(Okay, but seriously, me making a timely post within two weeks of the actual time? I am fucking on it, you guys.)
Thank you, to all the vigilant/anxious/conscientious people in 2020 who worked really hard to make wearing a mask and not leaving home the norm in 2020. It helped. I’m a person who wants to be vigilant and do the right thing, but ultimately I’m also lazy, and keeping my attention on something in a consistent way for weeks and weeks and weeks and months is impossible for me to do if I’m not around other people who are also doing it. (I don’t know if this is typical? If people in low-compliance areas would wear masks if it was more the norm? In some ways I notice myself being really susceptible to just rolling along with what everyone else is doing; in some ways I’m super ornery.) Surrounded by different people (or surrounded by no people), I know I would have continued to wear a mask, but I’m not sure if I would have stayed out of restaurants. I maybe would have forgotten about staying away from people at the grocery. I might have given up on social distancing at work. I would have just made doctors’ appointments and dental appointments and kept going to starbucks. I admit I did keep going to get my hair cut, partly because I couldn’t stand it and partly because my stylist owns her own business, but that was one of the only “That’s a really stupid thing you’re doing” things I did all year, and on balance…well, at least I didn’t have to pay a price for it.
Throughout this whole thing, I’ve underestimated the danger and the longevity of it. I started getting anxious about my work needing to shut down only a day or two before it actually did. I didn’t really think, in April and May, that we’d be settling in for doing the whole year like this, even though people said we would. I am still only half-believing the people who are saying that we need to be prepared for this to be our life for another six months. By this time I know to trust other people and not my instincts, and that my disbelief/disunderstanding is probably more self-preservation than anything else.
Thanks to the people who tweeted about non-instacart grocery ordering apps. Thanks to the people who tweeted about mental health and the agony of combining grief with waiting. Thanks to the people who normalized Saying No To Everything. Thanks to the people who gave me words with which to say, “No, I’m not doing that right now/this year/etc.” Thanks to the people who figured out how to have writer’s conferences online. And movie parties online. Thanks to the people who made me feel guilty for even considering doing a thing, which then steered me away from doing that thing. Thank you to the people who know that human life matters, and that all the lives we lost this year mattered, and that they all left holes behind. Thank you for making pushing back against boomer parents who still want to go to restaurants and to church a thing that we can do with love and humor and compassion.
Thank you to the pets, the dogs and the cats and bunnies and bearded dragons and iguanas and chickens and whatever, who made staying home a tolerable project. Thank you to the lady who let me keep coming over to watch her dog and hang out with him even though she probably didn’t need to. Thanks to the dogs for giving me a reason to leave the house, walk around, and look at the sky. Thanks for keeping me company on zoom meetings. And for interrupting zoom meetings. Thank you for the snuggles, for collapsing across my lap so thoroughly and heavily that my legs fell asleep.
If you still exist in the world and are reading this, thank you. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’ve survived this long. Thank you for helping all the people that you helped. I’m glad you kept on as best you could. I hope you have something good to look forward to in 2021.
Thank you to all the activists who took to the streets in 2020, risking literal life and limb to do so. Thank you for telling your stories. Thank you for telling me what were the good orgs to donate money to. I hope in 2021 we can make progress on defunding police and treasuring black life, and not have to take to the streets and protest every time the police kill a black person.
And to thousands of firefighters, across a dozen states, who left their families (in the middle of a pandemic) to fight the worst wildfires ever (during a pandemic). Thank you for working to keep the homes of total strangers safe. I’m really sorry that the season was so long, and hard, and relentless. I hope you’ve had a few good nights’ sleep since October.
Thank you to the people who gave me stories to read, listen to, play, or watch in 2020. Thank you to everyone who figured out how to find the bandwidth to do creative things in 2020. Thank you especially to the people who made things lighthearted and compassionate, things that seemed as far away from 2020 as possible.
Thanks to the kids, the little ones. I know that in a lot of ways you don’t even know how fucking weird this year was. Thank you for being adaptable, for being bouncy and bubbly and bringing us all up with you. I know that I spent a lot of the year wishing that everything would be less noisy, but the truth is, if you were less noisy, I would be a whole lot sadder. Thank you for continuing to find fun and excitement even within all of this nonsense of a year. I hope I was able to support you in a way that was helpful.
Here’s to 2021 being better in any number of ways than 2020.
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?
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”
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.
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.
I get off the gondola at the top of the hill and walk, carrying my snowboard, to the Schoolmarm trailhead. I take the gondola to the top as much as I can because de-boarding from a ski lift on my board still scares me (my fear is also justified; I fall over on maybe 4 of 6 attempts).
The top of the mountain is cold, and windy. Hard little bullets of snow hit my cheeks and fall into the collar of my coat. I walk to the top of the run, sit on a bench, and buckle my feet onto my board. Before I stand, I look around me, down the slope, readying myself to get up, telling myself that I can stand up and maintain control, that I won’t immediately go shooting down the mountain like a water slide.
This is my third time snowboarding this year, after fifteen years away from the mountains. The first time, I wouldn’t say I white-knuckled it, exactly. I butt-clenched it, sliding on my heel edge, staring straight down the hill, all my muscles from my hips down tense and shaking with the effort of keeping me upright. I didn’t do turns, I didn’t shift to my toe edge, I was afraid to build up speed. I had a tendency to fall on my rear. The act of snowboarding wasn’t fun, exactly–it was exhilirating, sure, and I was with my friend Christine and she’s fun, but I was too afraid of falling to loosen up at all. (I did fall, of course. The next morning all of my muscles hurt and my knees were multi-colored.)
But I went back another day, and took a lesson. Learned about placing my weight and how to hold myself (for instance: not like a rock) and where to look (up, up, always up), and how to make turns. I still fell, but it was in service of learning, not from trying to stand still while sliding downwards.
And now, here I am, ready to board down all three and a half miles of Schoolmarm. I’m still stiff and clumsy, and I have to think about every turn before I make it, but there’s also these moments where I’m sliding along, feeling comfortable and relaxed, feeling like there’s butter under my board, like there aren’t any edges that might catch on the snow and set me on my ass. And when I’m tired, I can sit on the slope and look at the mountains and the sky and take deep breaths and listen to the silence.
During the lesson that I took, my teacher showed us how to do flat 360s (spin in a circle without jumping off the ground), and to my enormous surprise I master it immediately. I do it until I’m dizzy, giggling and giddy, spinning in circles on a mountain slope.
I got a new job last year, and with that came an affordable gym membership, so I’ve been trying to supplement my running with gym classes and lifting. It has also, somewhat unexpectedly, been a place for me to battle with my anxiety, and my fear of being seen (to be more specific, to be seen doing something poorly or looking stupid in some way). The gym classes are all in a big room lined on two facing walls with mirrors. The weight area always has other people in it, and it feels like they’re all lifting more than me, like they all know than me. Intellectually I know that this is wrong, but my anxiety brain is full of people watching me. Getting into the gym sometimes is like waiting for Argus, with his thousand eyes and hypervigilance, to go to sleep. Some days I would fall asleep in my car instead of going inside. Some days I would change into my gym clothes, then sit in a chair and kill time on my phone instead of going to use the equipment. Some days I tell myself to just get on the exercise bike, because if I can do that for twenty minutes I can usually talk myself into doing something else. Some days I’ll do squat but then decide that I can’t do deadlift, not today, no thanks.
I didn’t always used to be actively afraid of the gym, though when I look back on what I was doing in the gym at the time, it was almost always treadmill or pool. Challenging myself with new things—and, at the same time, becoming afraid of all of those things—is something that happened after I left New York City, when I was sad and broken and felt far away from everyone.
When I was a student at Columbia, there was a gym on campus that students could use. The cost was folded into our tuition. At first, I went because hey, free gym. At some point I started going because I think I could sense that my mental state was not the best, but exercise is supposed to be good for depression. So I would go. I took a step aerobics kind of class, and tae kwon do, and ran around the quarter-mile loop that was in the center of the gym. Maybe that’s when the anxiety started to amp: the classroom where step aerobics and tae kwon do happened were in the center of the gym, with big walls of windows; the track was immediately around that, and the outer ring was the weight machines and treadmills and stationary bikes. It was easy to feel like you were being watched, but hard to see if you actually were. Also, I wasn’t going to the gym because it was fun and I wanted to; I was going because I felt like I should. And I was going to step aerobics feeling incapable of dancing, incapable of moving with any pep, any grace. I’ve never been a great dancer, but this was a whole other level. I felt like I was sleepwalking through gym class. Everything felt slow. Everything felt stupid. Everything felt unsuccessful. I always stood at the back (against the windows) and when class was over, escaped as soon as I could. I never spoke to anyone. I was a ghost.
So here I am, five years later, not feeling like a ghost anymore, but still feeling haunted by one. Still feeling the specter of Argus’ eyes.
It does get better. After almost a year in the gym, I found a program and I’m following it and that gives me something to lean on, something to focus on besides all the weight I’m not lifting, all the people who are (not) staring at me. Usually, these days, when I say, “I’m going to the gym after work,” I actually get there. And one happy side effect to global warming is that I’m still running in parks a few times a week, even though it’s December. I also made significant headway on a project at work, which was a big contributor to the “You’re dumb everyone’s going to find out you’re dumb and then they’re going to take your job away from you” feelings that I was having all fall.
Maybe someday soon I’ll feel that gliding feeling with my writing, that coasting-along-while-you-stare-at-the-sky feeling. That’s the feeling that I’m waiting for. But until then, I have to accept that I will suck until I don’t. That some days it will feel like pulling a car out of a lake with nothing but my bare hands. That I have to sit through some boredom and not knowing what I want to say. I might be bad at all kinds of things, but I’m trying really hard to not let that stop me.
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.
Say hello to the random baby otter that I downloaded from somewhere on the internet and put into my pictures folder and then forgot about.
So, life has clearly been getting in the way a little bit, and I need to build my writing habit back up. This entry is partly a placeholder and a statement of intention, and partly a public service advisory, in case anyone reads this at all: This blog might suck for a little bit.
I’m remembering when I was good at updating my blog, and what’s going on in my life then–and when I’m bad at updating (or keeping up with life generally) and what that looks like. And one of the things that it looks like is general fear of failure, of being self-conscious, and of knowing that I can do better. There are times when I can’t do anything because the fear of doing something badly is worse than the fear of not doing anything at all.
So, this isn’t going to become like my old livejournal or anything, where I habitually made entries that were one or two sentences long (I have Twitter for that now). But I may make more entries that make you go, “Why did she think we’d be interested in this?” And the answer is, I don’t think you’re interested. I need to just…not worry about writing things that are interesting, and just write things. So, bear with me. And sorry about that.
This is the final installment of my four-part series on a concert festival I went to when I was twenty. For the first entry, along with a more detailed explanation of why I’m posting such a thing, go here.
I Ran All The Way Home (Doo wah doo wah doo)
The conversation the next morning consisted almost entirely of groans of exhaustion and pain. We were all sunburned (I think Dan, Joe, and me took prizes for the worst), and Andy had sprained his ankle somehow, and the everyone was sore from eight hours of dancing and standing on concrete. We all wanted to go home and talked Dan out of bungee jumping, but had to stop for souvenirs at the World’s Largest Souvenir Shop, and eat breakfast (steak for breakfast! Okay then, Vegas) so it was past 10:00am by the time we got going.
Conversation faded in and out, mostly restricted to what needed to be talked about. We would stop for gas and get out and talk a bit and get revived, but as soon as we got back in the car the conversation would fade away. We were all tired and kind of cranky, too tired even for post-ska exuberance. But it was stored away, we’d take it out and think about it and then put it away.
“We should do this again next year, only spend more time in Vegas.”
“Catch 22 needs to play next year.”
“And the Mad Caddies. And Less Than Jake.”
“And the Pietasters.”
“And the Smooths. Well, if they got back together.”
“Or did a reunion show like Attaboy Skip this year.” (If there’s any former members of the Smooths reading this, one more tour, please, just one.)
We got through Utah without incident, hitting 128mph in Andy’s car and passing a van that had “Ska Summit 2003” written on the back window in soap. As soon as the sun sank behind Utah, I fell asleep.
One Week Later
April 6, 2003
I finally got a decent night’s sleep on about Thursday (we’d driven back to Denver on Sunday). I’m writing this sitting at Action Shot’s band practice. Life is back to its regular routine. I told everyone my Ska Summit stories, but left out the total exhaustion part because that’s not what sticks in your head. The image that comes to mind is the Toasters onstage, Bucket (guitar player/lead singer) bobbing back and forth on the balls of his feet like he does, his eyes shut against the bright stage lights; Jack Ruby (other lead vocals) rolling around onstage and throwing things at Sledge. Sledge looking angry and then, at the last minute, breaking into a grin. Dave Waldo, the keys player, hoisting his keyboard onto his shoulder like a boombox. The saxophone player and the trombone player dancing, holding their horns away from their bodies; the people around me gently bumping shoulders as we danced.
“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” –Leo Babauta
I feel like my twenties was spent accumulating Stuff, and my thirties is going to be spent getting rid of it. I’m a writer, and accumulate paper at an alarming rate. I get supplies and ephemera and things, and plan to do projects that end up being stuffed into boxes. Instead of making a list of books I wanted to read someday, for awhile (because I worked in a bookstore that gave me a 30% discount) I would just buy the book and put it in a crate, planning to get to it eventually. This system may work great if you’re not already a busy person with a tendency to procrastinate, but I am not that person. Besides that, my living space never expanded to accommodate all my Stuff like I thought it would. Turns out that not everyone’s economic situation is a steadily increasing upward climb after college. I think I figured that by the time I got to my 30s, my living space would have expanded and stabilized, but that’s just not how life worked out. And so now I wonder why I have all this Stuff, why I pack it up and haul it around to a new living space every two to three years, why I step over it in my bedroom, why I trip over it in the dark, why I breathe in the dust it collects. I’m finally looking at fitting my stuff into the space I have, instead of the other way around. (And yes, it is capitalized in my head, this Stuff that I probably don’t need and yet don’t get rid of.)
A milkcratefull ofscratchpaper. Anoldmicrowave. Sixbagsofclothesandtowels. Abashed-upfuton. Fourpairsofshoes.
After my dad had to clean out his mom’s house after she died, he came home and started emptying out his own crawl space and filing cabinets and closets, so that me and my brother won’t have to someday. Hurricane Katrina took care of the problem at my other grandmother’s house. When I was a kid, I used to lie awake at night fearing that my house would catch fire (the school unit that was meant to empower me in case of emergency had the effect of opening my eyes to a manner of death and destruction I hadn’t, to that point, realized was possible), and I would make lists in my head of what I needed to take out of the house with me. I keep reading about Syrian refugees, millions of them, leaving behind everything they can’t carry. People fleeing from wildfires. Zombie apocalypse stories that reduce humanity to its bones. The problem of electrifying India and China while not cooking the planet. Why do I carry all this stuff. The objects, the lists, the tasks, the anxiety. The stuff. It’s all ephemeral anyway. Just one fire away from being ash and memories. Just one hurricane away from being black sludge. How much of it do I really really need?
A DSLR camera. An electric guitar. A 12×1 amp. A saxophone. A 12-channel mixer. Old artsupplies. Old blankbooks.
This isn’t entirely the way I was raised. My parents are tidy people, my dad especially is budget-minded, and they didn’t just buy stuff willy-nilly. But neither did they throw anything away that might be useful (or rather, in the case of my dad, he doesn’t buy anything that he doesn’t think he can get at least ten years of good use out of). They didn’t police my own ability to control my bedroom space and accumulate possessions. Even as a little kid, I liked garage sales. I grew up reading Ranger Rick and its elementary-level precautions against how fast we’re filling up all of our landfills. So for as long as I can remember, I have been both surrounded by stuff and worried about it. Full bookshelves, full garages, full crawl spaces, full drawers of random crap that don’t have a place. I used to keep a milk crate full of paper that was blank on one side that I used as scratch paper. I carted it around for over ten years; it turned into a sort of sediment record of my academic career going all the way back to high school. I finally chucked it out last summer. As a friend of mine said, if you haven’t used it in ten years, you’re not going to use it. So out it went. And now it’s one less thing, physically and mentally, to carry around.
I was raised in Quakerism, and one of Quakerism’s founding principles is Simplicity. The definition I was told as a child, that I’ve always connected to, is that Simplicity isn’t about the amount of stuff you have or don’t have. And it’s not even necessarily about how busy you are, something that those of us in the 21st century probably find comforting. The way Simplicity was explained to me is that you need to have space in your brain and your heart to be able to listen to God in your life. For me, it happens to be true that a cluttery living space contributes to a cluttery headspace and a cluttery religious practice. On the other hand, some of the most cluttered houses I was around growing up were houses owned by Quakers, because we tend to save everything in the hope that it might be useful someday. It took me a long time to realize that I can’t save stuff hoping I’ll use it someday. It takes up too much space in my head. When I imagine my best living space, or when I try to imagine my life feeling caught up and simple, I’m in something like a log cabin with no extraneous furniture and simple tasks to do and I just move through life, doing one thing at a time. I keep daydreaming about putting my stuff in storage and going and teaching English in Japan, or even just getting a long haul trucker’s license and living in the cab of a truck with a dog and a small bookshelf with books and a laptop. (My need to collect books will probably forever stand in the way of my desire to live in a tiny cabin with no extraneous possessions.)
How much of my life is just extraneous? What could I do without? The vast majority of it. Easily. The question is, will I do without it because I want to, or will I wait until I have to, until the entropy of the universe takes my decision to own stuff out of my hands?
Paystubsfrom 2005. Old pots and pans from Wal-Mart. Three boxes ofbooks. Two boxes ofoldmagazines. Old candles.
Why do I save objects thinking I’ll use them someday? Wouldn’t it be better if I sent it back out into the world where someone who might be able to use it now could maybe find it? As a country, we’re drowning in stuff. We could stop producing jeans and shirts and shoes right now any everyone would still be able to walk around fully clothed for years. 40% of the food purchased nationwide gets thrown away. The problem of people not having stuff isn’t a problem of resources; it’s a problem of distribution. As I get used to being able to find everything online, and at my local library, trying to build my own archive of useful Stuff seems like a futile endeavor. I don’t have the time or the space or the filing system.
And so, a little at a time, stuff has gone out the door. To Goodwill and onto Amazon and ebay and into Little Free Library boxes and used book stores. I still have a box of records (music records I mean) to sell on ebay. I could probably stand to get rid of more clothes. I can’t quite stand to get rid of my old Nintendo, even though I don’t have anything to plug it into. There’s another drawer of audio cables and chargers that I could chuck out. These days, ironically, my problem is cardboard boxes, which I don’t want to throw out because I could fill them with stuff I’m throwing out, but I’m not sure now if I have more cardboard boxes than stuff to put in them.
Piles of bumper stickers that I don’t have a car to put them on. My childhood dog’s collar. A box of Mardi Gras necklaces.
I’ve been reading books like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, listening to podcasts like The Minimalists, to get me in the right mindset to throw stuff out. I’m realizing that material simplicity–the sort of simplicity where you approach your possessions and schedule with mindfulness and intention instead of just automatically going wherever your impulses lead you–is one of those things that you approach entirely differently depending on your income level aand class privilege. What, for some folks, is a way to improve their life is for other people just life. I had an economic upbringing that was set to a packrat/accumulation default, and much of my adulthood has been spent unlearning that behavior (it says something about the creepy power of American culture that I learned this behavior in spite of my parents’ best efforts to teach me otherwise). If you don’t have money to buy that book you want to read, even at a 30% discount, you don’t buy the damn book. If you don’t have a closet or floor space in which to cram all your scrapbook supplies (that you had the money to buy), you don’t even start out with crafting supplies and half-done projects.
But even more than that, minimalism as a philosophy has a certain class-based bias. Maria Kondo, the tidying guru of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, recommends that throwing things out be the default setting, and that you only keep things that give you joy. Alright, okay. One of her anecdotes involves getting rid of a screwdriver, and then trying to use other household objects in the place of the screwdriver, before deciding that life really needs screwdrivers and buying another one. The idea of throwing away (or giving to Goodwill) a perfectly good screwdriver and not replacing it until I find a joy-causing screwdriver is bonkers to me. The fact that the Minimalists (bloggers Josh and Ryan) left extremely well-paying corporate careers to be bloggers, and to have that blog be about the joy of less stuff, is bonkers. Most of us can’t leave our jobs, no matter how much we want to. I just started listening to the Minimalists podcast, and on one level I love the idea and the content and the process, but on another level I really hope they acknowledge at some point that just the fact that they were able to make that choice at all is an extraordinary level of privilege and class and education in and of itself. I have maybe $200 left in my bank account at the end of every month; no way can I quit my job and be a blogger. They talk about their desire, early on their minimalism journey, to quit their jobs and be baristas. My reaction (because I was a barista for ten years) was, “Yeah, that’s not living simply, that’s just being poor.” What’s the difference between being poor and living simply? Even being a barista is a manifestation of privilege, because it means you’ve spent time in coffee shops, which means you have an extra $5 a day to spend on coffee and muffins. Nobody ever advocates quitting your corporate job for the joy of being a Wal-Mart greeter, even though the two probably pay roughly the same. The Minimalists said no to $10k a month by refusing to put ads on their site. I don’t know how much either of them has that they can say no to $10k a month, but holy shit, I would love $10k a month. Almost anyone would, and it’s not because we’re greedy or have no values, it’s because so many Americans feel fucking broke all the time.
But, y’know, maybe I could. Because that’s the thing, when I’m annoyed by shit like this, it’s often either because I recognize myself in this classist weirdness, or because I want to. I want a website that’s popular enough that someone will give me $10k per month for ads. I’d do that for six months, pay off all my debts, donate money to a scholarship fund for kids who don’t have money for college, and then go back to my ad-free model. I want to be the asshole that considers being a barista to be artful and working at Wal-Mart to be drudgery. I want to make choices about my life, not have those choices made for me either by economic limits or by cultural inertia. And one of the deepest inertias, one of the biggest lies told to us, is that we don’t have choices about things that we actually have a choice about.
I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve been working on this entry for weeks, and while it’s gotten longer, I don’t think I’ve reached any more clarity on the whole thing. Maybe I should just stuck with throwing stuff out, and not thinking about the lifestyle implications.
I’ve been reading Columbine, by Dave Cullen. It was published in 2009, but I put off reading it, because I have this weird disconnect in my head when it comes to Columbine stuff. I both want to know everything, to try and understand, but whenever I think about it for long I go into my 17-year-old headspace of being confused and angry and other emotions that I don’t understand. So mostly I avoid Columbine stuff. But recently, Sue Klebold (Dylan Klebold’s mother) released a memoir, and I read that, and decided to finally read Columbine while I was on a roll, so to speak. (If you want to read other thoughts of mine on school shootings, I wrote an entry after the shooting in 2013 at Arapahoe High School here.)
So I’m reading this book. About the murderers and about the victims and what happened that day. And before and after. And something struck me.
When Cassie Bernall was 13 or 14, she went through a bad bout of depression (my word, not Cullen’s). She threatened to commit suicide, she cut herself, hit her head against walls and bathroom counters. In a journal that her parents found after she died, Cassie said, “I cannot explain in words how much I hurt. I didn’t know how to deal with this hurt, so I physically hurt myself.” Cassie’s family was(is) deeply Christian, so their method of coping with this behavior, after consulting with their minister, was to pull Cassie out of public school and put her in a private Christian school, take away the phone in her room, and basically forbid all activities that weren’t church- or youth group-related. This strategy worked, and Cassie stabilized enough that they let her return to public school when she was a freshman, to Columbine High School. She said that she wanted to bring the word of Christ into the public school.
A little over a year before the massacre at Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were arrested for theft. They broke into a parked van and stole some electronics equipment out of it. They’d gotten in trouble a few times before this, the sort of trouble that involves parents and school administrators, not the police. But getting arrested for anything when you’re 17 is a big deal in suburban white-collar Littleton, so both sets of parents took it seriously. Eric Harris’ parents, in particular, besides grounding him and taking away his computer and the usual punitive parental things, sent him to a psychiatrist who got him started on anti-depressants (both boys were sent to counseling as part of their sentencing, but Harris’ dad was apparently moving towards putting his son into therapy within days of his arrest). Both boys completed their court-ordered Diversion program, and Harris was on his full dose of antidepressants right up until his death (as shown by his autopsy).
So. These kids. All with significant emotional and/or behavioral issues. All at Columbine High School.
One family did the textbook version of “everything right.” Sent their kid to therapy, tried to get underlying causes diagnosed, let legal consequences stand. The other went with a strategy that would strike a lot of people as abusive or harmful, or, at the very least, not helpful. But two kids ended up murderers, and the other kid ended up murdered.
I’m not trying to make a broad point about either of these treatment options, if we can call them that. Eric Harris got sent to therapy, and it didn’t help him; but Dylan didn’t ever go to a therapist outside of his court-ordered counseling, but he probably had depression and was definitely suicidal (as evidenced by journals found after his death), and getting properly diagnosed and treated could have made an enormous difference to him–and, by extension, an enormous difference to the people he ended up terrorizing. Similarly, just because Cassie’s outward mood and demeanor changed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was no longer depressed or that she wasn’t still in need of treatment besides whatever comfort she found in church. If she’d lived, she may have had a recurrence once she went off to college. She could have been faking happiness so that she could leave her house and use the telephone (I have some friends who have diagnoses of depression who think she was doing exactly that). Or, maybe she really did feel better, feel loved, feel like she was a person of value. I don’t know. I know that Leelah Alcorn, when subjected to a similar parental plan of therapy-by-Christianity, ended up killing herself by stepping out into freeway traffic. I also know that my own religious community has been a comfort to me when precious little else has. I also know that there doesn’t seem to be a reason why either of those outcomes happened. Why Cassie chose one direction and Dylan chose another.
If anything, I guess I’m making a broad point about how scary humans are, not to mention how scary it is to be one, especially when adolescence and mental illness manifest at the same time. I’m not a psychologist by any sense of the imagination. I’m also not a parent. It just seems insane, the leap of faith parents have to make. You can pretend all you want that kids are a computer, that behavior is a science, that when you input Software Program A into Port 1, it will update the drivers and your beta human will respond and improve in a predictable, quantifiable way. And that just isn’t how it works. I know that every parent knows this in a way that I don’t, but also, it seems like one of those things that’s easier to deal with if you just don’t think about it. I don’t know how you decide on a course of action when the potential consequences range from “everything fixed” to “dead kid.” I don’t know how you do that.
The scary thing, the risky thing, is that I think the strategy that has the best chance of working is anything that brings people closer. That broadens a community and brings more people in. And I’m not talking anymore just about school shooters, but anything to lessen the violence we humans seem to inflict on each other. You need to be an empathic person in order to make a commitment to not hurt people, and some people can’t be taught that no matter what, but some people (most people?) just need to be reminded. But you never know who’s who until you try, and that’s the hard part. The part where you’re asked to risk literally everything for an outcome that has no real assurance of actually happening. When you’re in a situation that your culture and your upbringing and your education and your experience with humans has not prepared you for, you have to trust a human and put your faith in them, and humans–for all the power that our religious institutions have these days–are actually really bad at having faith and trusting each other.