“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.
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.
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.
In this entry: Uncanny X-Men 237 & 238, the second two issues in the X-Tinction Agenda crossover event. Prepare to board the Mutant Train! Written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by Rick Leonardi (237) and Marc Silvestri (238), inked by Terry Austin (237) and Dan Green (238), lettered by Tom Orzechowski, edited by Bob Harris.
When we left off (in issue 236), Rogue (who is being “steered” by Carol Danvers, who has apparently been lying dormant in Rogue’s mind ever since Rogue touched her one time) and Wolverine, who have had their mutant powers stripped from them, are trying to escape from Genosha. To this end, they have stolen a military jet magistrate aircar and are flying away. We open issue 237 over international waters.
Also, I don’t think I said this last time, the Genegineer’s name is Phillip Moreau. His last name is Moreau. Because that’s not symbolic at all. Just kidding it totally is.
Anyway, it transpires (after the Genoshan military boards the stolen aircar) that Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers aren’t on the jet after all. The whole thing was (presumably) a distraction to give Wolvie and Rogue/CD a chance to rescue Madelyne Pryor and Jenny Ransom, who are still prisoners of the magistrates and in danger of having their brains mutilated by our resident wielder of banal evil, Dr. Moreau. We switch scenes to Wolverine, who is lurking on the street watching a documentary propaganda broadcast about the history and goals of Genosha. “Sounds wonderful, sweetheart,” says Wolverine to the television, after listening to a perky red-headed lady wax poetic about Genosha’s iron ore deposits, its low levels of poverty, its status as a contender for the “breadbasket of the world” title, “pity it’s a crock.” He and Rogue/CD observe some magistrate patrolmen pulling petty power trips on a mutate garbageman, and Rogue/CD convinces him to not murder the magistrates with his claws as it would blow their “keep quiet and wait for reinforcements” plan.
While they’re in a bar causing a diversion and stealing magistrates’ badges and credentials, Wolvie and Rogue/CD happen upon a drunken Phillip Moreau, washing down his sorrows in a cop bar on the wrong side of town, and getting knocked cold by the off-duty magistrates, who don’t take kindly to him causing a ruckus in their bar. In retaliation, they dump his drunkenly unconscious body on the “mute train,” the commuter train on which mutates ride to their barracks at the end of the day. The magistrates dump Phillip on the train, and Wolverine and Rogue board as well, curious to see what the “mute train” might be.
Meanwhile, out of some kind of…I don’t even know what, the Genegineer has called Mutant 9817—that is, Jenny, his son’s fiancee—to his office. He explains to her that her father falsified the results of her genetic exam, and that she’s a mutant, and as such she much has “a responsibility to the community that bore and nurtured” her to give herself over for “processing” and a lifetime of servitude. “It’s slavery!” cries Jenny, utterly distraught. In fact, Jenny’s lines throughout the whole two-page scene consist of statements like “Why am I here?” “But I tested normal on my genetic exam!” “oh no oh no oh no,” “Why me? It isn’t fair!” “It’s slavery!” “Does Phillip know?” She is in shock, nothing but tears and questions. The bulk of the word balloons (and it’s Chris Claremont, so there are a lot of word balloons) are of the Genegineer, lecture/pleading with Jenny to clear his own conscience, explaining to her why her life is over. At one point, he says, “Believe me, this is as hard for me, as for you.” Somehow I doubt that, Genejerkface. She’s giving up her whole existence because you deem it necessary, and after you buzz on your intercom to have her taken away, you’ll never think about her again. It is objectively, demonstrably, not harder for you. But, in a glorious demonstration of blindness to the consequences of one’s actions, he says it anyway, and he really believes it. He believes that this really is as hard for him as it is for her. He calls it “our sacrifice,” even though he is sacrificing precisely nothing. He believes that slavery is necessary. He believes that the benefits of taking children away from their families and brainwashing them and putting them to labor outweighs whatever momentary discomfort he might feel from his dull, crippled conscience. He does not think that Genosha would survive as the paradise that it is without the brutality and coercion that laces underneath every single inch of the island.
The whole scene is gross. Versions of it happen all the time in the real world, and it’s gross then, too.
The issue ends with Wolverine vowing to “bring this flamin’ country down,” and at this point I can’t say I’m opposed.
Issue 238 opens with a “transcript” of a telepathic interview done on Mutant 9818—aka Madelyne Pryor—immediately before she somehow destroyed the examining team (“torn to bits,” is how it’s described). Exactly what Madelyne did or how is vaguely unclear, but evidently in her own mind she garbs herself in what can only be described as Skimpy Hellfire Goth, and this is totally about female empowerment and not about the 1980s being a boobs guy at all. (There’s probably a whole essay of my mixed feelings in here somewhere, about how I love that Madelyne is smart and brave and fighting back even though she has no conscious access to mutant powers, but also I could never cosplay as her because come on, and also I don’t want to police or judge what another woman decides to put on her body, butakshually Marc Silvestri decided what she would be wearing, and also come on) (being a female with SJW tendencies who also loves comics can be complicated sometimes, and Hellfire Madelyne Pryor and Emma Frost are two of the ones who make it seem complicated).
Furious and/or frightened, the Genegineer storms down to the cells to yell at Madelyne for murdering his interrogation team. In the process, he has the same conversation with Madelyne that he had with Jenny in the last issue, but Madelyne is mature enough and experienced enough to fight back. “What I think and feel and want don’t really matter, do they? I was condemned the moment I arrived here,” she tells Moreau. He tries to feed her the line about how the Genoshan way of life must be protected, and how the mutants on Genosha “want and care for nothing.” “Except freedom,” she says, from where she sits, in her cell, behind bars. “What are you so scared of?” she asks. “If you system’s such a marvel, why not share it with everyone?” He feeds her something about secrecy being Genosha’s strength, a bullshit line that he probably actually believes, but Madelyne’s not having it.
“What is necessary, is done,” says the guard who has escorted Moreau down to the cells.
“Seig heil to you too, sweetie,” Madelyne cuts back.
We switch to Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers, who have ended up in the mutant barracks (the end of the line of the mutant train that they boarded the previous night), which—though none of them have seen it before—is a rude awakening to Phillip Moreau, and nothing new to Wolvie and R/CD. Phillip is having the realization that my dad had when he was a kid in the 1950s in Louisiana: that the people that he saw cleaning houses and doing menial labor went somewhere at the end of the day, and that sometimes the places they went weren’t very fancy, or very nice.
“Tell me something, boy,” Wolverine asks him, “Where’d you think the mutants went at night, after they quit work?”
“Home, I guess. Same as anyone.” (But for Phillip, who has a very narrow field of experience, “home” has a very narrow definition.)
“Live and learn, kiddo,” Rogue/Carol tells him. “Welcome to the Mutant Settlement Zone. A prison, by any other name.”
“Like keeps to like, that’s what I was always taught,” says Phillip, really thinking about what he’d been taught for maybe the first time in his life. “The mutes–sorry, mutants, no offense–they naturally preferred the company of their own kind. Their own way of life, their own place. Is that so wrong?”
“You tell us,” Wolverine replies.
Rogue/Carol says (and I’m truncating this a bit), “You never wondered about the uniforms mutants wear?…[It] makes the slaves easily identifiable, then guarantees a social environment wherein they’re almost totally isolated. If no one befriends them, no one can feel sorry for them. Effectively, they become extensions of their jobs–perceived not as people any longer but organic machines. And who cares what happens to machines?”
When I first read this, it made me think (as it was probably supposed to make me think) of slavery, and segregation, and Jim Crow. But as I was reading it again and writing this essay, it made me think of retail workers and cashiers. And sure, that comparison is a little shallow, a little low stakes. But who thinks about where a cashier goes at the end of the day, and what kind of life she can buy with her $10/hr? Who thinks about the folks in the agriculture supply chain who pick our food and work in our slaughterhouses? How isolated is a community of transient farmworkers from your daily life? (If it’s anything like my daily life, they might as well live across an ocean.) What’s the separation that’s happening today—and not organic separation, either, not like “Oh I live far away from Irish people in Irelend” separation, remember that the Genoshan power structure keeps the lives of the mutates a secret on purpose—that keeps you from seeing the people around you as people?
I do know this, though—in my experience, increasing my knowledge of an issue or a country or a culture or a person, when I hear from those people themselves, has already brought me closer to human empathy. Never further away. If the knowledge you gain hardens your heart, then you might be doing something wrong. There’s a Ta-Nahesi Coates quote that I can’t find right now, about how slavery was only ever “acceptable” if you didn’t ask black people what they thought. Phillip, basically, has finally opened his ears to the idea that the mutants might have different ideas about this whole system than the magistrates do. His father, even though multiple mutants and his own son try to tell him what it’s like out there, refuses to hear.
Back to the story…
Wolverine, Rogue/Carol, and Phillip are found at the mutant barracks and arrested and brought back to Hammer Bay, the capital city, and to Phillip’s father (and the guard captain, whose name I don’t think has been mentioned). Phillip immediately confronts his father about what he’s seen and how horrifying he found it. “I’ve seen the camp, Dad, it’s a prison! Why hasn’t the country been told?! Why won’t you level with the people about the regime you force the mutants to live under?! Those mutants are Genoshans, too, just like us—They deserve the same benefits, the same chance for happiness and success the rest of us accept as a right!” Phillip is basically a baby ally, truth and justice bright in his mind, sure that if only everyone else could see what he’s seen, they would all be just as horrified as him. I appreciate that Phillip has basically had one hell of a 24 hours (at this time yesterday, remember, he was out for a run and happened upon his girlfriend’s family being arrested), so I really shouldn’t judge what kind of ally he might turn out to be, but he’s also doing the annoying this of jumping on a social issue only after it’s affected him personally. I guess any reason is a good enough reason as long as it gets the kid in the fight, but if other humans could do this a little less, I think we would aggravate each other a lot less.
The Genegineer repeats his argument about how it’s for the good of all Genosha that mutants are enslaved, and about preserving the Genoshans’ peculiar way of life, and then asks—as his son asked at the barracks, though he doesn’t know that—“Is that so wrong?”
Wolverine, tellingly, answers the question differently this time: “If you haveta ask, bub…there’s no point in answerin’.”
Side point: “I’ve been a slave,” Wolverine tells the captain of the guard, who is basically telling Phillip to shut the hell up until he knows better than her what’s what, “Didn’t much care for it.”
“That will change,” the captain tells Wolverine. “When Wipeout’s erased all memory of your old life–oh yes, he does that too–and the Genegineer’s established a new one, I guarantee you’ll love it.”
“Not hardly,” says Wolverine, “I’ll die first.” When I first read this, I thought Wolvie was just making a Wolvie threat (and the captain and the magistrates present certainly hear it that way), but it also occurs to me that Wolverine is seriously injured, and if Wipeout fails to restore his healing factor, Wolverine really will die. I felt really cool about reading the dialogue this way until I got to the next page and Wolverine made explicit text out of the subtext.
Just as Wolverine is basically making a suicide bid for freedom, the rest of the X-Men arrive, literally blowing the doors off the place, and in short order rescue Madelyne Pryor, a mutant baby who was also in the prison (oh hey, look who else throws babies into prisons!), and Jenny Ransome, who is looking much more muscular but who hasn’t had her mind wiped yet. Rogue/Carol takes Wipeout hostage, and Psylocke uses him to restore Wolverine’s healing factor. Wolverine and Phillip briefly disagree over whether they should burn Genosha to the ground or give the Genoshans a chance to mend their ways. Storm goes with Phillip’s way, though with the added threat to the Genegineer and the magistrates that if they don’t listen to Phillip, she’s not opposed to taking the Wolverine Option at a future date. They explode the Hammer Bay Citadel to emphasize the point.
“My son, I beg you—consider what you’re doing!” says the Genegineer. “You’ll destroy everything we’ve worked lifetimes here in Genosha to build!”
“But, Dad, if the mutants aren’t free, then maybe what you’ve built isn’t worth saving,” says Phillip, looking a little sad. He goes through the portal off Genosha with the X-Men, seeking asylum for himself and Jenny in America.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The trade paperback continues, though it skips ahead to issue 270 for Further Genoshan Adventures. I’m not sure if I’ll continue forward; the latter adventures are decidedly more boom-pow-bam and less Claremontian Discourse On Justice, and my own analysis consists more of being annoyed by Wolfsbane and how Rob Liefeld can’t draw feet. So it might be funny but probably wouldn’t be that interesting. I dunno. Maybe I’ll write something else and post it in less than two months!
The triumphal return, both of my Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ listening series, and of the Bosstones themselves. The album was released in 2007, and coincided with the return of the Bosstones from a three-year hiatus and of the Hometown Throwdown (which was suspended during said hiatus). I associate this album with a lot of happiness.
First up is “This List,” one of three original songs on the album (the rest are b-sides), which is about the current wars that the US was (and still is, sigh) fighting at the time. Bush #2 was still president, and if I recall correctly, it was also around the time of the troop surge and the re-taking of Fallujah and the whole war feeling like a mire we would never get out of. (This is also roughly around the time that the band the Street Dogs started to gain national punk prominence, in no small part to the leadership of Mike McColgan and his vocal support for vets and against the war). Dicky Barrett talks directly to GWB in this song, and it does feel more immediate than a lot of other anti-war songs I know. Maybe because it’s so specific and because it was a war I was so aware of and living adjacent to and watching and following. I mean, it’s one thing to hear the Clash sing about the Falkland Islands. It’s another to hear the Bosstones sing a song to the current president about the current war and telling him to go to hell.
Next up is “The Meaning,” a b-side from Pay Attention, and is up there as one of my favorite Bosstones songs overall (b-side or not). It’s got the sort of rapid-patter rhyming from Dicky that I love, and also it’s about the creative process, which I can relate to a good bit. Also, I love the line, “You don’t have to know the meaning, just know that there is meaning in what is being said to you.” I suspect Dicky meant it towards the fans (like me) who tend to ask him to explain this song or that song, but it also reminds me something that my mom—whether she knew it or not—was pretty good at when I was a teenager. I did a lot of shit as a teenager that my parents didn’t understand, chose career paths (or resisted career paths) they I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand. But my mom was better than my dad at recognizing when something was important to me, and that mattered more to her than her need to understand just what the hell I was doing. It was important to me, and that was good enough.
Also I love the guitar noise in this song. I guess it’s the wah pedal? Whow-whow.
“What’s in you, out of you, remember we love you, we’ve gotta go but you should know that we’ll be thinking of you.”
Third song! “Don’t Worry Desmond Dekker”! Instant fucking classic. Always makes me think of Boston and the Hometown Throwdown. Also one of the three new songs. Has the power to make me cry when I hear it live. “And I, I can hear laughter. It stays with me after all this time. And I, I’ve still got your records, the Clash and the Selecter. Don’t worry, Desmond Dekker’s doing fine.” (“Except he’s not,” as Joe Sirois says, “Because he’s dead.”) It’s about time and friendship and the good and bad ways relationships evolve. Hey there, 737, I’m thinking about you and the Buckminster Hotel and I’m going to get to see you all in a little over a month and it’ll be great. I know I’m not the biggest party animal but I fucking love you guys and want to give you hugs.
“From the dirt up to the sky, and we climbed up to the sky, and carried on the only way we can. Laugh on and live, learn how to forgive, what we have could be as good as what we get. If you’ve forgot, now I’ve still got what you gave to me way back when we first met.”
I’ve still got what the Bosstones gave me. Laughter and new friends and more music than I could listen to in my lifetime. Validation as an imperfect person trying to muddle her way through the world. Trips to Boston and walks in the snow and the best goddamn hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life.
“To California” is a b-side that I’m pretty sure was never released before Medium Rare came out (unlike “The Meaning,” which is on the vinyl release of Pay Attention). According to Wikipedia it was recorded during the Jackknife to a Swan sessions in 2002. It’s the story of a guy who decides—impulsively?—to move to California to uh…make money, I guess. “Just like a modern 49er.” He only makes it as far as Atlantic City, though, so he is not successful at his goals. And then he stows away on a train. I love how the horns and the guitar work together in this song. I feel like there should be more songs about people make impulsive, complicated decisions with poor planning and low success rates.
“The One With the Woes All Over It.” Full of “whoa whoa whoas” in the chorus because what’s better than acoustic puns? About what happens when it all ends, and why it ends, and what happened to lead up to it. This isn’t a song that I relate hugely to my own life (it’s another of Dicky’s super-specific songs that’s clearly about one person’s experience), but I enjoy it all the same.
“So Many Ways.” God, I love this song. It was released as the b-side for a single back in the day (by which I mean, 1997 or thereabouts). The guitar is so good. Dicky’s vocals are so good. The lyrics are so good. This is one of those songs that finds its way into a lot of little cracks in my life. It’s not like, ohmygod, I can relate this song to this one big experience I’ve had. Instead, I relate this song to hundreds of little moments and choices that happen all the time. It’s always just below the surface. “There’s so many ways to do this, so many ways I must pick one.” Like you’ve got all these paths in front of you, and several of them might be successful, but when you pick one, the others disappear. “So many ways, I need someone to tell me what it would take to do this. And it’s out there, hell it must be, help me I no longer trust me.”
I no longer trust me. For a guy that I think of as confident, who has clearly made at least a few good decisions in his life and been a success, Dicky talks a lot about not trusting himself. He sings a lot about his own faults. I could probably learn something about giving voice to those doubts without (seemingly) letting them eat my life.
“A Reason to Toast” is another song from the Jackknife era. There’s definitely at least two versions of this song floating around. It’s a song about…toasting. Like what you do at Thanksgiving or at a wedding. And wherever else people raise glasses? You can write about literally anything in this world, kids. Anything can be a song. (That’s its own kind of creative confidence, really, to write a song about celebrating, and channeling those thoughts of celebration into…toasts.) Why are all of you writing songs about girls and loss of girls and how much you love girls and you never want to leave girls when you could be writing about raising glasses in a toast.
“Who’s Foolin’ Who.” This song was on a comp in the late ’90s that I had. Give me a minute and I’ll think of it. It was all ska. It also had the Pilfers on it, which is how I got into the Pilfers, and a Smooths song, which is how I got into the Smooths. “Sure the whole world might be fooled, make sure no one’s foolin’ you.” Fun, bouncy, but slightly nostalgic horns. Dammit what’s the compilation. I could look it up but I don’t want to. It was volumes 3&4 of a comp, the first of which also had the Bosstones on it but came out in like 1990. MASHIN UP THE NATION. Damn straight. That’s it. Such a good comp. If you ever see that floating around on ebay, grab it. I can’t imagine it’s still in print.
“Katie.” About…Dicky’s ex-wife? Ex-girlfriend? Ex-friend? About walking away from someone who has hurt you, someone who sucks up all your energy and just isn’t worth it anymore. Fits thematically with “Over the Eggshells” on Pay Attention (though I don’t actually recall when this song was written/recorded) (edit: I just checked Wikipedia and apparently it was recorded during the Jackknife sessions). About wrapping yourself up in some armor, pulling away from someone that’s hurt you, turning your back, and walking away. A song about self-care, oddly. I take reminders from wherever I can about how it’s actually okay to protect myself.
“This Time of Year.” If anything can get me thinking of a flashing wall of Santas, a stage covered in Christmas lights, pinning myself to the rail in front of the stage, standing in the cold outside for hours…it’s this song. It’s about how December isn’t just about Christmas and holidays and presents and whatever. December is Throwdown time. I can see the stage at the HOB in my head. I’ve got a smile on my face. I’m going to see my friends soon. “This time of year, it gets me and it never lets me act like I don’t care. This time’s my favorite time of year because all of us are here together.” I’ve been saving up for Throwdown since January. And it’s almost here. All of us will be here together. The Bosstones will play this song. And many other songs. And I’ll see my friends. And there will be beer and pizza and friends.
“Chocolate Pudding” is not, as appearances would lead you to believe, a cover song. The Bosstones wrote it, and it’s one of the few songs not sung by Dicky (on lead vocals here is Tim Burton, one of the sax players). Pre-hiatus, this was one of the rarest songs to hear them play live, though I’ve heard it enough post-hiatus that I think some of the shine has worn off. Also, kids, you can write songs about anything. Including chocolate pudding.
Years ago, I made my sister a mix tape of songs that I did not hate (she likes Destiny’s Child and Miley Cyrus and Brittany Spears and car rides with the two of us were not the easiest, from a radio standpoint), and I put this song on it. My sister will now just randomly start singing this song. I am so proud to have gotten my sister to like a Bosstones song (at the time that I made the mix she was really into those snack pack pudding cups). And now we have some common ground. Not over eating pudding (I don’t like pudding that much), but over listening to songs about it.
“Is It?” I love this song. It’s another b-side from the Let’s Face It era. I got it on a CD single, either “Rascal King” or “The Impression That I Get.” It’s about getting all that you wanted…and having that not be everything you hoped for. Joe Sirois has some awesome drum playing in this song. I’m not a drummer, so I don’t even know what the fuck he’s doing or if it’s good compared to other drummers, but I like everything he’s doing here.
Now that I think about it, and now that I’m trying to write about them, I’m realizing that lots of these b-sides have a weird personal feeling to them. I only ever listened to them in my car, usually by myself (my friends did not share my taste in music). The Bosstones didn’t play them live back then. They’re not songs that I ever shared with anyone, not the way that I share the experience of hearing “Devil’s Night Out” live with 2,000 other people, or the way that so many of us Bosstones fans can relate to hearing “Impression” on the radio or on MTV and having that change our lives. A lot of these songs–like “Is It,” like “Storm Hit” (which is not on this album but is an amazing song), like “The Meaning”—feel like they’re just between me and the Bosstones. The fact that a lot of them are demos, a little more raw, a little less layered from a production standpoint, helps with that feeling.
“Thank You For the Records.” A slow song, or at least one that starts slow, as final Bosstones tracks seem to do these last few albums. I don’t know who Dicky is singing “to” in this song—who he’s thanking—but when I sing along, I’m thanking him. I’m thanking the Bosstones.
Thank you for the records.
Thank you for the shows.
Thank you for the music.
Thank you for the friends.
Thank you for the standard you set, how you seem to treat each other and how I know you treat us fans.
Thank you for introducing me to this world of ska and punk and all of the beautiful people who are also here.
Thank you for your generosity.
Thank you for your humor.
Thank you for taking every possible opportunity to take a shit on Spin Magazine.
Thank you for all the wisdom and the common sense.
“Well I’ll tell you one thing that I know. You don’t face your demons down, You gotta grapple ’em, Jack, and pin ’em to the ground.”
–Joe Strummer, “Long Shadow”
Every June, I go to a conference in the mesa country in northern New Mexico. There’s a couple hundred people of all ages, no cell phone signals, sleeping in rustic cabins that have spiders and occasionally rodents, bitey juniper gnats, no cars. It’s great.
The high school and college aged kids stay together in their own building, and most of the rest of us only see them at mealtimes or maybe for an hour or two a day. They do their thing, and their thing is good. In less than a week they assemble and foster a community so strong it carries them the rest of the year (or at least it did, when I was part of that group, and I see no signs that it’s changed with the passage of time. If anything, the creation of social media has helped them keep the community connected over the rest of the year). This year, even though I never saw the kids for more than an hour or two a day, I found myself buoyed up every time I was with them or thought about them. They are such a great and fantastic group of kids (they are not all kids, as the age group goes up to about 22, but I considered myself a kid when I was part of the group and the terminology stuck). Strong and funny, grappling with the world, struggling and dancing and listening to each other. They’re not angels, they’re just regular human teenagers, and they amaze me. I am in awe of them even though/because I know they struggle. I know some of them have mental health issues or substance abuse issues. General life-as-a-teenager issues. Some of them have lost dearly beloved family members, and that shreds you at any age. But they’re stunning people all the same.
It’s hard to even try to describe how happy they make me, partly because there’s no way to do it without sounding hokey, and partly because I’m afraid that if they knew how much someone was watching and enjoying them, it would make them feel self-conscious and weird and they would stop being so fabulous. But they’re the light of the world, okay? They’re great and amazing. I see differences in how I was as a teenager/young adult and how they are now and they are so far ahead of me and so wise. I can’t wait to see these kids run the world. That’s what I was thinking that week, six months ago, in June 2016.
And then on the drive home, still going in and out of cell service, I started checking Twitter and Reddit and found out about the shooting in Orlando that had happened the night before. And just like that, all my rosy and optimistic thoughts about The Youth, they all evaporated, replaced with dread and sorrow and regret.
Because I was supposed to make this world safe for the queer kids of the future, black kids of the future, Latino kids of the future, Muslim kids of the future. I was once The Youth, and I charged myself with changing the world. But I haven’t. We haven’t. Shit like Matt Shepherd’s murder and the shooting at Columbine, those were supposed to be the high water mark of shittery. Not the floor. Michael Brown’s death, Trayvon Martin’s—hell, Emmett Till’s—were supposed to be the cultural turning point. Not the beginning of a new season of violence on black men. And now we have these beautiful kids—queer and not—that are going out into a world that isn’t safe for them. And what do we do? What do I tell them?
So I’ve been carrying that around with me, trying to figure out how to write about it, trying to find some wisdom, and in the meantime 2016 carried on being the oozing Vogon of a year that it is, and now it’s December and some aged orange troll is going to be president and it’s so much worse. I admit that I was one of those who was just waiting for the election to be over, because I assumed that Clinton would win and we could all move on with our lives. I did not give one second of thought to what would happen if Trump won. (This is, incidentally, me showing off my White People Problems, because when I read post-election reactions of PoC on Twitter, I was reminded that African-Americans—particularly older African-Americans—have always known just how racist America is, and that white people still don’t know.) A bunch of old white people who will die before the world fully catches on fire have burdened us (and the world) with a 70-year-old man-baby who may very well destroy the country and/or the planet and/or all the civil rights gains we’ve spent the last 100 years trying to attain, and we’re going to be paying for that decision for decades. Now it feels like I have to fight the battles of my mother and grandmother all over again. And I still don’t know what to tell these kids, these kids who don’t even know how amazing they are.
In my worst moments, I think that maybe we should be raising our kids to be harder. If I had less of a “saving people thing” (as Hermione puts it), if I didn’t care so goddamn much, this wouldn’t be so hard to live through. I know there’s some that do that, that teach their kids to encase themselves behind walls so that the world can’t crush them. But then, I don’t know the difference between hiding your light and extinguishing it. Maybe there isn’t one. I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you, you beautiful kids. I’m sorry. I wanted the world to be different. I assumed it was different. Getting bruised by the world is inevitable, and nobody can keep you safe from that. But now I’m worried that you might just get crushed, and that’s different.
I don’t know what to do to survive this, to fix it.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine when we were 17 or so. She’s social justice-y like me, and in our fabulous teenage naivete we both felt like the larger historical battles against injustice were done. Slavery had been abolished, Jim Crow was over, women could vote and have abortions. It seemed like the last big cultural battle left was gay civil rights, and then after that we’d just mop up some of the leftovers that hadn’t 100% gotten the message about how we do things now, places like Jasper, TX. But, we thought, we could relax. It was done. We just had to finish what had been started, tackle the totally surmountable problems of injustice in Palestine and famine in Africa, and we’d be good. The world would be good.
But progress isn’t inevitable. I learned that this year (more importantly, I learned that that was a thing that I thought was true). There is no moral arc of history, there’s nothing about our culture or species that says we can’t also go backwards, erase everything we did fifty years ago. There’s nothing in our culture or history that is assured. We are stuck in this shitshow for the duration. Water goes over the wheel and right straight back into the same fetid pond.
I don’t know if it’s a silver lining, precisely, but there is one small comfort in the whole “progress is not inevitable” truth: we need you. We won’t be okay without you showing up and demanding better of us. You can’t sit this one out because on some lower level you think it’ll happen with or without you. It won’t happen. We won’t move forward.
So do the thing.
Write the story. Go to the protest or the city council meeting. Start the band. Sign the petition. Plant the garden. There are millions of things that won’t get done unless we do them.
One of my favorite shows is The West Wing. And one of the most famous and quoted pieces of dialogue, from anywhere in the whole series, is in the second season, when Leo (the White House Chief of Staff) convinces Josh (the Deputy Chief of Staff) that it’s okay to need help. That it’s okay to not be okay. This is the story that Leo tells Josh:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
I’ll be honest: I don’t know the way out of the hole. I don’t know if anyone really does. What the United States is trying to accomplish, has been trying to accomplish since our infancy, is knit together many disparate groups into one cohesive and just whole. It’s not something that’s ever been successfully done, on a large scale, in the history of the world.
But I’m in this hole with you. Because you’re my friend. The rest we’ll figure out together.
This is going to be one of those times when I type and post without a whole lot of “simmering time” in between to let my thoughts settle.
I realized this morning that my election hangover is looking a whole lot like how I remember my last major depressive episodes in New York (and that hangover from those is still ongoing). I keep having to remind myself what day it is, what my life expects me to get done. I’m easily frustrated, especially when I’m in transit. I don’t want to hear the news. I don’t want to talk to people. I want to eat sugar instead of actual nutrition. I fall asleep at 8:00 and wake up at 6:30 and don’t feel like I’ve slept (that might be partly the time change). I have Amazon open in another tab on my browser right now, but I don’t remember why I opened it or what I intended to buy (I totally intended to buy something.) I’m getting caught in little obsessive tasks that I have to get done or everything will suck but it won’t get done and I can’t think clearly enough to problem solve or take perspective so I keep doing and doing and doing while my train of thought unravels further.
So. I guess I’m still a little early in this processing game. I did not think that Trump would win. I didn’t even entertain the possibility. I woke up on Wednesday feeling wrung out and couldn’t remember why for a few seconds; then I remembered that I’d spent a lot of Tuesday night crying. And then I remembered why I was crying, and, well.
I just want to watch Chopped and re-read Harry Potter and cuddle my dog and not a whole lot else. But I’m not sure where the line is between self-care and wallowing. A lot of my friends (on social media and in real life) are gearing up to fight, to protect each other. And I love that. And I want to be that. But I fear that I’m just not a fighter, and never have been. I’ve never been a get-out-and-protest sort. So I’m struggling to find what I can do, without feeling like a cop-out, but I haven’t gotten there. I don’t want to be the lame unhelpful weepy white woman. I don’t want to be the person who agrees in spirit but then doesn’t step up when I’m needed. I want to be there for my friends. The line between self-care and privileged opting-out is a thin one. I’m also walking the line between chaotic over-exposure to news and hurtedness and hiding under my covers. I keep waiting for clarity, for impetus, but my sneaking suspicion is that I’m going to have to find it on my own and I’ve never been good at that.
So I don’t know if I can hit the streets. I can write, and I can talk online, but that feels so small and petty and useless. I don’t want to get used to this new world. I don’t want to keep fighting these fights. I don’t want to keep having the same discussions and arguments about privilege that I was having a month ago. (This is part of my perspective from my own privilege, I guess: I was having these conversations a month ago, and I’m still having them today, even though the world feels different, the world is the same. Nobody is surprised by the racism of white people except white people.)
I kinda like the fighter who’s telling himself to get up off the mat even though his head’s spinning and his vision is black at the edges and he can’t feel his limbs. But I have to get up because behind me are people who are hurting so so so much worse.
Okay. Onward. Might be back with something more coherent and less pathetic later.
“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival
I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.