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This place matters

Saturday, October 13, 2018

On Wednesdays we wear blue

I've got a beef about liberals for once. And since I'm only preaching to the choir anyway, here it is: stop acting like god damn playground bullies. Now I'm not talking about real, passionate acts of protest - I firmly believe the world needs more people brave enough to shout at senators in elevators, not fewer. I'm not talking about things like kneeling during the anthem either - if you can't see this gesture as the reverent form of peaceful protest that it is intended to be, then I don't know what to say to you. Climbing statues and confronting elected officials in public and committing acts of civil disobedience are all, to me, not just brave, but necessary if we're to bring about change, if we're to draw attention to the real folks being hurt every day by the toxic policies of the people in power. That's not what I'm talking about when I'm talking about bullying.
No. I'm talking about this sort of nonsense that liberals on social media post in every political argument and in response to every Trump tweet.


Like, just stop. After 2 years in office, we've all heard allll the Trump tiny dick jokes. They're not making anyone laugh, they're not convincing anyone of anything, they're just making us look childish and dumb and inarticulate and like we're unable to support our opinions with sound reasoning and logic. Personal attacks, name calling, all that, they're like big neon signs announcing "I have nothing of substance to say." That's not helpful. 
And for god's sake stop it with this horseshit:

Joking about how homophobes are secretly gay is not only infantile, the joke is built around the notion that being gay is fundamentally shameful, so that in attempting to scold someone for homophobia, you are, in fact, spreading homophobia. Members of the gay community have repeatedly asked straight "allies" - including Handler specifically - repeatedly to stop it with this lame punchline. Dude, if you're straight, freaking listen to the people you're supposedly allies with and just don't. If not because it perpetuates shame then because IT IS A VERY TIRED OLD JOKE AND NOT FUNNY TO ANYONE FOR GOD'S SAKE WRITE SOME NEW MATERIAL.

Y'all, we're supposed to be the good guys, and yet the "r" word gets tossed around freely by liberals in every big Twitter debate I happen upon. The other day someone on a local activism group I belong to used the word "republitard." Dude, that is so wrong. 1, because it's deeply offensive, and 2. because it's the stupidest sounding insult I've ever heard. What the hell is even wrong with you? Do your mommy and daddy know you're playing with the computer? 

To the liberals who are contributing to public debates with tired memes and grade school insults, I say please, please stop making us look like idiots. Just, go yell at people on a Twilight fan site or something. Social media offers us an opportunity unprecedented in the history of the world to have real, substantive discourse with people we'd never meet or interact with otherwise, people we have a chance of reaching an understanding with. But we can't do that with a bunch of bozos jumping up and down screaming stupid insults and seeing who can post the most offensive picture with text on it.

What I'm saying is: quiet down now. The grown ups are trying to have a conversation. 


Yes, this was triggered by the whole Kanye West thing. I don't have any special affection for the dude, except that his crazy speaks to my crazy. Like, I'm not qualified to diagnose what's going on with Kanye specifically, but I can say that people with mania often get to where they just can't stop talking, but they can't form a coherent sentence, and they jump from subject to subject, and it's near impossible to follow what they're saying. It's so frustrating and scary to feel this incredible urgency to communicate something and to have no one understand a word you're saying, and it makes me feel really sad that Kanye seems to be doing exactly that while all of society points and laughs and calls him stupid and uneducated and a minstrel and an uncle tom and worse. 
It doesn't make me sad for Kanye, so much as it makes me sad for all the people like me, who are getting to hear loud and clear what society really thinks of people like us.
The only acceptable mean Trump meme.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Kyrie eleison

I admit I fit the angry feminist stereotype a little too well (though in my defense, I wouldn't be nearly so angry if men would just stop pissing me off). I'm not quite angry, enough, however, to be turning cartwheels over the fact that New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma lost his job after publishing the drooling train wreck of an essay that was Jian Ghomeshi's Reflections from a Hashtag or whatever it was called. But then Buruma gave an interview where he complained that he'd been "publicly pilloried without due process," rather ironically. And then I stopped feeling remotely bad for dude at all. What I find especially astounding about the statement is that, in drawing, albeit indirectly, a comparison between Ghomeshi and himself, he's still clearly got no understanding of the severity of Ghomeshi's crimes. Oh, poor me, I'm just like that guy who almost certainly beat women about the head during sex and defended myself by showing my boss a video of me breaking a woman's rib. But that's not what this post is about. 
But Ghomeshi's poorly-written literary enema of an essay has me thinking whether the misdeeds of monstrous men preclude them from ever having a voice again. Is there a path to redemption, forgiveness? Is there an essay that a hashtag could write that I'd have any interest in reading?
Yeah. Yeah, I think there is. Louis CK revolutionized comedy with this self-aware, introspective style. He used humor to point out flaws in himself and flaws in society that maybe changed our perspectives for the better, a bit. Which is why it's baffling to know that he was having those insights while actively engaging in sexually predatory behavior behind the scenes. I don't know that he deserves to ever show his face in public again. But if he wrote an introspective and honest essay about trying to re-earn the love and respect of his daughters in the face of what he'd done, I'd read it. If there were no lies or obfuscations or excuses, if he made genuine public and private apologies to his victims, if he said what he was doing to atone, it wouldn't earn back my respect and I'd certainly never pay to watch anything he was in, but I'd read the essay. I wouldn't be mad at whoever published it.
If Roman Polanski came back to the States and turned himself over to the authorities, served the prison term he was sentenced to before he left the country, if after doing that he wrote an essay about his rape of Samantha Geimer, I might read it. If he talked without making himself seem like a hero about why he chose to come home and face the music, if he talked about how he now understands how evil he was in drugging and raping a grade-schooler, I wouldn't be angry that it was published. If he spoke, without excuses, about the forces that make men feel entitled to the bodies of unwilling women and girls, and how we can combat that sort of evil, I'd be okay with that. I still wouldn't watch any of his movies, but I'd read the essay.
If Sherman Alexi wanted to spend some years working behind the scenes at a charity that addresses the quiet epidemic of rape and sexual assault against Native women that made his own crimes so nefarious - the same number of years he got away with sexually assaulting Native women, for instance - and then maybe personally bankrolled a collection of work from the Native women who he himself harassed or assaulted, then I'd be okay with someone publishing another of his books. I wouldn't read it, certainly, but I wouldn't boycott the publisher. 
People keep talking about how there needs to be a path to redemption for men who do evil things. That it isn't fair for men who commit sex crimes to be punished forever. I'm not sure that's true. If a guy has a job at a bank and gets caught stealing money, he's never going to get a job at a bank again and nobody's going to cry for him over it. If an ordinary person commits an act of serious malfeasance at their job, they can expect to have a hell of a hard time finding work in their field, or possibly in any other, for a long time. If we're not crying over the lady who can't get a job as a fry cook because she mugged somebody ten years ago, why are we crying over Louis CK, who will probably be able to scrape by for a while on the $52,000,000 he earned in 2017 alone? Or the CBC radio host who was replaced by someone with a resume just as impressive as his who had also managed to never show their employer a video of themselves beating the living shit out of someone?
Maybe these guys do deserve a shot at redemption, do deserve to not lose everything. I don't know. But I do know this: forgiveness must be earned, and it can't be earned with a half-assed apology and a self-serving essay. To be redeemed, a person must, at the very least, demonstrate that they understand that what they have done was wrong, that they are making amends to their victims, that they are making amends to their public. Forgiveness should ideally follow the words that so few of these men - not Louis, not Ghomeshi, have actually said: "I'm sorry." 
Photo by me

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Beyond the hashtag

Recently, Sean Penn said that the purpose of the #MeToo movement is to divide men and women, because for some reason a reporter thought that the man who almost certainly beat Madonna in the head with a baseball bat gets a say in any of this. Penn went on to say that the movement is "shouldered by a receptacle of the salacious," whatever in the holy hell that's supposed to mean - but I guess Penn would know from salacious, considering he almost certainly also tied Madonna to a chair, beat her for several hours, left her alone bound and gagged while he went out to get more booze, then came back and beat her some more, before she finally escaped out a bathroom window. Madonna has remained protective of Penn for reasons passing understanding, but there are police reports, hospital records, first-hand accounts, and a criminal conviction. If Penn is innocent, Madonna went to a hell of a lot of trouble to frame him, only to un-frame him later.
Serial abuser Jian Ghomeshi recently slithered out from whatever pit he's been hiding in since losing his job at the CBC a few years back, and the New York Review of Books inexplicably decided that anybody on earth needed to hear this guy's story. The essay is a weepy and maudlin woe-is-me where he claims to have learned his lesson, despite not actually admitting to or apologizing for anything. The piece was filled with obvious lies and obfuscations that the NYRB would have discovered with nothing more than a Google search. Of course, in order to fact-check the story, one would have to be even passingly familiar with the crimes with which Ghomeshi was charged - in an interview with Slate, NYRB editor Ian Buruma makes it clear that he didn't even know that much. Cliff notes version: Jian got off on beating women in the head and choking them unconscious. He says all of the head beating and choking was consensual - the women whose heads he beat beg to differ. He attempted to "prove his innocence" to officials at the CCB by showing them a sexually explicit video of him beating a woman so hard he cracked her rib - which he says is okay because it was consensual. So, you know, just your friendly neighborhood misunderstood totally innocent dude.
You may have heard Louis CK gave a surprise performance at a comedy club, receiving a standing ovation and praise from alleged #MeToo supporters like Michael Ian Black, who is dead to me. And to the rest of the world, honestly. Who even knew that guy still existed? Days after CBS announced it was ousting chairman Les Moonves over sexual assault allegations, the network admitted he wasn't all the way gone, he'd be staying on in an advisory role during the transition.
It seems like the #MeToo backlash is in full swing. It seems like some men in positions of power are suspiciously eager to put this whole ugly reckoning business behind us.
But it isn't just powerful men who grow weary of the movement. I've heard lots of people, including lots of women, say the movement has "gone too far." Lots of otherwise kind, compassionate women are saying that half the time these women are making things up for attention. But as I've said before, false accusations of rape are really rare, and actually, less than half of all false rape claims even name a specific person. In big studies of false rape allegations, the motivations are rarely things like attention (Like why in the hell would people choose a fake rape, of all things, to get attention? "Ooh, I know, I'm going to do a thing that's going to make a bunch of crazed fans threaten me and call me a liar all over social media and my name is going to be associated with this whole thing forever, this is the best plan, way better than getting attention by learning to tap dance or something"). Lots of false claims come from young women who don't want to tell their parents how they really got pregnant. Or from men and women with severe psychosis who honestly believe they've been raped. Or from, in a whole lot of cases, parents who can't deal with the fact that their daughters had consensual sex and want to make the boy pay.

But statistics tell me that statistics don't convince people of things. So instead I'll remind you what Me Too is really about, why Me Too is vitally important, and why we cannot and must not let the movement go gently into that good night. The phrase "me too" was picked up in 2017 by Alyssa Milano, one of the founders of the Hollywood #MeToo movement. But the expression didn't start with Milano, and it predates the hashtag.
The seeds for the movement were sewn back in 1997 when Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist who has dedicated her life to improving the lives of young girls who belong to marginalized communities, sat across the table listening to a 13-year-old rape survivor tell her story. “I didn’t have a response or a way to help her in that moment," she said later, "and I couldn’t even say ‘me too,’ ” She says the moment "sat in [her] spirit" for a long time, and led her to found "Just Be," a nonprofit aimed at helping teen girls achieve "empowerment through empathy." Soon after, she began using the phrase "Me Too" to raise awareness of sexual assault in society.

We must never forget that a huge portion of victims of rape and sexual abuse victims are children. We must never forget that most feel so much guilt and shame over their abuse that they do not tell anyone about what they've experienced. We must never forget how very often children are disbelieved when they report abuse. In addition to PTSD, kids who experience sexual assault are more likely to contemplate suicide later in life, use drugs, have problems at work or in school. Kids in marginalized communities are especially vulnerable, as are LGBT kids, in OR out of the closet. And here's what's important:
Every time we say "She's just making it up for attention" within earshot of a child, we're making it less likely that the child will come forward should he or she be sexually assaulted. Every time we say that "me too" has gone too far, we are teaching vulnerable people that society will condemn them if they speak up. Every time we choose to side with a celebrity we like over a woman we don't know, we're teaching victims that they shouldn't come forward to anyone who considers the perpetrator a friend. 

Now, personally, I don't believe in believing all accusers unconditionally. What I believe is that every woman should be heard and taken seriously, that we need to do away with the societal default of presuming every accuser a liar until he or she produces a high-definition video and a signed affidavit proving otherwise. I believe no woman or girl should be bullied or condemned for coming forward, and that every time we mistreat a woman for making an accusation we frighten an untold number of victims into silence. 
I believe that evidence should be evaluated thoroughly and objectively, and that men should not be made to suffer consequences without corroborating evidence. But that can be done without treating the accuser like a worthless, lying sack of shit.
Jian Ghomeshi and Sean Penn, however, should absolutely be treated like the worthless, lying sacks of shit they are.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Do not go gentle - in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day

Today, social media is full of affirmations: stay strong and life is precious and never give up and all of that. Admonitions to check on your depressed friends abound. And though the sentiment is kind, platitudes don't do shit in the face of this disease. A text or a social media ping to your favorite depressive is kind, but hardly an adequate aid to someone facing down demons as vast and magnificent as those of depression; are whispers barely heard over the call of the void. 
One of my go-to depression songs, and
soundtrack for this post

I've spent more of my life desperately lashing myself to the mast of life with the siren songs of oblivion blasting through my brain than I like to think about. Spent so much of my life with thoughts of my death swarming through my head like the most intractable earworm. And so I can say, if you really want to help, if you really want to make a difference in the life of someone with a mental illness, here's what you can do.
Call us. Visit us. Invite us to spend time with you even if you know the answer will be no. 
Ask us when we see our therapist next. 
Offer to call and set up an appointment for us - sometimes the act of picking up a phone is to great a burden to bear. 
Ask us if we need help paying for our meds this month. 
Need a ride to the doctor. 
Need company in a waiting room. Leave a casserole on our porch even if we refuse to answer the door. 
Call us, even when you know we won't answer, and remind us why you're glad we're alive. Be specific. 
If you see us start to spiral, offer to breathe with us. Ask us whether we've worked out a crisis plan with our therapists, and help us walk through it. Gently ask if we need to go to the Emergency Room, and remind us there's no shame in it. 
Offer to come water our plants or walk the dog or watch the kids; the simplest tasks often feel impossible, and the piling up of things we can't do contributes to our anxiety and guilt and shame.

And, um, if you've got an opinion on "happy pills" and how we shouldn't depend on medicine and all of that, maybe keep it to yourself, like, all the time, not just around depressed people. That kind of talk gets under our skin and into the collective unconscious until it convinces people not to get the help they need. Convinces people on meds to go off them. 
Don't perpetuate the uninformed notion that all mental health professionals do is push drugs these days. Most therapists, the good ones, absolutely respect their clients' pharmacological decisions.
Stop using words like "loony bin" and "nut house" to refer to inpatient mental health services. The stigma associated with inpatient care leads so many to refuse it when they need it.
Stop using "get help" as an insult.
Stop calling suicide a selfish choice. Our mental illness bombards us with the message that our loved ones are so much better off without us, that suicide is the most unselfish choice. Don't make us feel guilty for thoughts we can't control.
Don't post scare-mongering news articles about the hidden dangers of anti-depressants. They're almost always inaccurate. Leave the weighing of the risks of treatment to the actual mental health professionals.
Be nice to people who are LGBTQ, even if you don't approve. Suicide rates are way higher among this population. 

Consider donating to the Suicide Prevention Hotline, check out MakeItOkay.org for more practical advice about helping people who need it. 

And, just, remind us that you love us. Be a broken record about it. It's not advice or social media posts we need; we need to know that we are capable of being loved.
My favorite platitude. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Even educated fleas do it

It is super weird that Americans refer to "the sex talk" as "the birds and the bees." As I've mentioned before, bee mating is kind of like the Hunger Games of reproduction. A virgin queen goes on a little flyabout, a male bee buzzes by, mounts her, puts his endophallus (tiny bee weenie) inside her, gets busy for a minute, then ejaculates so hard his freaking penis explodes, part of his abdomen gets ripped off, and he falls to his death. Then, mate #2, apparently having learned nothing from mate #1, flies up, mounts the queen, sucks out all the previous bee's sperm, and then repeats the whole exploding penis procedure. Finally, the queen, I don't know, gets bored with all the phallic pyrotechnics and heads back to the hive with about a hundred million sperm stored in her oviducts, and then she just makes babies at her leisure. Eventually she'll lay a new queen, whose first order of business is to eat all her siblings before, I don't know, beheading her mother and wearing her head as a hat to teach all the other bees who's in charge? 
I'm just saying, there's not much in there that's analogous to human reproduction. Unless you're in Westeros, I guess.

Bird sex is, I guess, a little bit closer to how humans get it on in that it doesn't involve exploding penises. Actually, for most bird species, there's no penis involved at all. Most boy birdies don't have anything resembling a penis, instead they've got a cloaca that's externally identical to the cloaca of the ladies. To mate, they kind of smoosh their cloacae together. And then there are waterfowl, who do tend to have penises and vaginas, but like, really freakishly weird ones. Lady ducks, for instance, have corkscrew shaped vaginas to go along with gentlemen ducks' long, twisty, noodly man meat. And when I say long, I don't mean that it's long for a duck, no. That sucker can grow to seventeen inches and twice the length of the duck's actual body. Oh, and it's got spikes. 
Rubber Ducky I'm awfully fond of--
oh for the love of god put that thing away
what in the hell is wrong with you
do do be do.

So again, not really all that analogous to human sex. Although it would be pretty freaking hilarious to try and convince your kid that his penis is gonna explode the first time he has sex.
There's a reason I don't have kids.
Oh, and I'm just gonna let this video of mating bald eagles speak for itself.

Speaking of reasons it's good I don't have kids, the point of this post, yes, it has a point, is that I want to talk to you about sex. Or anyway, I want to talk to you about a woman who is striving to change the way we talk about sex when we talk about sex with kids. The author is my professor, my mentor, my kinda hero, Bonnie J. Rough. The book is called Beyond Birds and Bees (you should NOT confuse it with "Beyond THE Birds and THE Bees," by Greg and Lisa Popcak), and if you've got kids, or you're a teacher, or if you just want to learn about bodies and sex divorced from shame, this is a must freaking read.

I didn't really think I was the right audience for this book, what with the fact that I don't have kids. But then I discovered that actually, the book helped me think of my own body differently. Bonnie talks about how in The Netherlands, people are way less weird about teaching their kids about sex. They're frank and open, using correct terminology and explaining without euphemism or moralizing. Dutch parents are less likely to pull an after-school-special on their kids, describing all the ways their children will get pregnant and die if they even think of bumping cloacae. Sex ed starts in kindergarten there, and parents of young kids think nothing of letting the munchkins run around naked in the park. 
And probably not coincidentally, The Netherlands have some of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and STIs in the world. Are The Netherlands some kind of sex utopia? Bonnie says no - there are problems there, just as there are here. But wouldn't it be good, wouldn't it be better to raise children unashamed of their bodies, unafraid to talk about them, willing to assert their agency? That's the question Bonnie explores in this amazing book that you should absolutely freaking read right now. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The time I held a human brain

Some of my friends and I periodically go to events called Oddmall: The emporium of the weird. It's like a traveling craft fair, but for freaks and geeks and weirdos. There you'll find geek-themed craft items, cosplay accessories, vintage toys and comics, and various preserved dead animals. So many preserved dead animals. 
At one of the Oddmalls there was a huge stall selling all manner of taxidermied, preserved, and mummified animals, and then, right in the middle, a booth with a preserved human brain just floating around in a giant fishbowl - and a sign inviting people to touch and hold it. This was both incredibly bizarre and incredibly... incredible. 

I wrote this just after:

Joey is balding, but a fluffy brown beard hangs around his face like an aura. It may be
my imagination, but I think he has the second kindest eyes I’ve ever seen on a stranger.
Top five at least. Which is somewhat odd considering Joey and his eyes are surrounded by
various bits of dead animals, behind a hand-lettered sign that says “Hold a human
brain.”
My two friends and I walk up to his booth halfway through his explaining how he came
to be possession of the back half of a human brain, which floats in front of him in a
fish bowl full of rubbing alcohol. “…and once the doctor is in possession of the brain,
he’s legally free to loan it out, if he wants,” is all I hear. And I’m too preoccupied to ask
him to start over, thinking about the logistics of schlepping a human brain along with
a menagerie of dead beasts from Pennsylvania, where their studio is, to Ohio, where we
are. On the back wall of the booth are hanging skulls, deer and ram, mostly"Is that an ostrich?” I ask.
“Emu,” Joey says. “I got a friend with an emu farm. They sell the meat and the leather
and stuff, but nobody wants the heads,” Joey says, seeming confounded by the fact
that others would pass on this valuable commodity.
One table holds wet specimens in bottles. There are bottles filled with every size and
color of octopus tentacle, little vials of grasshoppers and honeybees, various hearts
and eyes and limbs, and snakes, including a hypnotically arranged corn snake that I
can’t seem to take my eyes off of. “All sustainably sourced,” says a woman I take to be
Joey’s wife or girlfriend. She’s got nerdy glasses and silver studs through her dimples.
“They either died naturally or were hunted legally. We’ve got suppliers all over the
world.” My head drifts back to logistics again, this time the logistics of shipping all or
part of a dead animal carcass across continents. I wonder how they stay fresh. Or are 
they preserved already? In which case, is there a special procedure for mailing dead
animals packed in fluid? I imagine the poor postal worker who fails to heed the
“Fragile” warning on the outside of a box of dead snakes in brine. I want to ask but I’m
distracted by the bones and mummies table.
A couple of mummified piglets curl up in glass boxes behind a cardboard sign
proclaiming them “bacon seeds.” There are mummified bats shadow boxes and tiny
decorative coffins. A bat skeleton sprawls mounted to a frame. There are a few frogs
mounted on colorful backgrounds behind panes of glass, and a display of death’s head
moths in a circle around a painting of the tree of life. There are bugs and butterflies
too – a big blue one with half a wing missing catches my eye, mounted against a
background inscribed with the words “beautiful not broken.”
I wait my turn in line to hold the brain. Before a human brain is preserved, it's more or less jelly, the consistency of runny eggs. After a soak, it is firmer, a bit like gummy candy, though wetter and more jiggly. “This is the thing that makes humans human,” I say as I wonder if my eyes are as wide
as they feel.
“Kind of,” Joey says, "it's only half a brain. It's missing the frontal lobe."
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain right behind your forehead, and it controls learning and behavior and morality. It seems to be more developed in humans than other mammals, and it governs things like social skills, shame, and embarrassment.

We leave, but for days I can’t stop thinking about that brain and who it had once
belonged to. I wonder how its owner would feel if she knew (I am inexplicably certain
she is a she) that her essence, the epicenter of her mortal coil, would spend the beginning of her afterlife travelling around the Midwest in the custody of a couple of tattooed
weirdos, to be fondled by crafty geeks and costumed freaks. I’ve decided to imagine
that she’s tickled pink by it. That she was a little old lady who clucked her tongue at
kids with strange piercings but secretly always wished she’d had the guts to dye her
hair purple and wear a dog collar in public. 
Divested of her sensible, rational forebrain, absent the moral compass and social
inhibitions it forced upon her, is she freer? Or without her frontal lobe to govern the
emotional responses her amygdala sends forth, is she an explosion of emotions, too
bright and too strong and too big? Is her frontal lobe in another state, floating in its
own fishbowl, cringing and mortified with the indignities visited upon its lesser half? 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Valediction: Promoting Mourning

During one of the luncheon cry-fests at residency, my friends and I were sharing the worst things people had ever said to us in the name of consoling us after a tragedy. Things like telling a mother who is mourning her miscarriage not to be sad because she's young yet, and can just try again. That sort of thing.
You've probably heard some of these yourself. If you've had one of your siblings die, someone has probably told you that "at least you still have your other siblings," as if the volume of siblings were the problem, as if the other siblings were simply going to expand to fill the permanent void where your dead sibling used to be. People who mourn a parent long after they are gone are often told to stop dwelling, that they should get over it and move on. Parents who lose their children say they often hear things like "I know how you feel. I lost my grandmother when I was ten," as if losing a child isn't the worst thing that could ever happen to a parent, as if anyone who hasn't lived through it could possibly imagine the hell, the grief. 
Here is where I must say that I am absolutely certain that I have, on more than one occasion, said something perfectly appalling to a person who was grieving. In emotional situations, when I know I'm supposed to say something and I don't know what to say, my mouth tends to spit out words without running them by my brain for approval first. I think nobody knows what to say to a person who is grieving, so we resort to cliches that do not comfort. We say things like "she's in a better place" or "everything happens for a reason" that we mean as comfort but in reality are kind of dismissive. "He's in a better place"  to a mourner might feel like "it is selfish of you to be sad that your loved one is no longer here." 

So recently, a friend whom I love experienced a loss so awful I can't even fathom how she keeps on putting one foot in front of the other. And some people have responded to her loss in some truly awful ways, ways that grind salt into a gaping wound. 
Which makes me want to share with everyone the rules I use when talking to a grieving person, compiled over a lifetime of learning from my mistakes. I thought I'd share it, so all of you can learn from my failure too. Here goes.

  • No looking on the bright side. Do not say the words "at least." No "He's in a better place"; no "at least now you don't have to walk that dog every day anymore"; no "that disease is very treatable these days." I can't turn someone's grief to hope by shoving rose-colored glasses on to their face. Say instead "I'll never forget how proud she was of you the day you graduated college" or "You took such good care of him and gave him such a happy life" or "I will help in any way I can."
  • Never say "I know how you feel." I've got no business taking another's grief and making it about me and what I've suffered. Everybody's grief is different, and saying I know how someone else feels is like saying "you're nothing special," Instead say "my heart aches for you," say "I love you and I'm here for you and I'm thinking of you always." 
  • Do not minimize. Never say it's "just a dog." Never say "your arthritis is bad, but cancer is worse." Victor Frankl said that suffering is like a vessel - some people's vessels are big and some are small, but a full vessel is a full vessel. Grief is grief. Honor the grief of others, no matter how it compares to what losses others have grieved. Instead say "I know how much you loved him," say "You must be so afraid, but I'm here to help you get through it."  
  • Say "I can't imagine how you feel," but do not leave it at that. As a good friend with MS often says, "no, you can't imagine, but you could try." Instead say "do you want to talk about it?" say "you can tell me all about it, if you want to," say "I'm listening. Help me understand." 
  • Do not assume a person wants to be left alone. Do not assume a person wants me all up in their grill about it either. Do not avoid but do not pester, do not ignore the elephant in the room, but don't pry into the whys and wherefores and logistics of said elephant. Acknowledge the elephant, but let the elephant alone.
So anyway, those are my rules. I try hard not to say the things above, which challenges me to find new and innovative ways to stick my foot into my mouth. By the time I die I'll probably have mastered the art of always finding a new wrong thing to say. And then, other people can say awful things to whomever is left to mourn me.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Two-faced

Recently, The Nation published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee called How-To that caused a stir. See, the poem's written by a white guy, but the narrator of the poem is a black guy speaking something like African American Vernacular English (AAVE). To hear the news headlines, the reason that the "PC police" are offended by the poem is that the author is a white guy who wrote from the point of view of a Black guy. To hear most tell it, the literary world will come to a screeching halt if we keep accusing people who write across cultures of cultural appropriation. The famously liberal Stephen King tweeted: "what next? Apologies for women who write from the male point of view, or vice-versa?"
This last quote from Stephen King really made me cringe, and not just because it called to mind all of Stephen King's many and various crimes against AAVE. It's because he missed the point entirely.

See, the "PC police" weren't only upset about the author's use of AAVE. Obviously writers have to write across cultures. Obviously, when we write a character, she should speak in a manner consistent with her culture and upbringing. If anyone's arguing that white folks should only write about other white folks, I'm up to throw down about it. The problem is the whole package of the poem. So in the poem, the speaker, using really poorly rendered Black dialect, is a homeless guy giving another homeless person tips on how to lie and manipulate people when panhandling. "If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl/ say you’re pregnant," the poem says. 
The problem isn't that the author used Black dialect, it's that the author used a cartoonishly bad take on Black dialect to create a Black character who is a poor, shiftless, lying grifter. That's not "writing across cultures," that's minstrelry. See, back in the day, up until the the 1970s, there used to be minstrel shows, where white actors would cover their face in black makeup, paint their lips bright red, and perform variety shows in which their Black characters were painted as poor, stupid, lazy, and shiftless. And they did all this while appropriating Black music and dance. Wikipedia quite eloquently explains why these shows were so insidious: "minstrelsy made [harmful stereotypes about Blacks] palatable to a wide audience by couching it in the guise of well-intentioned paternalism."
Sound familiar?
The poem How To brings the tropes from minstrel shows roaring back. Why does the lying hobo character got to be black? Does Lee write other poems in bad AAVE where the narrator isn't just a collection of harmful stereotypes? And the poem, even if it weren't for the blackface buffoonery just isn't that good. I'm sure The Nation is drowning in submissions from talented Black poets who actually write authentically, and yet they chose to elevate this white dude who clearly has no idea of what he speaks.

My view on writing across cultures, and there are those who disagree, is that we should 100% absolutely do it. But we should do our homework. If you want to write a Black character who is homeless, you read about AAVE, you read other poems in AAVE. You - and this is a hard one - listen to Black people when they talk. You read about homelessness, you read work by homeless and formerly homeless people. You - another big challenge - listen to homeless people when they talk to you. And if that all seems like too much work, then sorry, you're too lazy to have a poem published in The Nation.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Burning up my fuse up here alone

It's the weirdest thing, the song Rocket Man suddenly popping into my head as I sit down to write about my last residency in the Ashland MFA program. Ashland's summer residencies are these intense two-week writing boot camps with long days of lectures, readings, and workshops. They're grueling and exhausting and you'd think I'd be relieved to finally be done, but after I'm home a day or two, there's this crash. And I've realized just now that it's because I kind of get to be a different person at residency. Surrounded by other assorted freaks, geeks, and weirdos, I'm free to stop trying to rein in all my strangeness. I'm not the only one who has to stop in the middle of a walk across campus to plop down and pull out a notebook. I'm not the only one who fixates on weird trivia, who has a Google history that would make me look like a raving lunatic. I'm not the only one who bursts into tears at the drop of a word, or who bursts out laughing at the most inappropriate times, or spends an entire lunch hour alternately laughing and sobbing in public (That literally happened. Like, an entire lunch hour).
I'm not the girl they think I am at home. (I'm so freaking much weirder.)

And this residency was especially - magic is a horrible cliche of a word to use, but that's the only word I can think of. Magic. Like, you wouldn't think that spending an hour with your thesis committee going over all the things that need fixing would be a source of rapturous inspiration, but I walked out of that thesis defense (which I passed - yay) thinking "I can't freaking wait to start revising."
I know I'm usually more structured and coherent, but I'm kind of in this post-graduation haze, hung over and thrumming with words I can't type fast enough to keep up with. 
Anyway, you'll be seeing more of this here blog now that I don't have to spend most of my waking moments reading and/or writing. Any requests on future content?
Anyways, in summary, here is a picture of my kitten.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

True or false: the one-step-closer-to-genocide edition

It feels wrong, I have to say, make a reasonable, fact-based argument against shoving people from a certain ethnic group into concentration camps because for the love of Jesus and all that is holy we shouldn't need to make the case that CONCENTRATION CAMPS are an abomination and PUTTING CHILDREN IN CAGES is an inexcusable atrocity. I don't know how to have a reasonable conversation with a person who isn't horrified by the fact that our own government is rounding up brown people (some who crossed the border illegal and a great many who actually are citizens) and putting them in tent cities, with or without their children.

But of course, I'm going to go ahead and make that logical and fact-based argument because that's what I do. And I think there are a lot of massive misconceptions and outright lies that maybe have people so terrified that their moral compass broke horribly? And because I know someone's going to accuse me of using biased sources, all the data below comes from either our own government, the conservative Cato Institute, and the right-of-center Brookings Institute. 

Illegal immigrants are dangerous
This is the most alarming lie going around, one that the Trump administration reinforced on Friday in a bizarre event in which they trotted out a bunch of people with giant pictures of dead relatives who were killed by illegal immigrants, and Trump signed all their pictures, said that one of the victims looked like Tom Selleck, and then said a bunch of stuff that would make one believe that illegal immigrants are just a human crime wave. But then there are the facts. The Cato Institute says that studies going back over a hundred years have found that immigrants, whether they're here legally or not, are significantly less likely to commit crimes. Communities with high immigrant populations usually have significantly lower crime rates than cities where the majority of the population is native born. There's this notion that all illegal immigrants are rapists, but Cato says that people here illegally are 12% less likely to commit rape than natural born citizens. 

Illegal immigration is on the rise
Nope. According to US Customs and Border Protection, illegal border crossings are at a historic low, and have been since well before Trump took office. In the year 2000, there were over 1.6 million illegal border crossings. Illegal crossings hovered around a million a year for most of the time George W. Bush was in office, and by the time Trump took office, illegal border crossings were the lowest they'd been in something like half a century, with fewer than half a million crossings all but the first year Obama was in office.*

We have to lock up migrants because catch and release doesn't work
Also nope. First of all, stop talking about humans like they're wild game. They aren't rats, they aren't cockroaches, and they don't breed and they don't infest and they aren't fucking fish either. And no, we don't need universal detention to hang on to people caught illegally crossing the border. According to the conservative think tank Cato Institute, universal detention is not only ungodly expensive to the American taxpayer, it's not necessary. If the apprehended person isn't deemed dangerous, electronic monitoring, bonds, and family case worker programs are far cheaper and nearly as effective as universal detention. The Cato Institute concludes "If past experience is any guide, these... programs could ensure that 90 percent of immigration court orders are carried out. That is less than perfect compliance, but it is far cheaper, more humanitarian, and less of a political disaster for this administration."


Immigrants steal our jobs
Not that job security is an acceptable justification for concentration camps, no, immigrants aren't going to steal your job. The Brookings Institute cites comprehensive research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, who have found that immigration doesn't affect the job prospects of native-born workers. Brookings fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown says
Undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back–breaking jobs that native–born workers are not willing to do. Sectors with large numbers of undocumented workers include agriculture, construction, manufacturing, hospitality services, and seafood processing. The fish–cutting industry, for example, is unable to recruit a sufficient number of legal workers and therefore is overwhelmingly dependent on an undocumented workforce. Skinning, deboning, and cutting fish is a smelly, slimy, grimy, chilly, monotonous, and exacting job... It can be a dangerous job, with machinery for cutting off fish heads and deboning knives everywhere frequently leading to amputated fingers.
So unless your dream job involves getting paid less than nothing to get your fingers sliced off slopping around in fish guts, your job is probably not going anywhere. And according to the Cato Institute, "immigrants likely compete most directly against other immigrants so the effects on less-skilled native-born Americans might be very small or even positive."   


And those are just the biggest of the lies that bad guys want you to believe about illegal immigration. There's also the fact that, while people are accusing the media of taking immigrants' sides, the American Journal of Political Science finds that news stories are actually twice as likely to report on the costs of immigration as opposed to the benefits. We have a myth that illegal immigrants don't pay taxes, and that they take advantage of social welfare programs. Yet illegal immigrants aren't eligible for any social welfare benefits, even though a recent study found that immigrants who are in the country illegally pay $162 billion annually in federal, state and local taxes. 
The most absurd lie of all is one I've been seeing all over the place: that Democrats oppose concentration camps not because "oh my sweet Jesus it's wrong to put people in concentration camps" but because they want illegal immigrants to vote for them. Dude, non-citizens can't vote: as for the notion that illegal immigrants are running some super secret voter fraud ring... why would a group of people whose ability to remain in the country depends on their flying under the radar go to the polling place, where they are certain to run across law enforcement officers, just to publicly commit a felony that benefits them in no way?


Y'all, immigrants aren't more likely to commit crimes: not violent crimes, not non-violent crimes, not voter fraud. They don't take American jobs. They don't drain the economy or take advantage of welfare. They aren't a growing menace, and in fact illegal border crossings have been historically low for years now. And even if not one single one of those things is true, IT IS WRONG TO PUT PEOPLE IN CONCENTRATION CAMPS HOW IS THIS A THING I EVEN NEED TO SAY?


If you agree with any of what I've got to say, or if you disagree with everything I've said but still don't want to be part of the generation that sat by and did nothing while our country spiraled toward genocide, please, please donate to RAICES. Call your representatives. Act up. Speak up. Don't give up.

*Actually, even though it is completely misleading to claim that the Obama administration also made regular practice of separating children from parents at the border, Obama was cold-hearted and ruthless when it came to immigration. Democrats should have challenged him more on it but we didn't and I don't have a time machine. The atrocities at the border are happening here and now and I could not care less whether we blame Trump or Obama or the man in the damn moon, I only care about ending this insanity.

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