, that one a walk through some redwoods up a big hill (though never quite high enough for a big vista). The air is sunny and crisp, and I find a little park on the coast a mile from their house, where I can go running every morning and appreciate doing a cardio workout at low altitude. I carry a jacket with me but hardly ever wear it. I go see Hamilton (yes, again) in San Francisco. I know the soundtrack by heart but every time I go to see it live, there’s too much to see and it’s overwhelming and my brain forgets to remember what happened. So, I go see it whenever I’m in a city that’s not NYC with tickets that are vaguely affordable and buy a beer in the lobby that costs like $15 fucking dollars holy shit. I’ve never seen Hamilton in the city where I live–just when I’m traveling. I find Chinatown by accident while I’m trying to find the City Lights Bookstore. I think to myself, I could live here, I just need to figure out how to quadruple my income. I understand why people want to live here. The air is just fucking fantastic, and since I barely need to leave the house once a day, I don’t care about the traffic. I write. I go on walks with the dog. I sleep as late as she’ll let me in the mornings. I cook messy things in the kitchen (everything I cook is messy to some degree). I have takeout burgers and takeout Korean food and a random gyro because that’s all I can find right before Hamilton. I see the ocean. I watch classic movies like Silence of the Lambs and Swing Time, and have a long conversation with a friend about genderqueerness and -phobia and Silence of the Lambs. It’s like a staycation, but since it’s not my own house I’m not distracted by all the projects and cleaning that I’m not doing. It’s just me, and my brain, and the dog. I’ve been casting my mind back to it the last six months, those last feelings of freedom, before I knew what was coming. Appreciating the sun and the sky with no impending sense that it might be gone soon.

From Greek myth. A frightened and wild-looking Kronos eats one of his children.
Saturn, by Goya. 1820-ish.

There’s a painting by the Spanish artist Goya. It lives in the Prado Museum in Madrid, but you’ve probably seen somewhere. It’s a very famous painting. You can buy it on t-shirts and mouse pads and things. The Prado website just calls it “Saturn,” though I’ve also seen it called “Saturn Devouring His Son.” On a dark background, the Titan Saturn (the Roman version of the Greek Cronus), an old man, wild and desperate, is shoving a bloody, helpless body into his mouth.

I was listening to a podcast about the myth of Cronus eating his children this past week, and (perhaps using the Goya painting as an inspiration) it was very detailed in its description of how Cronus’ body changed and failed him after he started eating his children, who could not die, but who he also could not digest. How swollen and distended his belly became. How he became bedridden, trying to hide from the other Titans how uncomfortable he was, how weak. Cronus, who castrated his own father with a sickle, and was afraid of a prophecy that said that he would be deposed by his son in return.

There’s a lot of myths about power and how to use it, and some of them are about how power corrupts (hello, King Midas), but very few myths about it turning somebody grotesque, misshapen, monstrous. It makes me think a little bit of No Face in Spirited Away, eating customers in the bathhouse, or even of Chihiro’s parents, eating enchanted food until they turn into pigs. Jacob Marley, maybe, weighted down in the afterlife with chains and locks. It also made me think of the episode of The Simpsons when Springfield legalizes gambling and Mr. Burns gets even more filthy rich, and starts taking on qualities of Howard Hughes (oddly, it doesn’t make me think of Howard Hughes, who clearly had some mental illness stuff going on in addition to his enormous fuck-off levels of wealth and power, but Mr Burns has the privilege of just being cartoonishly evil).

A square of four images: No Face from Spirited Away, swollen and misshapen from overeating; Chihiro's parents from the same movie, turning into pigs; Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, chained up and pale; and Mr Burns from the Simpsons, bearded
Being corrupted has consequences, eventually.

What if the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth was a metaphor for power, and not just greed?

There’s a song that’s been running through my head basically since DJT was elected, but especially since George Floyd was murdered and America started going to protests instead of our jobs (because so many people had lost their jobs). It’s called “Timebomb Generation” by the hardcore band Strike Anywhere, and it was released in 2001. “What does it mean to take their power and push it away?/To overcome this culture and the lies they tell them everyday?/Find a voice for a better future and a place for you and I to face our fears/Fall down to rise back up.”

America is sick. For awhile we could call it polarization, division, culture wars, whatever. It started with racism, and it started with white people having power and wanting to keep it, and with every cultural revolution, white people scrambling to keep their power. Even if it harmed us economically, even if it harmed us spiritually. I suppose if we couldn’t be bothered about the physical and emotional trauma that we were inflicting on millions of African-Americans and Native Americans and Chinese people building railroads and Latino migrants in hieleras, it is particularly white-girl-naive of me to think that we would give a shit about our own spiritual, mental, and economic wholeness. We put billions of dollars into colonialism and imperialism and imprisoning and disenfranchising a huge part of our population, instead of building a system of empowerment and liberation that would surely benefit everyone. Right now in multiple police departments across the nation, officers are turning on the citizens they ostensibly protect with weapons of war because the citizens had the audacity to say that they don’t want to be policed any more, not this way, not at this cost. We cannot build a system of justice because we are too invested in our system of power, and too afraid to try anything else.

America is a wild-eyed, broken, bow-legged old man, terrified and eating his children in a futile hope to keep the world from changing.

Cronus created his own demise by eating his children (Greek myths are full of people who try to escape from fate and end up creating it). Next to him was his sister/wife/victim Rhea, losing child after child to his endless fear and appetite. Her desperation grew, and out of it came anger, and then vengeance, and a plan. Out of it came Zeus, and swaddled stones, and eventually, a warrior who could depose his old, sick, corrupt father.

What if Cronus had made different choices? Interestingly, in Greek myths, characters are often both ruled by fate and yet entirely in control of their own destiny. What if Cronus had accepted his deposition from power as inevitable, even beneficial, for the continued health of the universe he ruled over? What if he nurtured his sons and daughters, raised them to be a family, and work together?

What if he took the power and pushed it away?

How do we both acknowledge the power that we have, and use it to the benefit of those who have none…and then push that power away? Not in the silly context of saying “I renounce my white privilege!” as if that’s all it takes, but if we as a culture truly reckoned with what it would take to dismantle that system that gave us all this power, and corrupted us deep into our souls?

And what would the world be like if we did?

We Deserve a Better Storm and other thoughts on race and the X-Men

storm
Picture of Fox cartoon Storm aside, this entry is about the X-Men movies.

I don’t remember where I saw the comment. It was probably a tweet. I don’t even remember what the wording was, exactly, but the substance was something like: why, just before the climax in X-Men: Days of Future Past, are all the characters of color standing sentry (and then dying) outside, while the white dudes (and white lady) stay inside and save the world? How had this comic book franchise, of all the franchises out there, fallen into the same white-centered tropes and patterns of so many other Hollywood movies?

Well, shit, I thought. I love the X-Men comics precisely because they’re diverse and tell stories of othering and oppression, but the Forgotten Commentator was right. The X-Men movies (which, let’s face it, have been pretty white from the beginning) duplicate the tropes that have gotten so common and so tiresome over the decades: White people save the world, people of color are expendable. White people are the leads, people of color are the supporting cast. 

I’ve been mulling this essay over in my head for months, and have been hellishly blocked on it, but also unable to forget about it or move on. I watched all the movies again, taking notes, trying to make some kind of quasi-objective evaluation that didn’t feel right. I wrote a bunch of it and it was boring to read, even for me. And I could also write a whole thing on how if people of color don’t have any substantive parts in the X-Men movies, well, that’s totally natural, right? When you have actors as good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and a character as popular as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, of course there aren’t any prominent characters of color who last for more than half a movie. There just isn’t space in the story, you see. It’s a perfectly natural narrative/money-making decision. Why would they make a movie about Storm, who was perfectly terrible in the first movie, when they could make one about Wolverine, who was amazing?

Well. Let’s think about Storm for a second.

On the one hand, the X-Men franchise does a reasonable job of avoiding some of the most common racist tropes in cinema (Sassy Black Woman, Black Best Friend, Black Guy Dies First, etc). They avoid these pitfalls by…not having any Black people in the movies other than Storm until Days of Future Past. And Storm has basically no lines, especially in the first movie, where almost all of the ones she does have simply provide exposition (she asks how the adamantium got bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, for example).

Storm also has these conversational moments (in both the first movie, talking with Senator Kelly, and in the second movie, with Nightcrawler) where she sort of…stands in to speak to where prejudice comes from? Which is a little bit of a weird choice, from a character point of view. When she’s alone with Senator Human Purity, he asks if she’s afraid of “normal” people, and she says, “Sometimes. I think…I think I’m afraid.” She’s a member of a persecuted minority, being afraid isn’t a prejudice, it’s a reaction to her life experiences. The power dynamics are never addressed, it’s just fear=prejudice=bad. The Senator never reflects out loud where he thinks his prejudice came from.

That said, the emotion behind this line worked fine with the late-90s/early-00’s. Conventional wisdom back then was that bigotry stems from lack of understanding. But I don’t like that line anymore. I can see why Singer (a gay man who definitely saw mutaphobia more as a metaphor for homophobia/gay panic than anything else) included it, but hatred of a thing isn’t always because of fear of that thing. Sometimes hatred is a cynical power grab, because if you can convince other people to fear the thing, you have power over them. If Senator No Education For Mutants had more air time, I bet he would be the second. He doesn’t fear mutants. He thinks he can control and exploit other people’s fear of them. 

Anyway. Back to Storm. Goddammit, old white dudes, still distracting me from talking about Storm. In the comics, Storm is amazing. Her mother is Kenyan, her father American. Born in America, she grew up in Cairo, and as a young girl, survived a terrorist attack that killed both her parents and left her an orphan. She survived by learning to pickpocket, and eventually traveled south to the African plains and lived with a tribe there, where she learned how to master her mutant powers. She was already a powerful mutant in control of her abilities before Xavier ever found her and brought her back to New York (and yet somehow, later on we’re to believe that Jean is the true badass here? Pffft). She was the bedrock center of the X-Men team for a long time, taking over leadership of the team when Cyclops couldn’t do it. She eventually became the Headmaster at Xavier School for the Gifted. She always prefers negotiation and preserving life to fighting, but when she decides to fight, she is one of the most formidable opponents you could ever imagine. She beat Cyclops in battle. Storm is a fucking badass. She is amazing. Also, Bryan Singer had Halle Berry, an Oscar-caliber actress, in his cast! So what does he do? “Do you know what happens to a Toad when it gets struck by lightning?” Goddamit, Singer. Just…goddammit.

To be fair (?) to Singer, his problem may not be black women, but just women, as I also have serious problems with how Rogue is portrayed (Rogue is not some frightened, delicate flower who hides in her shell. Rogue is also a fucking badass. She is sassy Southern, not demure Southern). Mystique doesn’t have any lines, but she spends much of the climax fighting Wolverine, so you know she’s tough. Jean is powerful but there’s hints that she has powers that she doesn’t use because they are uncontrolled and “dangerous.” But Rogue seems lost, and Storm does nothing. It’s infuriating.

So in this movie, which is establishing the universe for future movies, there’s one character of color, and that character of color has almost no lines or character establishment. The white actors (who are great! Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman are all amazing) dominate the movie, and fans and movie-goers responded accordingly. With everyone responding positively to Wolverine and nobody responding to Storm at all, it becomes that much easier for the screenwriters to give Wolverine screen precedence on the next outing.

The racism we have here might be called where the fuck is everybody, because we are supposed to accept that just outside of the most diverse city on earth, in a school devoted to serving a population that are the result of random genetic mutations, most of the faculty of the school, and even most of the students that we see, are all white. Except for Storm. And that just carries on for another 5 movies and 13 years (including two solo Wolverine movies), until we get to Days of Future Past, where it turns out that the PoC characters who have been established are expendable. No setting up a multi-movie arc for Bishop or Warpath here.

Days of Future Past isn’t even where the expendable PoC tropes begin. In X-Men: The Last Stand (the third movie), a bunch of new characters are introduced when Magneto recruits new followers. Lots of these folks are PoC, which is cool (I really like Arclight, for the record), but we never get to know them, and a bunch of them die at the end of the movie. None of Magneto’s new recruits survive to have an impact on subsequent movies in the franchise. As far as I remember, none of them even appear in any of the subsequent movies.

And look, I realize that this is maybe not on purpose. The studio can certainly make an argument that there’s a finite amount of marketing space, a finite amount of space in a story, a finite amount of space in merchandizing, and that Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman just take up a damn lot of space. And a lot of folks will see that argument as having merit. But racism isn’t always on purpose, and impact doesn’t equal intent. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: Storm doesn’t have enough of a following to get toys made in her likeness or a movie made about her, so kids going to see the X-Men movies never learn enough about her to get curious, so they don’t demand more Storm, so the studio doesn’t make a movie that it doesn’t think people would be interested in. And we can all talk ourselves into never having people of color on screen and make it never about race at all.

So, no more Storm. No more Bishop, or Blink, or Warpath. No Sunspot. No Jubilation Lee. We had Lady Deathstrike, for a hot minute, but she’s gone. And whatever reasons you or the studio wants to give for why we had three Wolverine movies and no movies about Storm, I think that sucks.

 

 

Random Tangent #1: I know that Magneto often plays the role of the villain in the comics, but can we just take a minute and sit with the fact that all the villains in these movies who hold systemic power and influence (Senator Kelly, Colonel Stryker, Bolivar Trask) are tertiary villains, passing fads, while the primary, unkillable nemesis is…Magneto? The Jewish war refugee who lost his family (twice!), whose anger and grief is deep and cold and bottomless, and whose reaction to oppression may be summarized as, “You killed my family and there is no justice for that so come on, just try it, try anything, because I have been looking for an excuse to drop a football stadium on your heads”? That’s…not how oppression works at all, actually. Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender are both great. And it’s really hard to make a compelling narrative about fighting a power system (see also: the Captain America: Civil War movie, which took all the thematic conversations in the comics about freedom vs oversight and made it into a personal beef between Captain America and Iron Man). But also, making the survivor of a genocide into a perpetrator of terror while white villains disappear in between movies is not a politically neutral decision.

Random Tangent #2: Speaking of evil-doers, in X2: X-Men United, the most queer-coded movie of the entire franchise, the baddie is Col. William Stryker, who enslaves mutants as part of his master plan to eradicate them. Near the climax, it’s made clear that his son is also a mutant. Stryker declares that he “has no son,” rather than accept the fact that a) his son is a mutant; b) he has subjected his son to brutal scientific experimentation to control him because he can’t accept him; and c) he is sitting right there. (Perhaps it wasn’t intended to refer to this at the time, but when I watch it now that line makes me think of the ex-gay movement that holds gay kids captive and brainwashes them into trying to be straight). There’s adults out there who haven’t talked to their parents since they came out in the late 90s, because their parents disowned them. There’s kids out there right now living on the street because they can’t safely live with their parents, because their parents are homophobes. William Stryker declaring that he has no son is perhaps the most pedestrian, believably evil line in that entire movie.

In the middle of All This

Oof. It’s been a week, hasn’t it, Best Beloved? A year. An interminable, endless year.

I had at least half an entry in my head last week (was it last week?), when the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park who (among other things) doesn’t think that dog leash laws apply to her and will enforce that belief by threatening random black men with murder-by-cop, was circulating. But then George Floyd was murdered, and then protests, and then riots. I don’t know that I have anything like a cohesive post, but I got some things. (Also, I’m not the first to say any of these things.)

A.) I was accused of having a “laundry list” of things that worried me more than property damage when I responded to a person on social media who was lamenting property damage. And…yeah. I do indeed have a long-ass list of concerns. Because I am 38 years old and this list has been growing for my entire lifetime and then some. That’s the thing about lists, and grievances, and grief, and trauma: they don’t go away when you ignore them. They sits there, festering, self-replicating, creeping out the cracks in the walls until the walls lose their integrity and come tumbling down. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up…or does it explode?

What “rational” response should people be engaging in right now? Colin Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest and lost his job. MLK engaged in peaceful protest and he was murdered. How many black people have to die, and the people who killed them face no justice, before it’s okay to break some shit? Activist Stokely Carmichael said that, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” It’s clear that forces with power in the US are fine with ignoring peaceful protest; violent protest they can squash with guns and tanks and then do what they can to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. Because if activists really wanted change, they would do this shit nonviolently, right? And they think we’ll forget that activists already tried that, have been trying that, will continue to try that. What’s left, then? What are folks supposed to do?

How long are communities expected to go without health care, including mental health care? How long should activists spend trying to reform the criminal justice system, to get nonviolent offenders out of jail, to get cops to stop killing people? Does systematically depriving children of an education because you don’t want to pay for schools count as violence? What about systematically depriving children of their parents because you want to house them in a for-profit jail system and make money off of them? What about systematically putting children in jail because you don’t know any other way to change their behavior? How do we change all that? I agree that lighting a dumpster on fire won’t directly change that, but neither has decades of direct activism and hard work, so I got no answers and I’m not going to judge the people who got to the end of their rope and found that it dropped off a cliff.

B.) Just after George Floyd was murdered, I said on social media (kind of offhandedly, while talking about something else) that I thought it was important that videos like that be shared. That white people should watch them and not look away. I changed my mind, though, after seeing multiple people of color (on other social media platforms, not in my mentions) talk about how traumatizing they find these videos. How they’ve become more traumatizing over time because it’s a cycle now: graphic video/protest/nothing happens/rinse/repeat. To watch black people die, over and over and over, is traumatizing. To have it show up, unasked-for, in your social media feeds, is exhausting. When’s the last time you saw a white person murdered on camera? When’s the last time that got broadcast over and over on CNN? We (white people) have to expand the definition of “don’t look away” to something beyond “share shit on facebook.” Or if you’re going to share that shit on facebook or twitter, commit to doing something else, too. Contact your congressperson. Donate to a bail fund. Make some art. Buy some art from a person of color. Don’t just feel sad/mad for a minute, share the news story, and move on. Do something.

There was a time when it was important to see and share and take in these videos, along with other accounts of the trauma and danger that people of color live through in this country every day. I’m glad that more people seem to believe people of color when they tell their stories now. I wish we white folks could have gotten there without the need for video documentation, but it is what it is. Now we have to keep believing them and keep sharing stories and do it in a way that isn’t traumatizing our friends and family and people who are just trying to walk through the world without getting killed or harassed.

If sharing videos of these atrocities could have stopped them from happening, they would have stopped by now. But the death of Philando Castile didn’t even galvanize change in the state of Minnesota. We gotta do something else.

(Also: relying on videos and viral sharing is a bad way to do justice, friends. There’s no way it can reach every murder, galvanize every city. Look at the difference in reaction between George Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s. Is one of them more deserving of justice than the other? Is one of them, at this moment, more likely to see justice served? This is what we’re talking about when we need systemic change. We can’t rely on social media to catch everyone who deserves justice and find it for them.)

C.) Talk to your people who still believe that colorblindness is how we solve racism. It is not. Thinking and talking about race is hard and uncomfortable, especially when you’re a well-meaning white person who doesn’t want to piss anybody off. It still is for me, and I’ve been reading/thinking/talking about systemic racism and whiteness for well over a decade now. We have to know our own history and how racism is tied into it. You think the Nazis and the fascists and the slavery nostalgists don’t know this history? You think they don’t use our ignorance against us, to outflank us and cause harm to PoC and Jewish people, every step of the way? They use our loyalty to and investment in colorblindness and they make us complicit in the harm they cause. It’s one of the reasons why people of color end up doing so much of the labor, physical and emotional. This investment in not acknowledging race or racism has never helped black folks. It has only helped white supremacy.

And we have to start talking about this shit with kids. Kids can see the difference between how white folks live and how black folks live. They want explanations. They want to know why the world is the way it is. And right now, with white kids, a lot of the best explanations they can find is coming from racists. And that’s a problem, right? We can agree that that’s a problem?

I remember going to punk shows as a teenager, and reading zines, and the ARA (Anti-Racist Action) would hand out and distribute fliers from the SPLC showing different names and logos and code words of white power groups, publications, websites. I got warned off Skrewdriver before I even knew anything about them. There was no hoping that failing to recognize them would make them go away. Instead, there was positive action. Naming them. Showing what they looked like. Forcibly ejecting them from shows when they were recognized. Maybe if white liberals had learned how to talk about racism forty years ago, Bannon and Miller and the other racists in this administration could not have gone so unchecked for so long, or built up the empires that they have.

When Trmp says, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he is quoting somebody. Do you know who he’s quoting? I didn’t, I found out like two days ago. Were there white nationalists out there who heard him say that and understood exactly what he meant? You bet your ass. And yeah, maybe he didn’t know who he was quoting either (it’s not like he reads anything), but I bet that somebody in the White House does. Somebody put that line in his head. Learn to recognize dogwhistles and call them out, if you do nothing else. If today is your first day looking around and thinking, Holy shit, maybe there’s something to this racism thing, welcome! You don’t even have to start with systemic racism or implicit bias or white privilege! Our president is giving real-time lessons in how racists talk to each other when they don’t want to be obvious about it. Learn the language.

Black people have known how to talk about race for decades. White racists have known how to talk about race for decades. We white liberal antiracists have to learn how to talk about it too.

D.) White women in particular: Don’t forget about Amy Cooper. Watch that video, and sit with that. That was such a perfect fucking textbook example of how white women wield their social standing and their fear to enforce racist outcomes in this country.

E.) Buy work by black artists, musicians, and writers. Support their podcasts. Find their patreons. Share those videos. Listen to those stories. Lift up voices, allow other perspectives into your feed.

F.) This is all aspirational for me too. I’m not saying I’m great at doing any of this, but it’s past time I redirected some energy into trying harder. We all need to pay attention, and keep paying attention. Learn what hushing up and letting other people talk looks like (it probably doesn’t look like this entry, which I realize is full of all kinds of white-centered thoughts and feelings, but that’s what blogs are for, I suppose).

G.) Stephen Dubner, the host of the radio show/podcast Freakonomics, has started signing of off episodes with the phrase, “Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else.” I like that. I might start using it.

Take care of yourself. If you can, take care of someone else.

 

Poets I’m reading this week: Langston Hughes. Martin Espada. Danez Smith. Ross Gay.

Prose I’m reading and/or listening to: Roxane Gay, NK Jemisin, Stokely Carmichael, W Kamau Bell, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Frederick Douglass (1852 Fourth of July Speech), MLK Jr (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Music is good: Jurassic 5, the Flobots, the Gossip, Le Tigre, Strike Anywhere, Lizzo, Yo-Yo Ma.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones Listening Party: While We’re At It

Cover art for Bosstones' album While We're At ItOh hey, remember how like two years ago I was listening to the Bosstones’ discography and writing about it? The band put out a new album. Like a year ago. Let us get started with this ultra-timely review/listening party.

While We’re At It was released in June of 2018. Officially added to the band’s membership in the liner notes is John Goetchius, on keys, and Leon Silva, on saxophone. (Silva has also played with Justin Timberlake and I’m pretty sure I saw him in Bruno Mars’ backup band during a Superbowl Halftime show.)

Disclaimer that I’m going to be hitting pause a lot because I haven’t listened to this album as much as others and still need to refer to lyrics.  (I’m sure you will both notice and care about this.) Also I saw a review of this album that referred to Dicky Barrett’s lyrics in general as “cynically positive” which is actually a pretty great descriptor.

1. “Green Bay, Wisconsin.” I love this song. So so much. There is so much in here that this no-coast ska-loving girl can relate to. “She drew Walt Jabsco with a Sharpie fine point marker.” Check. All over my school notebooks and on a few tshirts. I didn’t have a Fred Perry parka or a Vespa, but driving all night to get to a show (rather than a motor scooter rally)? Check. Drove from Denver to Reno. Denver to Oklahoma City. Denver to Florida. Denver to Chicago. Denver to Bozeman. And more. All for shows. “She had to let the living part of life begin.” I remember being in high school with the very explicit feeling that I was waiting for life to begin. Like high school was just a thing I had to get through to get to the next thing, and I couldn’t wait to get it done (and then of course, life snuck up on and slipped past me, as it’s wont to do). “Moving on forward, she rallied and she ran/Romped the moon stomp she did the running man/Skanking and a-ranking full stop and full force/One step way beyond with no apologies regrets shame or remorse.” There’s something in here that’s like a fan letter to fans, a love letter to people who love ska. Something for people who couldn’t make ska (or motor scooters) their life, couldn’t do it for a living, but still centered it and loved it and marked their lives by it. Also, I enjoy the hell out of Joe Gittleman’s bass on this song.

2. “The Constant.” I have heard that this song is better live than on the album, but I haven’t heard it live yet (soon! December! Soon!). I admit this doesn’t stand out as one of my favorites on the album, but it is for a lot of the 737. If I was still working in coffee shops, spending a bunch of my time bored and frustrated with hurting feet, I would probably relate to this song a lot more, but as it is I see it as a song that’s about a lot of true things that don’t (mercifully) apply to me, not at the moment. Also I just noticed that Jimmy Kimmel has a writing credit on this with Dicky instead of any of the usual Bosstones.

3. “Wonderful Day for the Race.” The band released this song as a single before they released the whole album, so I had a lot of early love for it, love that has not abated with many repeated listens. It’s an optimistic song for a not-so-optimistic time. I love the fake out ending. I love running to this song, it’s got a great tempo that more or less matches my running cadence (“Graffiti Worth Reading,” off the album Pinpoints and Gin Joints, also matches my cadence. And because the first lyric is “The end is near,” I try to put it toward the end of the playlist). Dicky has written a lot of songs over the years about people. He’s a storyteller, and I think he finds people interesting. He’s one of the few songwriters I can think of off hand who writes songs about people that he’s not romantically interested in (though he writes those too). Boston politicans, his mom, old guys in bars with stories, homeless people. Dicky seems like a guy who cares about people. He doesn’t make a thing of it, he just does it. “Every day until it’s done, I’m talking about the human one.” Yep.

Also the song is ending! Oh wait no it’s not! One more chorus!

4. “Unified.” A sweet, sorta rootsy ska song. When I look at the lyrics as a whole, I admit I’m not sure I know what this song is about. Sometimes I feel like it’s about social and political movements, about gaining ground in a culture war that wants to grind you down, in which case I’m not super fond of the lines “We are with you not against you/We only hope you have the common sense to/Realize we’re on your side,” because I see sentiments like that get thrown around on Twitter all the time when somebody, say, calls out the racism or ableism inherent in some otherwise-well-meaning white person’s unintentionally fucked up comment. (“Could you guys all stop yelling at me? I’m on your side!”) Such sentiments are natural and understandable but also not helpful. But there’s also nothing in the lyrics that point to a political movement, except for words like “unified.” Similarly, it could be about Hillary Clinton, except I don’t have much to back up that theory except the timing of the release of the album and it’s juxtaposition next to “Wonderful Day for the Race” in the track listing.

It could be about another band making it big and finding out that that’s not everything they hoped for? Dicky has written about the dangers and mixed rewards of “making it big” before (“Failure has far too many fathers/Succeed and you’re an orphan till you die”). There is some in here that sounds like that: “Make a killing if you’re willing to do what it takes and then/If you’re willing then have at it/Have a field day if you haven’t had it/And have the wisdom and the wherewithal too call if you should break again…It’s not something you signed on for/What you were built for or designed for…”

Chris Rhodes’ trombone in this song is so sweet and warm in this song, too. And there’s little rolls that Joe Sirois plays on his drums.

In the cover art for this album, there’s hints that this is the last in a trilogy, which Dicky has also basically said in interviews. It’s the third album they released after reuniting. Am I going somewhere with this thought? I don’t know if I’m going anywhere with this thought.

5. “Divide.” Gee, I wonder what made them decide to put this after the song called “Unified.” This is probably also why I think of “Unified” as more political than it maybe is, because this one has some fairly obvious allusions to US politics. “Unpredictable/Unstable and erratic/As loose as any cannon/And that’s being diplomatic” is probably about one specific guy. “Divide/Let them think they have a choice/Tell them that their rights are equal/Tell them that they have a voice” could be about right-wing propagandists and media outlets that make profit by enraging their audience/readers. They make money by dividing people. I don’t really know. It’s a short little song, not very specific.

6. “Closer to Nowhere.” I love the groove in this song. I can totally dance to this. I’m not sure what it’s about, except that it starts with somebody trying to tempt Dicky into a card trick. The second verse is him getting sold New Age hokum (he mentions a God’s eye, bonsai, rosary beads, Buddha, dreamcatcher, sacred bell, Hindu tapestry…and that’s not even the end of the New Agey decor list). This song contains the excellent line, “I flipped through a copy of Eat Pray Love/I didn’t judge, you know I don’t sometimes,” which I find hilarious. I don’t personally find Dicky judgmental but maybe that’s because I usually agree with him. I have heard some people put forward the opinion that they think the Bosstones should stop talking about politics at their shows which, if you know literally anything about the Bosstones (personally or musically) is a hilarious thing to say.

The last verse of this song mentions a couple things that I have no context for (Barney Blackstone and Monday Moonbeam), and I admit I have very little context for understanding the chorus or the title and how it fits in with the stuff going on in the chorus (anyone want to enlighten me?) but I still enjoy the hell out of the song.

7. “Walked Like a Ghost.” I don’t know what to say about this song. It’s one of those happy-sounding ska songs that’s actually about something unutterably sad. The Sarah, Lily, and Grace that are mentioned are the Badger sisters (ages 9, 7, and 7) who died in a house fire on Christmas Day, in 2011. Their grandparents were also killed. Their mom and their mom’s boyfriend survived; the girls’ father (who the song is about) lived in Manhattan. He died in 2017. “He walked like a ghost/Up until the day he was/When something like this happens/I guess that’s what someone does.”

8. “The West Ends.” More ska! More lyrics that I love from Dicky! More songs about gentrification and Boston changing and how much that sucks! (See also: “I Want My City Back,” on the album Jackknife to a Swan.) Also about what people say about other people, when they’re moving in on their space and tearing it down and making it so that they can’t afford to live there anymore.

I realize that a lot of what I’m writing in this entry is about what the song’s about, instead of what I associate with the songs. A big part of that is just how new the album is; it hasn’t had time to work its way into the fabric of my life that way that, say, Let’s Face It has. But this song does bring to mind walking around Boston with the Skippy and Christine and Adam and Flynn and Steve looking for hot chocolate or cannolis, or dim sum, or pizza. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to the West End. “This one’s a bullfinch, I love every brick/The streets are so narrow and the accents are thick.” They spell it bullfinch in the published lyrics, though it’s clearly a reference to Charles Bulfinch, an 18th-century architect responsible for many prominent buildings in and around Boston (and also, apparently, DC). His son wrote Bulfinch’s Mythology. According to wikipedia, “Bulfinch was responsible for the design of the Boston Common, the remodeling and enlargement of Faneuil Hall (1805), and the construction of India Wharf. In these Boston years, he also designed the Massachusetts State Prison (1803); Boylston Market (1810); University Hall for Harvard University (1813–1814); the Meeting House in Lancaster, Massachusetts (1815–17); and the Bulfinch Building, home of the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital (1818), its completion overseen by Alexander Parris, who was working in Bulfinch’s office at the time the architect was summoned to Washington.” So basically, he’s responsible for so much of what makes Boston, Boston, at least up until somebody built the Citgo sign and the Prudential Tower.

9. “Here We Are.” First thing I notice in this song, besides the lyrics (I always notice lyrics first) is how much I love Joe Sirois’ drumming? He has this really characteristic fill that he does, that lets me know that that’s Joe, and I don’t know how to describe it, but I always like hearing it. I also really love Chris Rhodes’…rap? toast? toward the end. “The lugs are loose on every wheel/On every level, it’s unreal/Lost appetite and lost appeal/Fed up with the set up, where’s the reveal?/…Whose premise whose plan whose bad idea?/That’s not important, get us out of here.” (I also really love the saxophone going under that verse.)

10. “The Mad Dash.” So many of Dicky’s lyrics think me make of social media even though, as far as I know, Dicky is largely not on social media (I think most of the Bosstones’ social media accounts are run by Joe G for some reason. I don’t remember why I think this so I could be completely wrong). This song also seems more about capitalizing on tragedy or politics than it is about social media, but I dunno, whenever he writes about false urgency and divisiveness, I always think of Twitter. I spend too much time on Twitter.

11. “Absolutely Wrong.” Can we also take a moment here to appreciate John Goetchius and his keyboards? They’re lovely. They’re often kind of in the background, but if you turn your ear attention toward them, he’s doing such interesting stuff back there. Also if you go see them live and they play “Toxic Toast” he does an absolutely baller piano intro to that song. Also the Peanuts theme song. He can play that. I realize that a lot of piano players can play that (I’m sure my brother could), but still, I enjoy the hell out of it. I’m glad they found him and got him to join the band/play Throwdown.

This space that I’m writing in suddenly smells like french fries. I want french fries. Where are the french fries.

12. “In Honor Of.” I admit I have no idea who this song is about. I think I’ve seen it mentioned in interviews, but I can’t remember at the moment and don’t feel like going to look it up. It starts out slow and kinda simple-sounding, but in the last minute and a half it ramps up and I think it’ll launch us into the last two songs of the album…but then it sorta slows down again and starts repeating the chorus which is maybe not my favorite thing (I kind of hate using chorus repeats to fade out of a song).

13. “Hugo’s Wife.” This song is, I think, about some relatives of Joe G’s who were on the Hollywood black list in the 1950s. Subtle thing that reminds me that it’s Joe’s relatives: often on songs that are about a band member, that band member’s instrument will be more prominent, like how Joe’s bass brings the song in here, and/or that bandmember will share a songwriting credit (like how “Break So Easily,” on Let’s Face It, has Dennis Brockenborough as the second writer because it’s about an experience he had). It’s interesting to me that even though it was Joe’s grandfather, Hugo Butler, who was blacklisted, the song is called and about Hugo’s wife (who is unnamed. I looked it up, though, her name was Jean. Jean Rouverol). “So you held your head high/You kept it down to get through it/They wanted to control you, but they couldn’t/You just wouldn’t let them do it/No they couldn’t and you knew it/Not on your watch, not in this life/No, not Hugo’s wife.”

The chorus reminds me a little bit of a story that a friend of mine told me when I was a kid. She’s maybe ten or fifteen years older than me, so I was a kid, but she was an adult, one who was already a veteran of progressive politics and civil disobedience. A friend of hers was being interrogated by the police (I forget why now), and being threatened with arrest. The cop was waving a warrant in front of her face, threatening her, saying he had the power to put her away. “This?” she said, touching the warrant. “This is not power. This is paper.” It makes me think about the definition of power: who has it, who thinks they have it, and why. When power is an illusion, and why. Who truly has power, and who just holds it, by virtue of the fact that we, the people, who outnumber them, have decided to let them hold it for a limited period of time.

13. “After the Music is Over.” Going out on a high note. I also love this song! Shocking, I know. Like a lot of Bosstones finale songs, it starts out in one style (kinda swingy/jazzy) and then goes into a different style (the Boston Herald calls it “military march,” which I don’t hear, but then, I don’t listen to a lot of military marches) and then straight into ska. The first part even has Dicky sounding artificially far away, like he’s got an old school microphone. Having the final song on an album sound either completely different from the other songs on the album, or a song that sounds like 4 songs pushed together, is something the Bosstones have been regularly doing at least since Jackknife. It’s also thematically not so far from “They Will Need Music,” another album-ending Bosstones song.

“Fight on with your heart head and fists,” a line sung by Joe G, has been called out by people in the 737 as sounding very Avoid One Thing-ish. (AOT is Joe’s other band, a pop punk band.)

Even though I have yet to hear this song live, I can see it in my head, I can see the band on the stage at the House of Blues Boston, I can hear the crowd singing along, I can see the confetti raining down, maybe other band members from opening bands crowding onstage too…and then the ska starts, and Ben is dancing, and so are all the rest of us, and people are bumping into each other in the pit, making the most of this song because it’s the last one, it’s going to end the set, and Dicky is saying goodbye to everybody, people who have left for the night or left this life forever. And I’m hugging my friends and I’m covered in sweat that isn’t mine and a bunch of us are drunk but all of us are happy.

Once Upon a Time

It started with a boy , and it started on a very particular Sunday .

The name of the boy is lost, or was never known, certainly not outside the
original conspirators. This is as it should be.

The news went out that a Royal Ball had been announced for Sunday. Decrees proclaiming a holiday were posted in the town square. Supply wagons had been trundling to the castle, day after day, food and decorations and bands and extra cooks, all working flat out to prepare for the upcoming celebration. Lutists and flautists could be heard practicing late at night, soft music dancing on moonbeams as they sought not to wake the town.

Maybe it was one of the boys in the tavern, or the stableyard , or one of the delivery
boys. Again, his name is lost to us. Perhaps it went like this: looking across the square at the market stalls where the ladies held up frocks and skirts to see what would suit them
best for the ball, he stared for a little too long. Perhaps after school let out, a crowd of boys clustered around a sign to read the Feast Day Proclamation and start planning their attendance (the event was open, anyone could attend, from the richest miser to the poorest churchmouse), and one boy sighed, and looked wistful; or perhaps he said, jokingly, to disguise his true desire, “I wish I could wear a dress.” Or, “Wouldn’t it
be grand if we all went in dresses?”

As for why, we don’t know that either. A popular schoolmaster had recently been shamed when it was revealed that his out-of-town sweetheart was not a beautiful lady, or, in fact, any sort of lady at all. The school boys had arisen as one and refused to go to school or do work of any kind until their master was reinstated. One particularly obstreperous lad was heard to declare that he did not give a ewe’s left buttock who the schoolmaster monkeyed about with, everyone should just mind their bloomin’ business. So perhaps they wanted to support their friend, or their schoolmaster. Perhaps something else.

Regardless, on the day of the Ball, twelve boys in glittery skirts, rouge and eyeliner, and
plaited hair stepped onto the dance floor. Hovering behind them were various giddy sisters and girl cousins who had donated skirts and paints and hair-ironing skills, who had hurriedly let out or taken in bodices and skirt lengths.

If the boys had been laughing, or cutting up, or teasing each other, it would have been boys doing boy things. But it wasn’t. They behaved as they always did. But they did it in dresses. It’s hard to dismiss something as a prank when it is so earnestly and seriously done. Lady Havishton was scandalized, but then, she is always scandalized by something, so nobody paid much mind.

The boys wore their gowns all night. The next morning they reappeared in their usual trousers and jackets, though some with a smudge of rouge still next to their noses, or black edging to their eyelashes. They declined to explain themselves beyond a vague shrug.

The next year, there were fifteen boys, and instead of wearing their sisters’ dresses, they
had procured their own.

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”

Note to a kid and also myself

makegoodart
Picture by Gavin Aung Than of zenpencils.com

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
—Stephen King

Recently, I was going through my google drive to see what I could clean up. Docs tends to be where I start impulsive projects, or where I take notes if I’m out and about somewhere and don’t have a pen and paper handy. I get started, write a few paragraphs, realize that I have no real place to go with it and no conclusion, run out of time, and close the app. I never remember to title these bits and pieces so my drive is full of “Untitled Document” with only the creation date to differentiate them. And every now and then I go through and try to figure out what I can expand on and finish, and what I can just delete.

This time, though, I actually found something interesting. Marginally. In 2017, I was on a panel at Denver Comic Con about writing fanfic (DCC has since been renamed something that won’t get them sued by the San Diego Comic Con, who have decided that they are the only comic con, but I never remember what the new name is, so in my head the event is still, and probably always will be, the Denver Comic Con). I was working at the public library at the time, which often organizes a bunch of family-friendly panels covering various aspects of nerdly books/movies/fandom. It was fun, if terrifying, because I’m not exactly known for my public speaking skills or confidence. We covered a bunch of topics, from writing generally to a history of fanfic to an overview of a few of the largest sites, like AO3 and fanfiction.net. I went first, and spoke about writing generally. It was…not a lie, exactly, but more of an aspirational talk than a factual one, because I was (and still am) struggling with writer’s block. I was giving advice to kids that I was having trouble taking myself.

But anyway. This is more or less what I said. I have gone through and edited and updated it, since it’s two years old:


I took on the task to make a case for writing, which I think is both easy and hard, because to me it comes down to this: If you want to be a writer, if you want to write, you should write. And you should write what you want, and what you enjoy. Period, the end. That’s all you really need to be a writer. Everything else is details.

“We owe it to ourselves to tell stories.” That’s what Neil Gaiman says. Especially in this day and age, in this culture, when it’s so much easier to be a consumer than a contributor, we must tell stories. In this age when so many of our stories are fed to us by corporate behemoths who write by committee, we owe it to ourselves to tell stories. Don’t wait for someone else to write the story you want to read.

When I was in high school and college, I got intimidated out of writing what I wanted to write. I thought that if I was going to be a “real writer,” I had to write stuff like what I was reading in English class. I thought I had to write like Steinbeck or Tolkien or Toni Morrison. I don’t even know where I got that impression. It certainly wasn’t anything that anybody told me, but more of a vague idea of what a Real Writer looked like. If I’d been cognizant enough of it to articulate it, any adult would have told me what I’m telling you now: write whatever you want, and don’t worry about whether you’re measuring up to Charles Freaking Dickens. Don’t worry about symbolism or theme or whether your subject is weighty enough. Soap operas get dragged for being silly and impossible and overly dramatic, but their writers get paid like anyone else. Chuck Tingle writes stories about being pounded in the butt by [insert noun or sometimes figurative idea here] and got nominated for a Hugo award. Don’t worry about whether it’s worth it. Worry about finishing. Just write it, whatever it is that’s in your head.

So, with that manifesto out of the way, I thought I’d spend a minute talking about some specific advantages to writing fanfic especially if you’re a new writer.

Sometimes it seems like people will only consider you a “real fan” if you know everything about the thing that you’re a fan of. Don’t get me wrong, knowing everything about one thing can be cool and fun if that’s your jam. I have a friend who owns every single Daredevil comic ever written. He can name all the all the writers and artists and often what issues or arcs they worked on. If that’s where your fandom happiness lies, go for it. More power to you, and I hope you make editor someday. But if you want to write, and you’re hesitating to start because you fear that you don’t know enough yet–stop that. Start writing. Stop doing homework and start writing. There’s a ton of resources out there about how to write, but they all boil down to: Sit with a pad of paper and a pen, or with your computer, and start putting words on paper. That’s all you really need to get going. The rest you can learn.

Fandom is changing, and with the internet comes a lot of gatekeepers, but there’s also a lot of people around who are determined to burn the gates to the ground and piss all over its ashes. Just as you can write whatever you want and however you want, you can define fandom however you want. It’s your fandom. Love the Good Omens miniseries? I definitely recommend reading the book if you haven’t, I think it’s great, but don’t feel like you have to read the book and also Neil Gaiman’s tumblr asks where he answers questions about it and also the script book and also the TV companion book before you can write your story. Do you want to cosplay Wonder Woman even though you’ve only read a few issues, but Comic Con is soon and you love her armor? I sure won’t stop you. And anyone at a con who starts quizzing you about all her writers and artists and storylines is doing it wrong. Don’t let them discourage you. Fan fiction is great because you can just start.

If you’re wanting to get published, sure, different standards come into play. Grammar and style and structure and (probably) using characters you created instead of somebody else’s. But this is fanfic. This is fun. There is where nothing but possibility lives.

You get better at writing by writing. The first thing you write will probably be terrible. That’s okay. The more you write, the more you’ll find your voice.

X-Men X-Tinction Agenda: Further Thoughts

So, I have some further thoughts/epilogue/ramblings about the X-Tinction Agenda tradepaperbacks that I read this spring, but very little ability/motivation to organize them? Sorry about that. I swear I’m doing my best here, in that sometimes the best I can do is to lower my standards so that I post anything at all.

On Insults: There is a scene—a couple of scenes, actually—where the X-Men encounter, for the first time, a Genoshan racial slur: “genejoke.” When the word is directed at her, Rogue says (while also punching the magistrates in the face), “That word sounds like an insult, fella.” Storm reacts similarly: “That word—‘genejoke’—I do not like it.” What Rogue and Storm (and Chris Claremont) understand is that what makes a slur a slur isn’t the word itself, but how the word is used. Storm and Rogue have never heard “genejoke” before landing on Genosha, but they’ve heard “mutie” plenty, and they instinctively know that the words are similar, and are only used by people who think they’re garbage. They would never have patience with the disingenuous people who tell you that you’re just being oversensitive when they call your names because “a faggot is just a bundle of sticks, come on, man, lighten up.” You don’t have to listen to them. You know, and so do Storm and Rogue: an insult is an insult even if you don’t understand the exact word being used.

On Hammer Bay: I forgot to note in either of my previous entries, but Genosha’s capital is described by Claremont as “the most dynamically modern city on earth.” I read this book before the Black Panther movie came out, and I’m not sure where Wakanda was in the Marvel Universe at this time (still hiding behind its lying concealing forcefield?) but I want to note a couple things: One, Hammer Bay, like the United States, has reached its exalted status on the backs of slaves, and any discussion or evaluation of one of those qualities without addressing the other one is kind of a farce. The other is that Wakanda exists (in the Marvel universe, anyway): a dynamically modern society that was never on either side of slavery. Never colonizer or colonized. And I know there’s no real-world analog of Wakanda—yet. But we’re capable of imagining it, right? We accept Wakanda in the Marvel universe. It exists. I just think that, if we can look to science fiction for shit like laser guns and flying cars and then turn those things (or things like them) into reality, surely we can do that with Wakanda too. We can address our past and finally move past it. Surely that’s a possibility, both within the realm of our imaginations and within our abilities as humans.

On Women’s Bodies: Problematic boobage and weirdly long legs and tiny waists have been discussed elsewhere on the Internet, but I just want to point to the President of Genosha here to further my hypothesis that some significant number of comics artists in the 1980s (in this case, Jon Bogdanove) just straight up did not know what women look like.

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All the women in this world are either winners of the Miss Olympia competition, or are men in disguise.

Please also note that Hodge, the creepy and insane mechanical cyborg whose human head is the only remnant of his previous body, is literally wearing a cardboard cutout of a suit around his neck to try and conceal his monstrous insect-like body behind him. You are totally fooling all of us, dude. Best disguise ever.

This book is, in a way, everything I both love and hate about comics. I love the various personalities of the X-Men (in the first half of the book anyway; after that they start sniping and backbiting each other and it’s like, come on guys, the magistrates are trying to murder and enslave you, maybe prioritize other things just now) and how they work together and kick ass and never leave anyone behind. I love Claremont’s socio-political commentary, in how he translates all these historical and philosophical ideas into a new medium. But I really dislike the 1980s female body as drawn in comics, and I’m not super amped about the extra-bulked up male characters, either.