Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.

October Links Roundup: Mx. Personality

October…my favorite season. The days turn cold and dark, the leaves change color, and Mr. Tech Support and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I am filled with an unusual sense of wellbeing because I sold three copies of my story collection at a Straw Dog Writers Guild reading last night and now have enough money to buy a new trans boi shirt from Androgynous Fox. (Speaking of which, this Dapper Boi button-down is the best. Make more colors!)

My forced exposure to psychological tests a decade ago convinced me that “personality” is a contestable concept. (A belief which, needless to say, did not improve my score.) The self is situational, changing over time, and wearing different personae depending on the norms and trust level in a given social setting. Attempting to quantify it as a fixed trait, like eye color, can erase the impact of interpersonal stressors and make the subject feel powerless to change.

Such caveats are thoroughly considered in “Who’s Got Personality?”, Deborah Chasman’s Boston Review interview with Merve Emre about her new book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (Penguin Random House). Their dialogue explores reasons for the continued popularity of these unscientific metrics, the test creators’ struggles with women’s changing roles in the mid-20th century, and the gender and class hierarchies that the test perpetuates:

If you look at the statistics around the [thinking vs. feeling] indicator, it is true that women tend have a stronger preference for feeling than men. But what I think is so dangerous about MBTI is that it claims that those personality traits are innate; it naturalizes the feeling-work that women do when really it is often a function of much larger structural dynamics. That women were often tasked with doing the affective labor of social reproduction has very little to do with biology and everything to do with the way that the household has been set up and theorized as a private space—where feelings are managed—as opposed to the public space of material labor and of work…

…Not everybody gets the privilege of thinking of oneself as a unique individual, somebody who has a rich inner life or even a highly differentiated set of preferences that are worth talking about and classifying. Even before you get to typing people using the indicator, a type system has already sorted them—there are those who get to have access to personalities and those who don’t.

Today, still, by the logic of this particular indicator, people who are white and wealthy and powerful and male get to think of themselves as personalities. The indicator really works to perpetuate that. When I went to the reeducation program, one participant was this wonderful man, a college counselor from a small, Midwestern school, who was telling us that 70 percent of his students were first-generation immigrants, they were the first people in their families to go to college, they were overwhelmingly from lower-income households, many of them were women and students of color. He was telling the talent coach that for many of these students the questions on the test are simply inscrutable—they ask you to imagine these scenarios where, say, you are planning a vacation and you have to figure out whether you plan everything ahead of time or you just go spontaneously. Or at work, you have this huge project and your boss is a thinker and you are a feeler, so how do you go about making decisions. His students found the minds of those decision-makers impenetrably bourgeois. He asked the talent coach what he should tell them when they say they have never gone on vacation, never been able to afford to go on vacation, or that in their workplaces people don’t cooperate—they are just told what to do and to punch in and out. Her response was striking: well, this is the pool of success, and if they want to swim in it they just have to learn, they just have to acclimate themselves to this language, to these ideas. MBTI continues to be classed and raced and biased in all sorts of implicit ways. It was explicit in the ’40s. It is more implicit now.

For a more contrarian take on self-help, life coach Pace Smith recently blogged about a dangerous omission in spiritual talk about the virtue of love. In “Why I Hate Compassion”, she writes:

If you hang out with spiritual people (and you do), you’ll hear a lot of talk about compassion. Supposedly, it’s pretty awesome. If we can just practice infinite compassion for all beings at all times, we’ll reach enlightenment and all dance around as joyful radiant beings of light.

Take this Dalai Lama quote, for example:

“We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens we will have no regrets.”

Does that make you feel peaceful? If so, you can stop reading now, and pass this article along to a friend who suffers from Infinite Compassion Syndrome.

If the quote makes you feel anxious, and makes you question whether you’re truly doing as much as you can, then I’m talking to you.

“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” – Sri Chinmoy

Sounds great in theory, right?

But would you give this advice to a woman in an abusive relationship?

Would you tell her to forgive, to let go of judgment, and to love no matter what?

Yes, I know, I post a lot of links on this topic… If I have any consistent “personality”, it’s this: I can’t avoid probing for the weak spot, the thing that is left out, in any belief system. Is deconstruction a wounded trauma response? Was the neo-conservative phase of my teens and 20s an attempt to shore up fragments of absolutism against the inevitable ruins of whatever I trusted?

Back in those days, I was pro-life–largely because it scared me to think that my mother, or any mother, should have the power to decide whether I was a “person” or not. (Heck, she was never convinced of that after I was born.) But when I realized I didn’t trust the religious conservatives who shared my views, nor agreed with them on anything else, it caused me to question my position. Gabrielle Blair, who blogs at Design Mom, recently posted this Twitter thread (unrolled on her blog) with a convincing argument that the most ethical way to reduce unwanted pregnancies is to hold men responsible, commensurate with their real biological role in the problem. Excerpts:

Did you know that a man CAN’T get a woman pregnant without having an orgasm? Which means that we can conclude getting a woman pregnant is a pleasurable act for men.

But did you further know that men CAN get a woman pregnant without HER feeling any pleasure at all? In fact, it’s totally possible for a man to impregnate a woman even while causing her excruciating pain, trauma or horror.

In contrast, a woman can have non-stop orgasms with or without a partner and never once get herself pregnant. A woman’s orgasm has literally nothing to do with pregnancy or fertility — her clitoris exists not for creating new babies, but simply for pleasure.

No matter how many orgasms she has, they won’t make her pregnant. Pregnancies can only happen when men have an orgasm. Unwanted pregnancies can only happen when men orgasm irresponsibly.

What this means is a women can be the sluttliest slut in the entire world who loves having orgasms all day long and all night long and she will never find herself with an unwanted pregnancy unless a man shows up and ejaculates irresponsibly.

Women enjoying sex does not equal unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Men enjoying sex and having irresponsible ejaculations is what causes unwanted pregnancies and abortion…

…Stop protesting at clinics. Stop shaming women. Stop trying to overturn abortion laws. If you actually care about reducing or eliminating the number of abortions in our country, simply HOLD MEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.

What would that look like? What if there was a real and immediate consequence for men who cause an unwanted pregnancy? What kind of consequence would make sense? Should it be as harsh, painful, nauseating, scarring, expensive, risky, and life-altering…

… as forcing a woman to go through a 9-month unwanted pregnancy?

In my experience, men really like their testicles. If irresponsible ejaculations were putting their balls at risk, they would stop being irresponsible. Does castration seem like a cruel and unusual punishment? Definitely.

But is it worse than forcing 500,000 women a year to puke daily for months, gain 40 pounds, and then rip their bodies apart in childbirth? Is a handful of castrations worse than women dying during forced pregnancy & childbirth?

Put a castration law on the books, implement the law, let the media tell the story, and in 3 months or less, tada! abortions will have virtually disappeared. Can you picture it? No more abortions in less than 3 months, without ever trying to outlaw them. Amazing.

For those of you who consider abortion to be murder, wouldn’t you be on board with having a handful of men castrated, if it prevented 500,000 murders each year?

And if not, is that because you actually care more about policing women’s bodies, morality, and sexuality, than you do about reducing or eliminating abortions? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

At the cultural webzine Popula, Sarah Miller reflects on the dangers of going along to get along, in “The Movie Assassin: How ‘The English Patient’ almost ruined my life”. As a young film critic at a Philadelphia newspaper, Miller thought the much-hyped movie was pretentious and dull (I agree), but her mentors insisted that any smart person should love it, and leaned on her to write a positive review. She did, and moved on to a successful freelance career writing things she didn’t really care about, until one day the money dried up and she had an epiphany:

I thought a lot about my lying review of that racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie. I thought about how at the time, I was proud of myself for having the courage to make shit up because I was afraid to disagree with someone I wanted to impress, and also afraid of not making money. That one decision had led to a lot of other similar ones and had eventually ended up as an agreement with myself to spend over 10 years of my life being a different person than the one I had planned on being and feeling smug about being good at writing crap and then even actually starting to think the crap was good because of the money I was given to produce it. I look at all the people in tech who are convinced they are saving the world, that what they do matters. When the money goes, and it will, that feeling will go with it.

If you write thousands of sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with what you think or feel those sentences are still what you will become. You can turn yourself into another person. I turned myself into another person…

…It often strikes me that it is considered immature to be unable to believe bullshit. Think about the word globalization. It doesn’t mean cultures mixing, fusion cuisine, or a fun wedding of a rich Sri Lankan to a poor Swede. It doesn’t even mean free markets. It means access to new markets and especially access to cheap labor so rich people can make more money. That is all it means. If you happen to gain from side effects (see fusion cuisine, above) you might want to notice what everyone else, including you, is losing. But try saying that at a dinner party. Everyone would just feel sorry for you.

I just can’t stop thinking of—hmmm—The English Patient. This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?

Becoming poor was such a small price to pay to stop being so fucking dumb. I used to hear the saying “Politics is the art of the possible” as benignly self-evident. Now I know it is chastising, smug, and cruel. It’s not about cooperation. It is about agreeing that some people’s lives don’t matter. If you hear anything else in that saying, you’ve never wished you could just die because you couldn’t figure out how to make money.

Want to discover two great poets who understand why writing matters? Check out this conversation betwen Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith in Granta. At the time, both were shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Forward Prize, which Smith won. Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) is a lyrical meditation on recovery from alcoholism, in dialogue with the Persian mystical tradition of his ancestors. Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), a fierce and tender book on being black and HIV+ in America, combines the energetic rhythms of performance poetry with the complexity of literature on the page. As the editor of Divedapper, Akbar is also an extremely generous promoter of other contemporary poets. Follow him on Twitter to find your next favorite poem. In the Granta piece, I especially loved Smith’s discussion of the challenges of writing a joyful book (his forthcoming collection Homie):

I turned to my favorite writers of joy: Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Angel Nafis, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison. I turned to Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle and all the folks I dance and sing too. I learned two things I think. One was to allow some more grief into the poems, not to sully the joy, but for the grief to be comforted. I think in my two previous collections grief led while joy attempted to triumph. I think that is surely a fine way to write joy. We all love an anthem and anthems require a little blood. With this collection, I think joy is the center and grief seeks out joy as a place of respite. Some of the drafts at some point felt a little cheesy, so I had to dig a little deeper into that brightness I distrusted and find what was being confessed. I think poems confess something. The second thing I learned was to surrender to ecstasy.

May we all write in such a way that our grief can be comforted.

September Links Roundup: Manspread Your Novel

Ahh…September. The days grow colder, my brain wakes up, the Young Master begins first grade (!!). Time to get back to drafting the Endless Sequel.

If, like me, you write slowly, perhaps you’ve heard that self-critical voice in your head. The one that says the book really IS taking a thousand years to get to the point–it doesn’t just feel that way because you’re squeezing in an hour or two of writing every week, in between washing stinky boy socks and throwing out your saved letters from 2006. The voice that’s always nagging you to hold their attention, be more fun, give them what they want.

Well, ask that voice: when was the last time you saw a novel favorably described as “sprawling” that wasn’t by a man?

At Electric Literature, Jessica Shattuck’s manifesto “Why Women Should Do More Literary Manspreading” gave me some new tools to fight this self-undermining mindset. The piece is subtitled: “Stop self-editing and let yourself ramble like a man.” Certainly, in the later editing rounds, all writers have to consider tightening up scenes and pruning plot elements that don’t fit the final shape. But Shattuck takes aim at a form of self-censorship that particularly plagues writers socialized as women. We have been trained to worry about taking up too much space. People socialized as men expect that an audience will listen respectfully when they hold forth about their expertise and special interests.

There is a particular magic to an immersive and sprawling novel, and a thrill in following a confident writer on a scenic route through his imagination’s wilderness. Of course they can be terrible too — overlong and self-indulgent, stuffed with showy displays of information and smug postmodern tricks a reader is likely to skim over. But either way, many of these novels are met with both critical and sales success. Apparently readers are willing to follow a good writer down a long and winding road.

So why are so few of these novels written by women?

…As Meg Wolitzer postulated in her 2012 NY Times essay “The Second Shelf,” if a woman “writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.”

…Men tend to be less inhibited by lack of expertise or authority — if Philip Roth wanted to write a whole chapter about the inner workings of a glove factory, why not? If Jeffrey Eugenides wanted to delve into the origins of the Nation of Islam in Middlesex, who was going to question his authority?

Women, on the other hand, have long been told to watch what they say (or, more often — in church, in synagogue, in public in general — not to say anything at all). We have had to earn our credibility through quantifiable mastery, and even then, been frequently questioned or doubted. We have been encouraged to trim and edit our physical appearance, from whalebone corsets to bikini waxing. No wonder we are strict self-editors — in art as in life.

So go ahead, imaginary friends: tell me everything you want me to know about 1980s horror films, Jewish theology, bondage, and comic books.

The Christian literary journal Ruminate featured this intriguing reflection by Renee Long on rightsizing your self-image, “Reconciling Humility and Self-Worth in the Age of Ego”. Her touchstone is the weekly benediction at her church: “Be brave, because you are a child of God. Be kind, because so is everyone else.” Whereas conservative Christianity conditions us to abase ourselves in order to see Christ in others, Long concludes that healthy humility means resisting the American culture of lists and rankings. “It is possible to recognize the sacred in others, in all things, without having to weigh it against our own value. We can lie down, spread ourselves out on the floor of the universe and look up. We can see the infinite spectrum of light without having to dim our own shine.”

Taking up space is a pressing self-acceptance issue for me and my perimenopausal body. I’ve got feminist theory up the wazoo, but at a gut level (pun intended) there’s a strong belief that uncontrollable change equals failure. America’s culture of food moralism reinforces this. The Angry Chef is a lively contrarian blog about “exposing lies, pretensions, and stupidity in the world of food.” Author Anthony Warner takes aim at pseudoscience behind food fads and panics. In his post “Heart of the Problem”, he compares conflicting studies on the benefits of low-carb diets, and suggests that once basic nutritional needs are met, our food choices actually don’t make much impact on health and life expectancy. In developed (industrialized) countries, personal lifestyle obsession becomes a distraction from structural inequalities.

Everywhere, despite our wealth and secure food supply, people experience stress, stigma, pain and hurt. Or they are forced to live in inadequate housing, eat contaminated food, drink poor quality water or suffer a lifetime of inequality. They will get sick. They may use food as a comfort or an escape. Others will use alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs. They will develop disease and disorders, often in ways that will end their lives early. Is it really so surprising that these factors dwarf any tiny differences in the macronutrient composition of their diet?

This is why, when it comes to population health, anecdotes about the miracle properties of this diet or that are stupid and misleading. Look at me, I feel great because I eat low carb. Or Paleo. Or Keto. Or Mediterranean. Or DASH. Or vegan. Or clean. Surely if it works for me, it can save the world.

No. You feel great because of your privilege, your nice house, your dietary freedoms, your lack of stress. You feel great because you are lucky, your friends and family are lucky. You have never experienced the crushing stress of a marginalised existence. You don’t know what it is to live in constant fear of violence. You feel great precisely because you are free to choose your diet, buy your exclusive ingredients, and care enough about yourself to do so. That is why you are healthy. It has nothing to do with your food.

This is lifestyle drift in action. We know what really determines health – the deep and vicious inequalities that taint developed societies. But instead of trying to address these things, we imagine that if we impose the dietary choices of the privileged on those who are suffering, they will be transformed. And so every diet followed by a member of a privileged elite is touted as the solution, but none of them are. The only real solution is giving everyone a better life.

It is not food that is kills people early. It is poverty, stress and broken lives. No dietary change can insulate people from these things. The reason why we have not yet discovered which diet is best, is because within a society that has enough food to eat, any diet that rich people eat is associated with optimum health. And the reasons why have nothing to do with the food itself.

Along those lines, at NPR’s food feature The Salt, Alan Levinovitz in “What Is ‘Natural’ Food?: A Riddle Wrapped in Notions of Good and Evil” suggests that the coveted moniker is more of a symbolic or spiritual concept than a scientific one. Until the 18th-century Romantic movement, people believed processed foods were healthier and higher-status. Food restriction was the province of religious ascetics who, rather than trying to get closer to nature, wanted to transcend it. Nowadays, people are more afraid of unregulated corporations putting chemicals in their food, and nature seems benign by comparison. But the line between synthetic and natural is even hard for philosophers and scientists to draw.

Take the philosophers. Joseph LaPorte of Hope College specializes in the language we use to classify the natural world and has written extensively on the idea of “nature” and “naturalness.”

“To be sure, natural doesn’t mean safe,” he told me. “Nature produces some of the most formidable toxins in the world. But when it comes to packages of chemicals, as they exist in foods or fragrances, nature is a good bet, or at least a clue, because co-evolution often suggests its safety and efficacy.”

Not so fast, says York University’s Muhammad Ali Khalidi, also a philosopher of science who specializes in classificatory language. “Something very recent might be safe,” he points out, “and something that’s been around for hundreds of years could be very dangerous.” Case in point: Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, has long prescribed herbal remedies that contain dangerous heavy metals. Smoked meats, a mainstay of non-industrial food production, are now known to increase cancer risk.

Nor is the lack of consensus limited to the safety of natural food. Scientists also disagree on whether it makes sense to distinguish natural from synthetic products at all. Richard Sachleben, an organic chemist, told me flat-out that all chemicals are natural. Petroleum, he explained, was originally algae. Coal used to be forests.

Maybe natural is just shorthand for “what you see is what you get” or “ingredients I can spell”?

Samantha Field’s blog post “Sin Is Not Just a ‘Heart Issue'” and Adam Kotsko’s post “We are not the ones we have been waiting for” similarly question what Kotsko would call the neo-liberal dogma that individual choices are the main driver of social change. Field discusses the controversial movement to ban plastic straws in restaurants, which disability activists argue would adversely impact them without making a real difference to the environment.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

Kotsko challenges the common journalistic framing that “we the people” collectively lacked the will to stop global warming, when these decisions were actually made by identifiable politicians and business leaders.

This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

Several important articles this summer took on the topic of disparities in women’s healthcare. Writing in The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters surveyed stories about health-care gaslighting in “The Doctor Doesn’t Listen to Her. But the Media Is Starting To.” Celebrities like TV star Lena Dunham and tennis great Serena Williams spotlighted the problem of doctors dismissing women’s symptoms that turned out to be life-threatening. Lili Loofbourow at The Week wrote about “The Female Price of Male Pleasure”, asking us to question the assumption that painful intercourse is natural for people with vaginas. This disregard leads critics to minimize #MeToo stories as simply normal (bad) sex.

I’m speaking, specifically, about the physical sensations most women are socialized to ignore in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually “viable.” Have you looked at how women are “supposed” to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies. Men can be appealing in comfy clothes. They walk in shoes that don’t shorten their Achilles tendons. They don’t need to get the hair ripped off their genitals or take needles to the face to be perceived as “conventionally” attractive. They can — just as women can — opt out of all this, but the baseline expectations are simply different, and it’s ludicrous to pretend they aren’t.

Finally, because I love a good “Fire your mom” post, enjoy this salty advice from Lori Gottlieb’s “Dear Therapist” column at the Atlantic, in which a pregnant woman asks whether she should let her abusive mother be her midwife:

Sometimes when people come to therapy, they want my advice on a question they’ve already answered. The person already knows that she wants to leave her abusive boyfriend, or switch jobs, or not go on vacation with her cruel sibling, but still she asks, “What should I do?”

Why do people ask a question to which they already know the answer? Often it’s because they don’t trust themselves, because, through no fault of their own, their inner voices have been distorted or silenced. Given your history, I imagine this is what has happened to you, too.

…Becoming less visible to a volatile mother served as protection from her ire, but an unintended consequence was that you also became less visible to yourself. Your inner voice became muted, while external voices became amplified. So if people tell you to “let go of the past”—a past that’s as recent as two years ago, when your mother walked out of your wedding—you can barely hear the inner voice that says, If I can’t trust my mom to be there for me at my wedding, I can’t trust her to be there for me after my child’s birth. The calibration is out whack, and now’s the time to fix it.

One of the best things you can do to prepare for motherhood is to start trusting your inner voice more. Becoming invisible may have been a useful strategy when you were a powerless child, but the good news is that now you’re an adult with full agency, and becoming invisible won’t only be counterproductive—it will be impossible, because, like it or not, you’ll be very visible to your baby. Simply by watching you live your daily life, your child will learn a lot about relationships, and you will have the wonderful (and healing) opportunity to show your son or daughter what an adult who trusts herself and isn’t besieged by self-doubt looks like—starting with trusting the answer you already have deep inside about bringing your mom in as your midwife.

TL;DR: Run, mofo!

Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel: “the suckling”

Earlier this summer I reviewed the new multimedia memoir by Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, a bold retrospective of his 66-year career as an author, political artist, and graphic designer. This month I’d like to share one of his poems that was not included in this collection. It displays his characteristic immediacy, darkness and tenderness commingled in a moment that slips away almost before you grasp it.

the suckling

they say
breast milk
contains toxins
of every aspect
of plant and/or any animal
ever consumed

and multiplied
by toxins of every thing
multiplied by
and so forth

and if any attempt
were made to market
milk of breasts
across state lines
that product would be denied

they say
for lack of touch
any one of us might die
of want

so for want of touch
i want to draw you
unto my breast
without reserve
and suckle you
until i die

Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Nerd Community at Flame Con

For my novel research, this weekend I went to NYC for Flame Con, billed as the world’s largest LGBTQ comic con. Now in its fourth year, Flame Con is sponsored by Geeks Out, a volunteer nonprofit dedicated to making comics and sci-fi fandom more welcoming for us queers. As the title of one panel put it, I experienced “the subversive simplicity of queer joy”.

Flame Con was way more fun and friendly than any literary conference I’ve attended. Poets can be so bitter, present company not excepted. We trail clouds of angst about whether our work is important enough and whether our publishing deal is as good as someone else’s. At Flame Con I rediscovered the happiness of making things you enjoy and meeting other people who are doing the same. We were like children in the best sense, unselfconscious about loving sparkly ponies and superheroes, simply grateful to spend time in the fantasy worlds we created.

It was a delightful novelty to be in a social setting where I felt completely cool and like I fit in. Imagine that every time you get into the elevator in a large Manhattan hotel, someone else is also wearing a butch haircut, rainbow jewelry, or a tank top with a sassy gay slogan. I got a compliment on my glasses, y’all.

At the trans and GNC meetup, about 40 of us sat around a workshop table, two rows deep, and threw out joking answers to the question, “What is the trans agenda?” Hint: it involves a lot of fanny packs. People connected over the shared experience of renaming themselves after comics and video game characters, obsessively listening to “Reflection” from Mulan, and using FaceApp to envision ourselves as the “opposite” sex.

You handsome devil.

At the Queer Nerd Poetics reading, I heard funny and passionate performances by fine writers who were new to me. I especially enjoyed Liv Mammone’s persona poem about the lack of handicapped access at the Louvre, “Venus de Milo Answers a Tumblr Feminist”. Liv really knows how to write a catchy title. Read an interview with her at Brooklyn Poets and follow her on Twitter. Omar Holmon of Black Nerd Problems spoke out in verse about the challenges of loving a genre where you don’t often see yourself reflected. Brendan Gillett, dressed as a dapper elf, graciously emceed and closed out the show with “Names for Months in a New Queer Year”. Happy Augayst, everyone!

I spent several hours at the exhibitors’ hall, making contacts to interview for the novel about the 1990s indie comics scene, and buying a ton of books and swag. G. Pike designs beautifully colored pins, keychains, and stickers depicting birds in the hues of various pride flags. Pride Pets enamel pins from Gay Breakfast feature different breeds of adorable cats and dogs with pride flag stripes, and pronoun pawprints, too. I met public health consultant Christel Hyden, the educator behind Heads or Tails NYC, an interactive webcomic about HIV prevention. And I bought this shirt from Hiroki Otsuka, because apparently I’m into bears and tentacles now?? Is this a thing that happens with middle age?

Ready for Chippendale’s of Arkham.

Continuing on that theme, I bought Kori Michele Handwerker’s Undone: A Tentacle Illustration Book, an elegant black-and-white art chapbook reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley; the first issue of Megan James’ comic book Innsmouth, which the artist described as being about incompetent Mormon-style Cthulhu cultists; a pin-up of a sweet hairy dude in purple high-heeled boots by Joel Gennari; and the erotic art anthology Doable Guys III. Check out Kori’s webcomic about discovering their nonbinary fashion style. Offsite at the BGSQD bookstore, I attended the book launch of the groundbreaking collection We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology from Stacked Deck Press, edited by Jeanne Thornton and Tara Avery–which, now that I think of it, I probably also backed on Kickstarter. Well, if I end up with two copies, I’ll donate one to Forbes Library. I also picked up collections and graphic novels by Molly Ostertag, Tony Breed, Jessi Sheron, and others.

The convention wasn’t all NSFW by any means. Diverse, upbeat books for children and tweens were well-represented too. I bought Shane a Lumberjanes collection and a Warriors graphic novel about magical cat clans. Let the geek family traditions begin.

Pre-Order My Story Collection “An Incomplete List of My Wishes”

It’s here!

Feast your eyes on this lovely cover, courtesy of artist Ariel Freiberg and Sunshot Press editors Brent and Alexis Williams Carr! And now it can be yours for the low price of $12.95. (Kindle edition will be out later this fall.)

Diane Donovan of Midwest Book Review calls this book “a vivid literary and psychological collection especially recommended for those who like their stories passionate yet observational, their psychological depths presented in sips rather than explosions of flavor, and their stories nicely imbedded with social and spiritual reflection alike. An Incomplete List of My Wishes offers the kinds of inspections that leave readers thinking far beyond the curtain call of quiet dramas in lives lived on the edge of self-realization and social engagement.”

Read “The House of Correction”, a story in this collection that was just named runner-up for the 2018 Solstice Lit Mag Fiction Prize:

“I am going to this wedding,” Zebatinsky declared to Carla. His middling daughter. Middle. But the switched word lodged in his brain, as happened more and more these days, branching out tendrils of other words, a not unpleasant process until he was obliged to backtrack its meanderings to the conversation he’d left hanging. Carla in the muddle, middle-born between fiery David, now a banker in Hong Kong, and beautiful Natalie, who’d played piano in Carnegie Hall, found a husband, and died. Carla taught high school physics and nutrition at Bronx Science. She thought she knew everything about his prions. Or was that muons? He’d forgotten which were the particles that glued up your synapses, and which ones bombarded you without sensation, like a hand passing through a slide projection.

“How, Poppy? I can’t let you fly to Miami all by yourself. What if you get confused?”

Zebatinsky bit back a flippant remark. Getting confused in his own little apartment on West End Avenue and 94th, among the softly creaking shelves of books from thirty-five years of teaching Russian literature, was not only harmless but his privilege, his birthright, which middle-aged Carla was itching to trick him out of, with her sly talk of golf courses and assisted living centers in Connecticut. On the other hand, getting confused in a too-loud, too-bright airport that stank of sweet coffee and porta-potty deodorizer was not an adventure he cared to repeat.

“You’ll come with me. See, it says ‘Isaac Zebatinsky and guest.’” He pointed to the handwritten address on the square ivory envelope, the words scrunching together toward the end as if the writer had miscalculated the size of the small paper. “It’s a weekend. You can do your lesson plans on the plane.”

Carla blinked hard, her way, ever since childhood, of disguising a sudden hurt. See, he was still sharp enough to notice the important things. A mixed blessing because awareness included guilt for his unintentional dig. She didn’t want to tell old Poppy why she was single in her forties but it must bother her more than she let on. Perhaps that excused the tone of her question: “How do you know the Abramoffs, anyway? I don’t remember them.”

He sighed, buying himself some time with the implication of a long and emotional story to come, as he studied the invitation’s embossed sea-blue script: Rabbi and Mrs. Gershom Abramoff welcome you to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Sarah Nicole Abramoff to Jasper Michael Shapiro on Saturday, February 23rd, at 6:30 PM, Temple Shaarei Tefilah, followed by an address in Miami. The truth was, Zebatinsky had no idea who these people were…

Could We Be God’s Alternate Personalities?

If the Trinity blows your mind, hang on for this new article from Scientific American, which posits that multiple personalities may be the key to the “hard problem of consciousness”, i.e. how the capacity for subjective experience can arise from purely physical processes. Computer engineer and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, psychotherapist and historian Adam Crabtree, and neuropsychiatry professor Edward F. Kelly argue in the affirmative for the question, “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?”

To summarize: Brain imaging shows real physical state changes corresponding to dissociated identities, compared to no changes in a control group of actors pretending that they had multiple personalities or “alters”. For instance, sight receptors were switched off in the brain of a sighted woman when her blind alter was in charge. “There is also compelling clinical data showing that different alters can be concurrently conscious and see themselves as distinct identities… The massive literature on the subject confirms the consistent and uncompromising sense of separateness experienced by the alter personalities. It also displays compelling evidence that the human psyche is constantly active in producing personal units of perception and action that might be needed to deal with the challenges of life.”

Meanwhile, philosophers of science have been at a loss to explain how the brain produces the mind. If we have to describe everything in terms of physical causes (no magical or supernatural dualism), how could consciousness arise from combining particles that lack this quality? Some philosophers have posited that all matter does possess awareness. But then how do these billions of fragments cohere into higher-level unified beings? We don’t experience ourselves as a multitude of self-aware electrons.

This is where it gets wonderfully weird:

The obvious way around the combination problem is to posit that, although consciousness is indeed fundamental in nature, it isn’t fragmented like matter. The idea is to extend consciousness to the entire fabric of spacetime, as opposed to limiting it to the boundaries of individual subatomic particles. This view—called “cosmopsychism” in modern philosophy, although our preferred formulation of it boils down to what has classically been called “idealism”—is that there is only one, universal, consciousness. The physical universe as a whole is the extrinsic appearance of universal inner life, just as a living brain and body are the extrinsic appearance of a person’s inner life.

You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize the obvious problem with this idea: people have private, separate fields of experience. We can’t normally read your thoughts and, presumably, neither can you read ours. Moreover, we are not normally aware of what’s going on across the universe and, presumably, neither are you. So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain—at least in principle—how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.

And here is where dissociation comes in. We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

Moreover, as we’ve seen earlier, there is something dissociative processes look like in the brain of a patient with DID. So, if some form of universal-level DID happens, the alters of universal consciousness must also have an extrinsic appearance. We posit that this appearance is life itself: metabolizing organisms are simply what universal-level dissociative processes look like.

This made me want to stand up and cheer. Is it heresy, for religions that believe that “God is One”? Not necessarily. This model still posits a universal consciousness that is, in some sense, more fundamental than the appearance of fragmentation. Many mystical traditions suggest that the divine unity voluntarily scattered into many forms to produce the created world, while retaining some overarching transcendent power.

For those who recoil from the idea of attributing a “negative” mental health diagnosis to God, it might help to learn that numerous folks in the multiple-personality community don’t see their condition as a disorder that should be cured by integration into a single “front” identity. The blog Ex Uno Plures and cartoonist LB Lee’s Healthy Multiplicity site are excellent sources of #ownvoices education on this topic. These authors offer philosophical and experience-based reasons why dissociation is not always, or only, a trauma symptom. Em Flynn’s piece “Plurality for Skeptics” is a good place to start:

The problem with “integration evangelism,” as many people here call the idea that all systems must integrate, is that there’s an assumption that everyone is born “normal,” and should be returned to “normal.” It’s similar to the fundamentalist Christian idea that gay people are “fallen heterosexuals,” and the cissexist idea that transgender people are altered members of their assigned gender, rather than members of their identified gender (or nongender, as the case may be). In this worldview, everyone belongs to a set of idealized “types” that are viewed as universal, and any variation from that type is either pathology or an attempt to be “different” to seek attention.

Besides, I wonder if the entire way that Western philosophy privileges monism is bound up with our besetting sins of imperialism, exclusionary religion, and totalitarian ideology. All these failures of empathy share the presumption that singularity is saner, purer, and holier than diversity. If dissociative identities are not a flaw in God, we don’t have to insist that everyone worship the same alter, or that the highest form of worship is to surrender and erase our personal wills within God’s will.

Trauma theology might be the most orthodox theology there is.

August Links Roundup: Love and Dark

Happy Lammas! This month’s harvest of links is loosely bound together by the theme of category reversal and overturned binaries (no surprise).

Over at Stay Woke Tarot, a blog that brings author Rashunda’s African-American heritage and political concerns to bear on topics in alternative spirituality, the post “Are you afraid of the dark?” challenges the color-prejudice in our conventional metaphors for good and bad. In this corner: enlightenment, “love and light”, angels in white robes. In the other: black magic, shadow side, a dark (hopeless) outlook. Rashunda’s poetic reversal of our typical language reminds me of my favorite lines from “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (LOL problematic fave): “Turn your face away from the garish light of day, turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light, and listen to the music of the night.”

Light for me doesn’t mean goodness. Or my true self. When I think of “light,” sometimes I think of the bright light of interrogation.

Someone flicking that bright overhead ceiling light on when you’re dozing off into a gentle sleep.

The searing hot sun in the desert, drying out and cracking the soil. Burning. Glaring. Parched land.

Dehydration.

The sun-bleached bones of a dead animal.

Interruption. You’re doing something “wrong” so let’s shine a light on it. Get it out into the open.

Judgement. A Renaissance-blonde angel clothed in sparkling white, ready to blow his trumpet and send us to Hell.

But “darkness” – for me – represents deep, rich fertile soil.

A womb.

Looking at a beautiful night sky.

A large, inviting void just waiting to accept creativity. Ideas.

My mom.

Having a pure black heart.

In the literary journal TriQuarterly, the personal essay “Both and Yet Neither” by novelist and essayist B. Pietras troubles a different boundary, recounting the struggles of his adolescence as a feminine boy, and his love-hate relationship with the myth of Hermaphroditus. Pietras shares how, even after he embraced his differences through cross-dressing and discovering androgyne role models in classic literature, his desires attached to conventionally macho, straight or straight-acting men. His uniqueness and his shame centered on his voice–a fraught problem for a writer, in particular, since “voice” is another word for the maturing writer’s distinctive style or viewpoint.

During my first week of college, I read a centuries-old love poem addressed to someone said to be a hermaphrodite. Published in 1688 by the poet and playwright Aphra Behn, “To the Fair Clarinda” praises a person who seems to be at once a “beauteous Woman” and a “Lovely Charming Youth.” Behn’s speaker relishes the ambiguity of her subject, claiming first that, although Clarinda’s female friends might be attracted to her, they can commit no “crime” with her—that is, they can’t actually sleep with her. But then the speaker pivots, slyly suggesting that if by chance such a crime is possible, Clarinda’s “form excuses it. / For who, that gathers fairest flowers believes /A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves?” (Who indeed? Only after examining the footnotes did I understand the phallic connotations of the snake.) The poem closes by celebrating Clarinda as a “beauteous Wonder of a different kind,” and—for any readers who might still be confused—by alluding to Hermes and Aphrodite.

Behn’s three-hundred-year-old poem made me sit up very straight in my seat, my mind rinsed with wonder, awed at two of the messages it seemed to encode. The first had to do with history. Clarinda was proof that people who broke the rules around gender had existed for centuries: There was a we, and we had a past. The second had to do with desire. Clarinda was proof that androgyny didn’t have to be seen as an awful, freakish thing; to some, it was a marvelous quality. Seductive, even. For the first time, I considered the possibility that “hermaphrodite”—the word I hated, the slur that had hurt me so deeply—could be a caress.

As part of my journey into maleness, I’ve been trying to pitch my voice lower on the phone when I call strangers: my legislators, customer service, political phonebanking, and so forth. I don’t know if it’s fooling anyone, but it makes me feel more confident. I think twice about every habit of speech–does it sound feminine, and is that synonymous with pleasing, deferential, childlike? Can I dial that back, without sounding unnecessarily brusque or robotic?

Captain Awkward, the world’s greatest advice blog, gives the definitive list of reasons for not sharing that “Trump is crazy” meme, in “Rule Explainer: Why We Don’t Diagnose People Over the Internet”. Besides the often-cited problem of perpetuating mental health stigma, this point really stood out for me:

Even if internet stranger diagnosing could be accurate and didn’t cause stigma, it would still be a bad idea. As soon as we distract ourselves from the harm the victim is experiencing and transfer that attention to trying to figure out the psychology of the perpetrator …who we conveniently don’t have access to and can’t question …we start leaving the victim behind…

Why the fuck

did anyone decide

that the most important thing

a victim of bullying could do

is to understand

and take care of

the mental health

of the person who is harming them? 

Why is it even a thing we think people should do? Like, at all?

Why are we trying to solve the life problems of the person who didn’t write in?

And why do we think that’s the work of our community, to the point that people know the rule about diagnosing and we still have to remind everyone (including myself!) not to do it?

I have a theory about why (you knew I had a theory):

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

One source of this addiction is “The Prodigal Son” story from the Christian Bible. Which, depending on where you live in the world, you don’t have to believe in or follow or even have ever read that book and its stories for it to have a profound influence on your culture and the stories it tells. It’s one of those sticky stories that sticks to things.

And right now we’re stuck with it.

The bare bones version: Rule-following brother was cool all along? That’s just what they should have been doing, no big deal. Rule-breaking jerk brother suddenly decides to be a little bit cool for five minutes? LET’S THROW A PARTY! Rule-following cool brother is like, hey, wait a second here, where’s my Not Being A Jerk party? Story: Yeah, you are great and everything, but let’s really appreciate this other person’s shiny new momentary coolness for a second. Cool brother: Ok, I guess. :continues following rules:

The story itself, as it’s intended to be read, is of course much more complicated and beautiful than that. The wayward son in the story has returned home of his own volition, he apologizes, he is not repeating the bad behaviors, he asks permission to return, and doesn’t think he’s entitled to anything special. The welcome he gets is a gift, freely given. The message is: Fairness is good, but kindness is much better, and we can afford to be kind. We love you and you’re still in this family even if you fuck up sometimes.

Beautiful, right?

So, is it petty to point out that his bad behavior in the story is “I was irresponsible with my inheritance” and not “I serially raped and harassed my coworkers for decades” or “I molested a bunch of the kids in my pastoral care” or “I beat the shit out of my wife behind closed doors” or “I swindled a whole bunch of people on the TV” or other crimes with actual living breathing victims?

Victims fuck up the parable, my friends. If Prodigal Son used to beat up the other brother every chance he got when they were growing up, does that brother still have to shut up and enjoy the party and rejoice and be glad his abuser is back in the fold? Are we still like “I know you never hurt anyone, but your brother temporarily, as far as we know, stopped hurting people, and he stopped squandering his money and that is really the most important thing! Stop moping and pass the hummus!” 

I just want to give that son, the not-Prodigal one, a hug so bad. Especially since I keep meeting him again and again in the letters I get here, in families and social groups where someone is mean and the answer is “just ignore him” or “get over it, already.” “Forgive him.” “Invite him to the wedding.” “Keep the peace.” “We’re a faaaaaaamily.” “The Earth Needs That Water, Besides, He Has Depression.” “What if it’s just Asperger Syndrome?

Somewhere in the game of telephone that became our cultural meta-narrative, this lovely little story was reforged into something where, if you are a certain kind of person and you abuse and bully other people, you don’t really have to apologize for abusive things you did, we as a community don’t have to have a reasonable expectation that you will stop doing those things, you can still be a repulsive entitled dangerous ass-boil of a person, but if (on the off chance you actually get caught) for one shining second you act like you might sort of try to do better, if you can make a case that you might not have completely meant it, if you can choke out some lip service that sounds even vaguely like “I’m sorry…”

We skip straight to the part where we throw you the goddamn party.

We start writing articles about how soon you can “rehabilitate your career.”

We talk about your addictions, your struggles, and we endlessly diagnose the reasons that might have made you behave like you did, literally anything that might not be “asshole made series of asshole free will asshole decisions, hurt others.”

And then we tell your victims that they can pretty much suck it.

While we’re on the subject of survivor-centered redemption and healing, check out the blog Fundamentally Free, which amplifies stories of folks who have left spiritually abusive and repressive Christian traditions. In the post “Violence and the Redemption of the Soul”, Jerry Proctor describes how he found an unlikely post-Christian spiritual path in martial arts, channeling his anger into tests of endurance.

I discovered competitive combat sports in my 30s. I’d been raised to avoid fighting. Be peaceful. Aggression was wrong. Blessed are the peacemakers. When my faith crumbled, I was left with a dearth of tools to build the person I would become; the man I wanted to be. I accidentally discovered boxing, and I loved it. The bug bit me on the first day. It shaped the man I became.

I didn’t approach the sport for any reasons I could articulate. I needed exercise. But week after week, as I went back, I knew I found something I needed. It fed something more. Only looking backward can I understand what drove me. There was so much unresolved anger. There was an absence of spiritual structure, and I needed a wordless way to rebuild my soul devoid of pomposity. That’s what you get from a lifetime of submerging rage, frustration, and disappointment inside. When your only tools are pious catch-phrases and Bible verses, the anger has no place to flow. It builds up. All those constraints were gone. Fortunately, I found my training…

As a student of theology who eventually walked away from it, I acquired an allergy for bullshit metaphysics. I love the physicality of the martial arts. It changed me without a lot of talking. My strength, my reflexes, my timing, my cardio. Training changed me without a lot of verbiage wrapped around why I wanted to change, or what I wanted to become.

Real Social Skills is a very smart blog about boundaries, power dynamics, resisting ableism, and thriving as a neurodivergent person. Their post “Don’t order people to feel safe” pinpoints a subtle kind of manipulation and doublespeak in social justice workshops, a problem that I’d sensed but never been able to articulate.

Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”

“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.

No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us.

When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do…

…We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.

People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time.

Riffing on J. Halberstam’s book title The Queer Art of Failure, columnist Laurie Penny at The Baffler teases out the implications of my favorite comfort TV in her post “The Queer Art of Failing Better”. Last year, Netflix rebooted the early-2000’s makeover show “Queer Eye”. The Fab Five’s interventions are not just for straight guys anymore; one of my favorite episodes was devoted to a black church mama and her shy gay son. But there are plenty of interventions for their original constituency: stalled-out straight dudes who need to be taught how to groom themselves instead of waiting for their wives and mothers to do it. It’s this burden-shifting of female emotional labor that Penny sees as the show’s real subject:

On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism. I am absolutely here for it, as long as we all get paid…

…What the Queer Eye guys seem to be gently teaching their subjects (and, by extension, their viewers) is that it is possible to live well without a woman to take care of you—and if you’re lucky enough to have one offer to do so anyway, maybe you should show her some consideration by picking up after yourself and learning how to apply the business end of a comb. When you put it like that, it sounds simple. But two thousand years of socialization and half a century of profit-oriented self-dealing throw up a few mental hurdles.

This show isn’t about how to win at life, but how to fail with style. It’s about giving straight guys permission to be more gracious losers. It helps that the show doesn’t actually have winners. This is not the ruthless, dick-smacking, alpha-primate pursuit of victory-for-victory’s sake that provides a plot line for most American reality television as well as for American politics, presuming you can still see clear water between the two. No, this is an oddly compassionate exit interview for the middle-managerial caste of straight dudes who are no longer steering a culture that prizes their skill set above everyone else’s…

…The crisis of capitalism is also, as theorist Nancy Fraser puts it, a “crisis of care”—of reproductive labor. The work that the world most urgently requires is work that women have traditionally done for low wages or for no wages, and this is work that cannot be effectively automated or subsumed within the profit model. Someone has to do the dishes.

This is not to say, of course, that the subjects of Queer Eye are first-order victims of global capitalism’s concerted campaign to hollow out working-class life. These men are not marginalized, but they are nonetheless living in the margins of the lives they had perhaps expected. There are people with far more pressing problems than simply having no idea that clothes don’t live on the floor. In their own way, though, these men are quietly drowning, and a lot of the people who love this show the hardest have spent years of our offscreen lives trying to serve as—or at least to inflate—the life-rafts.

Actual queers in today’s America, on the other hand, often have more serious problems than learning to use a laundry hamper. For trans and gender-nonconforming people, along with right-wing efforts to roll back civil rights at the state and federal levels, we have to deal with left-wing “contrarian” thinkpieces disputing our identities. Trans writers and well-informed allies (including the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ activist organization) roundly condemned Jesse Singal’s Atlantic Monthly cover story on desistance and the supposed pressure on trans kids to make irrevocable medical decisions. Now, journalist Noah Berlatsky has compiled a list of links debunking the biases and inaccuracies in this prominent feature story. See, for instance, Alex Barasch’s response piece at Slate, asking why we continue to privilege cis parents’ anxiety over life-saving care for the majority of trans youth who don’t freely choose to revert to their birth-assigned gender:

[O]nly a specific subset of detransitioners—namely cisgender women and girls who misinterpreted mental health issues or more general gender nonconformity as signs that they might be trans, only to realize later that this was not the case—are of interest to Singal and the media writ large. Those who are intimidated back into the closet, those who are battling intense stigma both internally and institutionally, those who begin the process only to find that their insurance won’t cover their transition—none of these people are given a voice. I know more than one trans man who might have been counted among Singal’s tomboys who were saved from themselves if profiled in their mid-teens—never mind that they were repressed, miserable, and would in fact go on to transition. But such is the double standard of the piece. A fourteen-year-old who outgrows her dysphoria is celebrated, her self-knowledge taken as definitive; a fourteen-year-old who seeks to transition is still in flux and must be given time to change their mind.

Finally, to end on an upbeat (?) note, for fans of this blog’s Murder Ballad Mondays. At CrimeReads, an affiliate of Literary Hub, detective novelist Mark Billingham explores “Why the Best Country Music Is Crime Fiction”: “At its best, country music…seems to me to do what the very best mystery fiction can, and arguably should do. It can tell dark, dark stories, and wrap them up in an entertaining package, turning an often twisted narrative into an earworm. It can reveal unpleasant truths while it keeps your foot tapping.”

 

Revealing Self: Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel’s Multimedia Memoir

Visual artist Tom Taylor, a/k/a The Poet Spiel, is a creator of varied personae, with a 66-year career spanning genres from graphic design to mixed-media collage and installation art, poetry, and now memoir. His new book, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, is an impressionistic retrospective of his personal journey and the dramatic shifts in his style and materials over the decades.

Boldly colored reproductions of his artwork are interspersed with vignettes, aphorisms, dreamlike or nightmarish memories, and previously published poems reformatted as prose paragraphs. These written sections are set off in quotation marks, like tantalizing snippets of an overheard conversation, and formatted in a multi-hued script that creates the impression of an artist’s journal. (This font was admittedly a challenge to read in large amounts, but the necessity of slowing down may have helped me absorb more of the meaning.) Instead of traditional narrative transitions, third-person summaries of the action, in a more businesslike sans-serif font, serve as occasional signposts to situate the samples of his creative work within the chronology of his life and travels.

And what a life: Born in 1941, Spiel was a maverick from the start. He grew up on a Colorado farm on the Great Plains, a repressive environment for a gay artistic boy with migraines and manic-depressive tendencies. The early pages of his book speak candidly, in intense and hallucinatory flashbacks seared with humor, about the burden of his mother’s mental illness and her violation of his intimate boundaries. His bond with animals and nature kept his soul alive, a connection he would later channel into successful commercial posters and landscape paintings of wildlife, inspired by his travels in Zambia. In the 1990s his work took a surreal and expressionist turn, protesting social conformity and war. His life as a gay man in America has given him an outsider perspective on the hypocrisy of conventional mores, and a rage against the stifling of his authentic life force. These themes show up in his raw, satirical, unpretentious poems. Revealing Self invites the reader to experience Rimbaud’s maxim that “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.”

Spiel has kindly permitted me to reprint this poem, first published in his chapbook Human (Pudding House Press, 2003).

July Bonus Links: Open Borders Edition

Hello again, fans. The fascist nightmare engulfing our country merited its own links post, so here you go. At the risk of putting myself on a government watchlist, I must say, never have I felt less enthusiastic about the patriotic celebrations of July 4th. I believe in what America ought to be, but am realizing that–structurally, intentionally–that is not what America is. (White person discovers the obvious, Episode N+1.)

My readers probably don’t know that “Jendi” was not my legal name–until last month, when the Hampshire County Court made my 40-year-long dream a reality. (Long story, of course having to do with my mother, not the point.) Now I am in the middle of the arduous process of changing all my official documents, which must be done at various far-flung government offices in a particular order and sometimes at ridiculous expense. Folks, I am shitting bricks till my expedited passport comes back from the State Department. Not because I plan to go anywhere, but because it’s suddenly occurred to me how creepy it is, that we are all technically imprisoned within the borders of the nation-state where we happen to be born.

George Mason University economics professor Alex Tabarrok makes “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders–Completely” in a 2015 article in The Atlantic. After citing statistics that immigration raises GDP, Tabarrok adds:

Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike. The immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe.

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other, but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

Economic data is easy to massage to fit one’s political views, certainly, but it’s worth questioning why conventional wisdom and government policy currently encourage the free movement of capital but not the free movement of workers.

At the leftist political journal Jacobin, Domenic Powell lays out a program for the Democrats to implement meaningful immigration reform in his article “How to Abolish ICE”. The piece suggests strategies we can try at the local level, such as pressuring our law enforcement agencies to stop sharing data with ICE and to end agreements whereby ICE rents space to detain immigrants in our jails. The article also recommends that Congress set up an immigration court system that is independent of the Justice Department, to stop treating all undocumented people as presumptive criminals.

If you’re in Massachusetts, call your state representatives and Governor Charlie Baker to pass the Safe Communities Act, which cleared the Senate in May. Also see this article from Colorlines about “How You Can Support Detained Immigrant Families”. From protesting to donating to making phone calls, there’s something for nearly everyone to do. I’m hosting a birthday fundraiser through Facebook for the National Immigration Law Center.

Meanwhile, white evangelical Trump supporters are doing their best to destroy what’s left of Christianity’s reputation. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified tearing immigrant children from their parents by citing Romans 13, saying that everyone must obey the laws because “God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clark, a/k/a Slacktivist, deconstructs this interpretation in “Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address”:

[N]ote the full enormity of what Sessions is doing there. He’s not just invoking the Bible to justify this one policy, but to justify — as beyond question and beyond criticism — any and every policy. Yes, specifically he’s claiming the divine right to put children in cages, but more than that he’s claiming to be an agent of God and therefore that whatever he does is divine, and that we mere mortals have no choice but to submit and obey…

…The idea of “the government” that Sessions is asserting — and attempting to sanction with scripture — is not compatible with the idea stated by our greatest Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Slacktivist remarks that most Christian political philosophy, be it liberal or conservative, makes the mistake of treating “the government” as an entity separate from “the people”, something that was true in St. Paul’s time but not in our modern democracies. (As humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote at the end of his political satire Parliament of Whores, “In a democracy, the whores are us.”)

We don’t have a king or a Caesar, we have usWe are, in this time and place and in this system — however imperfectly realized — the authorities appointed as servants of God to do good.

We must not irresponsibly reject that appointment by reading Romans 13 as though we were first-century subjects of an all-powerful emperor. We shouldn’t be reading that passage for wisdom about our accountability to government, but for wisdom about our accountability as government.

Otherwise we’re conceding the argument to Jeff Sessions and other would-be rulers claiming a divine right to demand our submission. That will make us accountable to him to obey whatever he tells us about children in cages. We need to turn that around. We need to demand that he be accountable to us, and that if what he does is wrong he should fear us, for we have authority and we do not bear it in vain.

It’s been a disappointing year for progressives at the Supreme Court. I’m especially worried about how the Court has been chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, because the Republicans have been trying for decades to rig the system by disenfranchising poor and nonwhite voters. In the Husted case, decided last month, the Court narrowly upheld Ohio’s shady plan to purge voters from the rolls based on their lack of response to an easy-to-miss mass mailing. Over at Slate, commentator Mark Joseph Stern describes the battling jurisprudential philosophies of Justices Sotomayor and Alito in “Sam vs. Sonia”. He thinks the conservatives are winning:

In the legal battles between state officials and Americans who believe their suffrage is under siege, whose voices matter most? Those of lawmakers complaining about the difficulty of performing their duties, or those of minorities who feel their most fundamental right has been suppressed? Which side deserves the Supreme Court’s empathy? Through Alito, this court has clearly picked a side, elevating the voices of state officials who insist that their purges and gerrymanders do not block equal access to the ballot. Its favoritism will have dire consequences for decades to come.

Poor judicial decision-making comes as no surprise to the folks at the socialist journal Current Affairs, such as writers Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni, who explore the quirky and arbitrary power of individual bench-sitters in their article “Judging the Judges”:

Knowledge of the individual personalities of judges is such an important feature of the legal system that it operates as a skill in a lawyer’s toolkit, one that can be paid for. Supreme Court clerks who choose to go to big law firms after clerking on the court receive massive bonuses, often hundreds of thousands of dollars. The main asset they bring to their new firms is their firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of a particular Supreme Court justice’s mind. Large firms understand the strategic value of knowing a judge personally—what they like, what they dislike, what considerations will make them most likely to agree with you.

With judges wielding such concentrated and individualized power over cases, courtrooms quickly become stages for bizarre legal farces. Lawyers make arguments they don’t believe, that the judges know the lawyers don’t believe, but everyone has to play along. Only the judge has the power to decide when the game will end, and how. Let’s say, for example, that your client lost a case because they didn’t show up for a previous hearing. They likely missed that hearing for some reason that a normal person would find totally understandable: They didn’t have a lawyer at the time, they don’t speak English that well and didn’t understand what the hearing was for, they couldn’t get time off work, the bus got stuck in traffic on the way to the courthouse. But under the applicable statute, it’s likely that none of these perfectly rational and comprehensible explanations are admissible. In this situation, you know, and the judge knows, the real reasons the client missed the hearing. But you’ll have to try to make an argument about something totally different, something that this particular judge might choose to accept, even though they know that your argument has little to nothing to do with the reality of the situation.

At times, this peculiar trade in niche arguments feels thoroughly demented. If the judge wanted a bribe, that would at least feel normal. Everyone wants money. But what judges want is some strange intellectual product. Maybe they want you to cleverly contort the facts into some tiny legal box. Maybe they want to be convinced that doing whatever you’re asking them to do will quickly vanish the case from their docket and free the judge up to go to lunch. Or maybe the judge made up their mind about the case the second they glanced down at the paperwork, and is now simply idly watching you dance.

The fact that legal arguments are usually completely divorced from reality is partially a function of the law itself, and not solely the judges. That said, nothing prevents judges from acting like rational, normal people instead of playing games with people’s lives and making lawyers jump through hoops.

What, then, is the answer? Not “impartiality”, which the authors believe is an impossible ideal. They argue that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum should put less faith in the judiciary to drive social change:

If we aspire to a form of democracy where there is an actual connection between the organizing efforts of the general public and the subsequent behavior of our elected officials, pushing for reforms to make our elected government more responsive to popular concerns is a better route than relying on distant elites to undo the mistakes of other elites. When you put power in the hands of unaccountable elites, you never know what they will do with it.

While it’s not a cure-all, it would also help to reform and diversify legal education, so that judges are not so out of touch with the real lives of the ordinary people before them:

Part of the problem, of course, is that judges are separated from poor litigants by class and, often, race. If we want more judges to exercise discretion in an empathetic direction, it seems crucial to diversify the pool of judges, perhaps directly through quotas, or indirectly by reducing social and financial barriers to entry in the legal profession. Also important is changing the dominant ethos of legal education, which overwhelmingly privileges the pet concerns of legal academics and corporate clients over the kinds of issues that affect the vast majority of the people caught up in our courts.

I second that remark about legal education. Personally, my journey from young libertarian to armchair radical began 21 years ago when I started a clerkship with a New York State appeals judge. He happened to be a progressive, which made my transformation smoother, but what really opened my eyes was the case summaries themselves. Our staff attorneys would write summaries of the legal briefs and the trial record, so we could quickly handle the cases that didn’t present any important legal issue and focus on the knottier ones. For the first time, I was reading true stories of what it was like to live in dangerous public housing, or be sentenced to 5-10 years for selling $10 worth of crack. Relative to my peers in elite schools, I’d felt underprivileged; now I saw how privileged I was compared to other people in my neighborhood, let alone the city. We never read those kinds of stories in law school. That’s outrageous. I do think we brought about some positive changes and did justice in our limited way during my 3-year tenure. The courts alone won’t save us, but wherever you are, do what you can.