Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Witches, Gods, and Ducks

The Young Master (soon to turn 7) and I have become regulars at Forbes Library’s kids’ department on Saturday mornings, listening to the ukelele band rehearse in the community room while we work our way through their extensive comics and graphic novels collection. Big-name superhero comics are the junk food of literature, stimulating but nutritionally questionable, though they’re good for his reading practice. To me, it all looks like a bunch of over-muscled white guys punching each other.

The purple melodrama of “Batman” suits my camp aesthetic, but at read-aloud time, I try to point out the mental-health ableism and inaccuracy of Arkham Asylum as a revolving door of grotesque villains. Batman and the Joker seem like two sides of self-hating homosexuality–the flamboyant predator and the Übermensch of the police state. I can’t help seeing Gotham through the lens of the other book I’m currently reading, French journalist Frédéric Martel’s new exposé In the Closet of the Vatican, which details how the Catholic Church’s most powerful and homophobic cardinals were in bed with fascist dictatorships during the day and with undocumented rent boys during the night.

But fear not, more wholesome fare is in our rotation. We’re delighted with Molly Knox Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novel The Witch Boy, a coming-of-age story about a youth whose magical skills transgress the gender roles of his community. All the girls in Aster’s extended family are supposed to become witches, and the boys, animal shapeshifters who defend them from evil spirits. However, Aster’s passion is for witchery. With the help of Charlie, a non-magical girl from the neighboring suburb, he uses his forbidden talent to fight a monster in a way that only he can. Charlie, who has two (off-page) dads, is uniquely sympathetic to Aster’s dilemma because she’s a female athlete struggling for equal opportunities at her school. Both children are people of color, and Aster’s extended family includes a variety of ethnicities. The artwork, in cozy earth tones, is clear and expressive, and not too scary for younger readers. I promised Shane I’d pick up the sequel, The Hidden Witch, at Flame Con this summer. Book three, The Midwinter Witch, will come out in November.

We discovered George O’Connor’s Greek myth cartoons in the anthology Fable Comics, edited by Chris Duffy. (The Fairy Tale Comics and Nursery Rhyme Comics anthologies in this series are fun too.) O’Connor’s Olympians graphic novel series is a playful, stylish retelling of the tales that my generation first read in the classic D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. (Adam and I each still have our original copy of that bright orange hardcover.) Each Olympians book is about a different god or goddess. We began with O’Connor’s Hermes: Tales of the Trickster because the messenger god and his chaotically playful son Pan suit Shane’s personality 100%. This book is both a great adventure comic and a painless introduction to classic literature. For those wishing to dig deeper, there are humorous endnotes, discussion questions, and a bibliography.

When I was a kid, I had two anthologies that I re-read countless times: The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and The Smithsonian Collection of Comic-Book Comics. (Good thing I still own them because they seem to be out of print.) I pored over the noir adventures of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, the proto-feminist antics of Little Lulu, and the folksy satire of Pogo. Now, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (Abrams ComicArts, 2009), brings that experience to a new generation with 300+ pages of toons from the 1940s-50s. It looks like the editors worked hard to weed out stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster in modern times. Check it out for such wacky gems as “Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism” and Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s expedition to Tralla La, a remote civilization without money, where he hopes for relief from the pressures of being a gazillionaire. Of course, human (or duck) nature is not so easy to escape…

March Links Roundup: Sacred Arts, Imperfect Mediators

Just as today we debate “separating the art from the artist” when an influential creator’s bad behavior comes to light, the early Christians were split over the standards for mediating their own sacred inspiration. A purist breakaway group in North Africa in the fourth century contended that clergy had to be morally blameless, or else their ministry, prayers, and administration of the sacraments were not effective. Because church authorities (rather conveniently) rejected this position, we know it as the “Donatist heresy”.

The official line has pragmatism to commend it: it’s bad enough when “all your faves are problematic”, but if you have to start worrying that your baptism or absolution is invalid, your eternal fate might depend on the unknown misdeeds of your priest. That’s too much stress and uncertainty for the flock. On the other hand, I think we’re seeing nowadays that the clergy abuse crisis is retroactively undermining many Christians’ experiences of God in church. The truths they thought they knew, the love they felt in the worship and sacraments–was it all a lie? When someone or something formative for us is exposed as predatory, we may even doubt the goals, beliefs, and affections that once seemed synonymous with our “self”.

In this October 2018 article from Vox, Constance Grady asks some literary critics to weigh in on “What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster?” On social media, there’s a predictable cycle of declaring that some creator is “cancelled” because of anything from an unfortunate remark to serial predation, followed by a flurry of equally simplistic rants against political correctness. Separating art from artist was the premise of early 20th century New Criticism, which has stuck with us because it makes English-class papers easier to write without historical background. Postmodern “death of the author” theory, meanwhile, can empower readers to reclaim the text from its problematic origins. I see a similarity to the way that progressive Christians claim personal authority to talk back to oppressive Bible passages and carve out a place for marginalized people in the tradition. On the other hand, New Historicists warn that the reader is also embedded in a context that may include the same vices that plagued the creator, like racism and rape culture. We need to look at ourselves as critically as the text.

The critics differed, however, on the question of whether it’s ever reasonable for a critic to decide not to engage with art made by a predator. There are two basic arguments here. One of those arguments…says that engaging critically with a work of art is completely different from endorsing the morality of the artist… The other argument says that our time is limited, we cannot devote equal critical attention to every work of art out there, and it’s reasonable for critics to curate their choices a little…

The issue here is not just “Is this artist monstrous?” but “Is this work of art asking me as a reader to be complicit with the artist’s monstrosity?” It’s the same argument that has come up repeatedly with R. Kelly, who writes songs about sex and consent and age differences between lovers, and who has also been accused of sexually assaulting very young women and girls.

I agree with Grady’s conclusion that there’s no one-size-fits-all theory that’ll determine when to disengage from questionable art or artists. Like a dysfunctional family where love is also possible, or a church that can be both oppressive and liberating, staying or going is a very individual decision.

Over at Into Account, a new blog for lifting up the voices of abuse survivors in church, Stephanie Krehbiel has a message for anyone who’d override that discernment process: “Godly Men, Be Quiet”. Conservative church leaders lately have been making noise about #MeToo because they can’t ignore it, but their pronouncements aren’t followed by structural change or repentance. Survivor-led reform isn’t happening. Too bad:

The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.

Their business is not to lead; it is to follow. Not for a designated period of penance. Not as part of a healing ritual that they can subsequently advertise. Not as a finite disciplinary sentence.

FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

Patriarchal Christian masculinity is a powerful drug. It makes many church men believe that the world desperately needs their perspective on everything. It makes their followers believe that asking such men to step aside from leadership is somehow tantamount to cruelty. God is always calling these men to lead someone or something, even when what they know about that thing may be approximately two cents less than nothingParticularly in the evangelical world, the spiritual quality that seems to most define men like this is their ability to imagine that they hear God in the voice of their own ambition…

I am not asking men in church leadership positions to do nothing about sexual abuse. I’m asking them to devote themselves to the task of following people who have less social power than they do.

Which, you know, sounds a lot like what Jesus told us to do…

In the New York Times last month, Elizabeth Dias’ investigative feature on gay Catholic priests, “It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage,” is a heartbreaking look at scores of mostly-anonymous clergy trying to live their vocation while crushed by hypocrisy, secrecy, and loneliness. Being sexually active, apparently, is less scandalous than being honest about one’s orientation while celibate. The atmosphere is even more stifling now because church leadership is erroneously scapegoating gay clergy for the sexual abuse crisis.

Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent…

…The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.

This topic is in the news again because of the new book In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, an exposé by French journalist Frédéric Martel. On the Nonviolent Atonement blog, gay Catholic theologian James Alison offers a sensitive and well-thought-out analysis of the problem and the way forward. Alison’s work helped me tremendously a decade ago when I was tormented by the gay/Christian question.

Alison describes the book, for which he was interviewed, as “the first attempt of which I am aware at a properly researched answer to the question: ‘How and why is it that the principal institutional obstacle to LGBT rights at the worldwide level appears itself to be massively staffed by gay men?'” This is not a book about the child abuse crisis per se, but rather, about how a culture of duplicity and blackmail is conducive to all sorts of abuses and cover-ups. Most people in the system are not even aware of the big picture:

We’re not talking about one single big lie, where all these men butch it up in public until they get back behind the Vatican walls ― at which point all can relax together in a theatrical green room, let down their hair and call each other Monica, Morgana or Mechthilde while swapping hot takes about their respective beaux. Rather we are talking about endless small lies, defensive manoeuvres, acts of hiding of self, adoptions of positions, fear of loss of livelihood, betrayals of friends, disguises of love, hints of blackmail, bizarre alliances, coded exchanges and resilient creations of habitable bubbles. We are also talking about the ways this system of mendacity reproduces itself through newcomers joining in playing the game. All involved are lying to and about themselves and each other; and yet, at the same time, they both know and don’t know what each other knows.

Furthermore, many are tortured by their own duplicity, not yet having achieved the perfection of polished cognitive dissonance at which some of those whom Martel interviews have obviously arrived. This matches what I have myself observed: the most venomous anti-clericalism and hatred of the Vatican comes from the mouths of its own clerical employees.

Meanwhile, the cognitive dissonance is amplified as sexual diversity has become mainstream in the outside world. Honest discussion of sexuality is the norm–except in the Church. Alison notes (a point that also emerged in the New York Times article) that unlike heterosexual men, many of the gay priests took their vows of celibacy without real understanding of their sexuality or options for healthy romantic partnership.

Church authority still teaches that a young gay person cannot appropriately be socialised into the humanisation of their emotional and sexual urges while dreaming of being married to someone they love. Indeed, far too many Catholic high schools, especially in the United States, are viciously legalistic in their attempts to apply these teachings to their employees and young charges. Further the authorities teach that such a young gay person does not have freedom of choice concerning whether to opt for marriage or a single life. They have a solemn obligation to singleness, with the threat of Hell a powerful enforcer….

Yes, the authorities really do deny there to be such a thing as an emotionally and psychologically balanced openly gay person who, therefore, might make a free choice between marriage or celibacy and so become a straightforward, honest candidate for seminary.

Now, that the official position is a lie is obvious to everyone, and scarcely applied anywhere. Even hard-line Bishops claim that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but instead on the basis of something they call “emotional and affective maturity.” But that effectively means that they do not believe their own teaching, for they are admitting people who their own official teaching claims not to exist. Such candidates are automatically implicated in the dishonesty of their superiors simply by being there. Furthermore, any gay candidate need only learn how to pretend not to be gay, for which many of them have had a whole adolescence-worth of training, and they will certainly find enough seminary officials who will induct them into playing “wink wink, nudge nudge,” having themselves become masters at the same game.

In short, long before any issue of a candidate’s sexual practice comes up, whether in the past, the present or the future, he finds that the one thing that is impossible is straightforward, first-person narrative honesty.

…Imitation is a much stronger force than instruction, and any gay candidate for seminary will see many others like himself already in the seminary, and will be interviewed by others like himself on the seminary staff. If in the midst of this he is presented with the instruction “You are required to be honest about being gay, and if you are gay and honest, your vocations counsellor is required to tell you that you cannot join,” he is not really being presented with a straightforward moral choice. In context, he is being presented with a hurdle, and his capacity to jump it will show whether or not he will be a suitable game player like all the others. Just in case the hurdle seems a little high, and if the vocations director likes the candidate, he may suggest that the kid is not really gay, just suffering from a transitory form of “same-sex attraction” or some other ecclesiastically convenient fiction. If the vocations director doesn’t like him, then, indeed, the fact that he is gay can be used to keep him out.

A dishonest system cannot demand honesty from its recruits, since in a dishonest system even the demand is dishonestly made and will be dishonestly received.

Alison concludes with a call for the Church to be honest with its children about God’s love for them regardless of orientation, and to bring its doctrines in line with the current evidence of science and psychology that queerness is a “regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.”

I’m afraid I’m not optimistic. But if Christianity survives as anything worthwhile, it’ll be because of folks like Alison.

Facing Literary Impermanence With Marie Kondo

Tidying-up guru Marie Kondo is trending this winter since her new show started on Netflix. Thrift shops are reportedly experiencing a surge in donations of books, clothes, and household items that no longer “spark joy” for their owners. Meanwhile, social media debates are raging about Kondo’s out-of-context quote about owning only 30 books, while feminist Twitter agrees that it’s also time to de-accession men who don’t help with the housework. (Episode 1 husband, we’re looking at you.)

They say that if you want to get your house clean, start writing a novel. Well, it’s true. But I must protest that my KonMari fever is no mere procrastination tactic. Editing my life builds the same skills I need for mastering the clutter in my imagination. Am I listening to my intuition about what excites me–regardless of what I think I should own, or write, or do? Can I recognize that my relationship with something has ended, but still honor it? If I dare to prioritize my own joy, what obligations or substitute pleasures must I eliminate, while living in a way that’s sustainable and responsible toward others?

KonMari isn’t minimalism. Book Twitter’s outrage notwithstanding, she’s not prescriptive about what you should own. It’s a compassionate but decisive self-assessment of who you are now and what you want to carry forward into the future.

So, for me, “Tidying Up” came along at the perfect time for major life changes. If I’m no longer a woman, a Christian, or a size 12, what’s left is…still quite a lot of stuff, but a lot less than before.

Last month I mailed seven large boxes of literary journals to a poet who was collecting donations for prisoners in California, and gave two more crates of theology books to the used bookstore down the street in exchange for $20 and a coffee-table book about Lego sculptures for Shane. Letting go of books is unsettling for writers, because we don’t want to contemplate the undeniable fact that someone else is looking at our book, deciding it doesn’t spark joy, and chucking it into a donation box. Book Twitter’s dirty little secret: We don’t care that Marie is purging our shelves, we fear that she’s purging someone else’s shelves of us.

But here’s the thing: There is no co-dependent caretaking contract for books, just as that contract is never enforceable in personal relationships. “Go to other people’s funerals so they’ll come to yours” is a good joke but bad advice. Keeping Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology or the 2005 print run of Iowa Review, out of obligation or pity for the obscure authors therein, does not affect whether anyone reads Two Natures. (And really, that’s not why you should read it.) There’s no heavenly point system, as in “The Good Place” sitcom, where angels tally up my literary acts of compassion to reward me with posthumous fame.

My ongoing KonMari home-edit makes me face my unconscious belief in this co-dependent bargain, and repeatedly recognize its empty promises. This frees me (somewhat) to ignore the inner critic in my writing brain, who incessantly tells me that my novel-in-progress is too niche, intellectual, and sad. Binch, that’s my brand.

I can’t stress enough how gratitude is an essential piece of KonMari. My internal younger selves feel shamed by my rejection of things that were central to their identity, from radical orthodoxy to floral-print dresses. Before I can let those possessions go, I have to thank them, and by extension the psychological parts of me who owned them, and give all of us permission to change. Then I have to understand how the process triggers memories of being raised by a narcissist (and an unworn-clothes-hoarder!) who didn’t allow me to have any preferences different from hers. It would have been unthinkable, in my mother’s household, to refuse something just because I didn’t like it. I either had to endure wearing/eating/doing it, or decide if I cared enough to make a documented federal case that it was Objectively Bad.

So I fired her.

Tidying up, I’ve discovered, is always about so much more than possessions. Eminem knows how I feel:

December Links Roundup: We’ve Always Been Here

Happy Advent and Hanukkah to my readers! This year, to honor my ancestors and the victims of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere), I’ve begun lighting Hanukkah candles again. As I did at his age, the Young Master loves the ritual of selecting the colors for each night, and seeing the little flames cheer up the early darkness of these winter evenings. Pro tip, this grapefruit peeler is great for extracting the wax stubs from those tiny candle holder cups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility of minority identities, and the compromises involved in translating one’s self into an alien discourse. “They” is a grammatically awkward pronoun precisely because life outside the gender binary is supposed to be unthinkable. Then, too, there is the question of why recognition matters. Who is our audience? Are we signaling solidarity to others in the tribe, or are we seeking public validation of an identity that we ourselves are insecure about?

Speaking of visibility in unlikely places, if you grew up in a progressive household in the 1970s, you probably remember Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castile soap. I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub, puzzling over the philosophical tracts that covered every inch of the bottle label in tiny print. These quirky paeans to the “All-One-God-Faith” included quotes from Thomas Paine, the lyrics of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and the timeless advice: “Don’t drink soap! Dilute! Dilute! OK!” At the social justice blog The Establishment, Casey Kleczek gives a thumbnail history of the still family-owned brand in “A Soap Label to Save the World from Future Hitlers”:

Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”

This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.

In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl:  “You were right.”

For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”

Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.

After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”

The article goes on to give an even-handed account of the impact of Bronner’s zeal on his family, whom he neglected in his quest to spread his message. After much financial and medical turmoil, things turned around for the Bronners during the natural-products craze of the 1960s, and the rest is history.

At the Huffington Post, writer and theater performer Travis Alabanza argues that white supremacy plays a role in erasing gender diversity, in the article “Non-Binary People Aren’t a New Phenomenon”. Since the mainstream media has taken notice of trans issues only recently, there’s the implication that these identities are a new trend, and therefore shallow and insubstantial. But gender-bending identities have been named and given space in a variety of cultures, from South Asian hijra to the bakla of the Philippines. “I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as ‘just beginning to exist’ when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say ‘non-binary was new’, or did we just mean to say ‘non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about’.” Alabanza worries that this new framing will lead to a narrowing of possibilities, so that nonbinary becomes a cloned look: “skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre.”

A welcome variety of literary personalities, including Northampton’s own Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg, are on view in Peter Haldeman’s NY Times profle “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature”. These authors, along with other rising stars like Akwaeke Emezi and Kai Cheng Thom, discuss how genderqueer literature lends itself to a “magpie” approach to genre, with narratives that incorporate fables, poetic devices, faux-scholarly footnotes, and other postmodern techniques.

While literary innovation may be flourishing in the Pioneer Valley, traditional test-driven education is doing its best to stamp it out, writes Ryan Boyd in his LA Review of Books article “Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them” , reviewing John Warner’s new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Students’ lack of competence or passion for writing can be blamed on “how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive.” Teaching to the test–the formulaic composition assignments on topics no one cares about–stifles students’ curiosity and burdens them with economic anxiety from a young age. Students are unmotivated, not because they’re lazy and coddled, but because they intuitively understand that these assignments are merely grooming them to become corporate cogs and neoliberal consumers.

The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.

No wonder I did poorly on the AP English exams!

Just for fun, check out humorist Daniel Ortberg’s “Potential Names For My Short-Lived Queer Suiting Company That Will Fold Under Mysterious Circumstances Eight Months After Launching”:

If there’s one thing I know to be true in this world, it’s that anytime I click on an article that says something like “Five AWESOME Companies Making Androgynous/Non-Binary/Genderfluid/Queer-Bodied Suits for the Butch/Masc-of-Center/TenderBlenderBabyBoi In Your Life,” if said article is more than half a year old, fully half of those links will be dead and the companies in question will be decisively, yet mysteriously, out of existence. (With the exception of Bindle and Keep, it would seem; may their doors never close.) I don’t quite know why this is! My guess is that it’s a relatively small client base, suits are generally kind of expensive, especially if you want a custom fit, and the butch/stud/transmasculine/et al market covers a lot of different body types. But that doesn’t stop us from launching another round every couple of years, because hope and ignorance of markets spring eternal (see The Toast).

Create your own company name from your birth month and day! Mine is “Wolf & Ranger”. We make cowboi hats…

November Links Roundup: Whose Side Are You On

The theme for November is “I hope I can fit everything interesting I’ve read this month into one post”. But you could say that these links loosely gather around the idea of clearly facing our alternatives and taking a stand. This heightened resolve reflects the mood of the country, where progressives seem to be waking up to the fact that moderation and bridge-building are an ineffective response to fundamentalism and fascism. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be especially grateful to the Massachusetts voters who passed Question 3 by a solid 2-to-1 margin, keeping our transgender nondiscrimination law on the books.

At Pacific Standard, freelance journalist Noah Berlatsky contends that “Israel Doesn’t Show Us How to Fight Fascism–But the Diaspora Can”. He notes a divergence between the intersectional, progressive values of many American Jews, and the right-wing Israeli government’s coziness with Trump. Like many in my generation, he grew up on the belief that support for Israel was our insurance policy against renewed persecution in our home countries. But it’s time to rethink that: “Israel as a state doesn’t feel threatened by growing fascism abroad because Israel as a state isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the target of fascism abroad…The Nazis didn’t just hate the diaspora at random either; they hated the diaspora for being a diaspora. Nazi propaganda attacked Jews as being despicable precisely because they were a people without a country.”

Berlatsky suggests we should look to the 19th-century Bund movement as our historical model instead: “The Bund and other Jewish socialist movements used Jewish diaspora internationalism as a springboard to socialist internationalism, and vice versa. Rather than seeking a Jewish homeland, Jewish socialists and communists had a vision of trans-national equality, in which workers of all nations would be liberated…When Jewish identity is centered on Israel, the diaspora is always supposed to be vaguely embarrassed because it conforms to fascist stereotypes about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, intellectualism. But is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?”

For a different perspective on the lessons of Jewish history, the Yale University Press blog editors recently interviewed James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, about the Jewish leaders who created the modern concept of international human rights:

In writing this book, I wanted to puncture the widespread myth that Zionism has no connection to the history of human rights. Many people assume that since Zionism was a nationalist movement, it focused only on securing the Jews a homeland. Some even assume that Zionism’s particularism placed it in opposition to the universal cosmopolitanism of human rights. But the truth is that before international human rights there was the cause of international minority rights, and that project was to a large degree a Zionist one.

There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, only Zionists thought globally about Jewish peoplehood and made grand claims to be acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Bundism, Diaspora Nationalism, and other important Jewish political movements stopped their activism at the borders of the lands in which their leaders lived. Other non-Zionist Jewish liberals cared deeply but selectively about far-flung Jewish communities. But Zionism, because of its own ideological principles, focused on naming and claiming a global Jewish nation.

That leads to the second reason Zionists were so interested in international rights schemes. Jews were an historical anomaly—a nationalist movement comprised of a diaspora people outside their ancestral homeland. Someone else (first the Turks, then the British) controlled Palestine. So they turned to international law as a way to make claims both on behalf of the Jewish people and in service of their political aspirations for a country of their own. To be sure, not everyone agreed with these ideas, but no one could ignore them. For to protect a global minority, you had to engage with the questions of its unique collective identity and its status in international law.

While acknowledging the Israeli government’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, Loeffler argues that the international human rights community and the Left have become disproportionately focused on Israel’s sins, following a Christian theological tradition of disparaging Jewish particularity as a foil for “universal” values:

The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extra scrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

At Media Matters, a site that fact-checks conservative misinformation, Parker Molloy wonders, “Media keep talking about ‘identity politics’. But what does it even mean anymore?” It’s become a cliché, even among some liberal pundits, to blame Democrats’ election losses on a divisive and narrow focus on special-interest groups: Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and so on. But Molloy says we’ve just been conditioned not to notice the “identity politics” of Republicans, because their preferred identities (white, Christian, male) have been held up as universal norms for centuries. Molloy cites an academic psychology paper that found that white Christian homogeneity demarcates Republican party lines and gives force to identity-based political appeals, more strongly than any similar appeal to race/gender/sexual identity among Democrats.

Along those lines, acclaimed novelist Tayari Jones debunks the myth of the moral middle in her Time magazine article “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”:

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?

…For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war too. They know there is no safety in the in-between. The romance of the middle can exist when one’s empathy is aligned with the people expressing opinions on policy or culture rather than with those who will be affected by these policies or cultural norms. Buried in this argument, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that these policies change people’s lives.

As Americans, we are at a crossroads. We have to decide what is central to our identity: Is the importance of our performance of national unity more significant than our core values? Is it more meaningful that we understand why some of us support the separation of children from their parents, or is it more crucial that we support the reunification of these families? Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? Should we agree to disagree about the murder and dismemberment of a journalist? Should we celebrate our tolerance and civility as we stanch the wounds of the world and the climate with a poultice of national unity?

This piece came at a crucial time for me. I’m not sure how to feel about friends from my evangelical days who seem open to my identity journey, but attend churches that want to erase my existence. I don’t expect everyone to pick solidarity with me over their faith or their church family. I’m not that important in their lives. But I’m starting to resent the expectation that I honor their fence-sitting as a broad-minded vocation. Don’t try to make me concede that your Christian friends are “loving” and “good”, when they would not be that way to me.

At Longreads, “Theater of Forgiveness” is a powerful essay by Hafizah Geter about the intergenerational trauma of African-American women, and how it can be compounded by a religious culture that makes them swallow their anger. A nonthreatening, peacemaking response to racist violence is a logical survival strategy in a society that fears Black strength, but those suppressed emotions plagued her family with broken health and abusive relationships.

Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy.

How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?

I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding. How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.

Over the course of the essay, Geter recounts childhood torments at the hands of a cruel aunt. Yet without minimizing or excusing her, she ends with a compassionate awareness of her aunt as the fierce protector of her abused siblings. It’s something more complex yet more fair and satisfying than simple “forgiveness”, no sentimental forgetfulness here. Geter concludes:

No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it. I do not want to live with a hard heart, but I do want limits on turning the other cheek. I want us to stop offering our injurers unconditional salvation and offer that to our children and ourselves instead. I want us to unmangle what religious white supremacy has done to our sense of justice and self-worth.

Finally, via Harvard Magazine, here’s a link to a cool New Yorker story by Margaret Talbot, “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”. Turns out that Greco-Roman sculptures were often painted in colors we might consider garish, but the evidence has been repeatedly ignored because we’re so invested in the aesthetic of white rational purity we picked up from the Renaissance. Art restorers even scrubbed paint traces off antique statues to make them more marketable to collectors and museums. Moreover, many portrait sculptures were originally colored with a variety of skin tones, unsurprisingly since the Roman Empire once stretched from Scotland to North Africa. The ancient Greeks actually considered dark skin a sign of superiority in men, since it meant they spent a lot of time outside doing healthy athletic things. Read the whole article to see photographic and video reconstructions of classical art in all its flamboyant hues.

Poetry by Charlie Bondhus: “Becoming Baba Yaga”

Just out from Sundress Publications, Divining Bones is the third collection from award-winning poet Charlie Bondhus, who has kindly permitted me to reprint a sample poem here. This compelling book stakes its territory in the liminal spaces between male and female, fairy-tale and horror, the archetypal struggle in the psyche and the mundane (but no less dangerous) conflicts of domestic life. The presiding deity of this shadow realm is Baba Yaga, the child-eating forest witch of Eastern European folklore, who guides the narrator to embrace traits rejected by mainstream gay culture. Aging, emasculation, and the grotesque lose their stigma and become sources of transgressive power.

Becoming Baba Yaga

I was born an old woman,
I mutter through lather
as I scratch away the beginnings
of a beard, each stroke bringing me
a hair closer to alignment
with the female divine
curled and kicking inside, while I glare
at the little snub nose which belies the long,
crooked phantom pressing my skin
like an erection in the underwear I buy a size too small.

My dreams are full of chicken legs.
My thighs tingle for the swish
and stroke of a checkered peasant
skirt. Invisible handwoven blouses girdle
my imaginary breasts. I tug at my boy-short
hair and think about raspberry-colored headscarves.

There is no other way
to say this: I was meant to be a wise
and powerful Russian witch
rather than an unimpressive man,

a truth that makes me ambivalent
about the pretty young women
who come seeking transformation,
asking me to shave away the fat
a child left, straighten a nose
crooked as a kidney bean, plump
up breasts that are like the hard, rounded
nubs of an old cook’s pestle.

Like any witch I serve
the vanities of all who can afford
my fee, helping those who hate
their bodies in ways different
from how I hate mine. I study

the college photos they bring
of glamorous, uncomplicated youth,
remembering an old, lost book
and the engravings in which I recognized
myself—a fierce, bestial woman
as necessary as bone and just as unseen
in a world whose first language is skin.

Sometimes when I’m finger-deep
in a body I think about the way beauty slithers
through the tunneled centuries,
collecting and sloughing trappings as it goes,
and I know my inherent self,
though not beautiful,
is timeless in the way of snakes,
storms, and ancient forests,
and if I were to turn scalpel and curette
on myself, out would pour a great and silent river
of clear water
from whose banks would emerge
wild things
unknown to beauty…here, here;
grip my hand and you’ll see it too—
wet fire;
living skulls;
a house that walks;
a male crone;
Baba Yaga birthing herself.

 

Originally published in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts

The Poet Spiel: “Absent Member”

Love comes in many forms, and even romantic love is not limited to sexual partnership. The bond between gay men and their female friends, though sometimes complicated by mismatched desire, can be as profound as a marriage. Artist and author Tom Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel explores this truth in a bittersweet narrative poem about the only woman he loved. Below is his portrait of Phyllis. He tells me she died in a plane crash in 1972 with her husband, leaving behind their two children. May their memory be a blessing.

absent member

as if the lambs the lambs of childhood days were bleating
cross the lawn were softly bleating in my ear were calling me
to come this voice this girl i’d never seen her voice was like
the lamb’s and by voice alone i wanted her to know me

as fate allowed in time we came to know each other closely
came to trust each other’s touch but not like other couples
though we never did stop laughing never ceased to love
each other’s presence there was something missing
something fundamental to what other lovers found
to be essential in their coupling though she never labored
it and nor did i we loved our time together never mind

this girl this gift into my life this female like no other
i had known who took my heart and softened it
was raised to stay a virgin to save her precious cherry save
it for her husband save it at all cost through raucous
parties moments cast in passion foolish passion stay
a virgin til her prince had promised her to bear
her children all the children she had dreamed of like
her siblings being twelve she dreamed of twelve

and as for me although she was the foremost woman of my life
i could not promise knew for certain that i could not
promise her the children that she dreamed of could not
promise her at all there came a time a time of our adoring
when she realized when she began to think it odd
that never had i touched her regions of temptation
regions that her friends had told her had been compromised
by lovers had been taken in delight and perhaps
it was not just respect that had kept my hands my face
away from there and she’d begun to count my many friends
my closest friends whom she had so enjoyed who she clearly
knew were queer and at the toughest time of our relationship
and after all those years she asked me are you gay

she took a flight to where her mother lived and left me
mourning in the dark to wonder what i’d done i knew
i must have broken something more than just her cherry
must have taken more than that i must have ruined
what she’d hoped for all her dreams of being with me
in the future and naïve as it may seem my dreams along
with hers my dreams of my companion gone because
i could not be the man that she expected me to be could
not perform and knew it all along but never really thought
to think it out while in the midst of loving her so thoroughly

time soon came when she returned and met with me to tell
that her mother had inquired of her is this the man you love
and if so give your cherry to him and you need not wait
i was so thrilled to see her thrilled to hold her once again
came to think i could deliver that i could be her prince her man
i could do it no i couldn’t i could do it no i couldn’t
yes i would because i loved her and just because this was her
wish my dearest lover’s wish that i should take her lay her give
her what a lover gives the one he loves like all our friends

i laid her down in moonlight on my plastic couch
my crummy couch was not the best place to begin but
nonetheless it was the place i laid her down the surface cold
and somewhat crackly to the touch the surface harsh to
her flesh the color of a pearl a pearl without its gloss
a special kind of white a lovely white like pearl
without its gloss i sensed her apprehension but i
also sensed her readiness her breasts like halves of pears
lying limp and longing in their readiness for plucking
the moonlight from the window casting shadows
on their nipples lightly pinkened softly readied
for my plucking i saw then heard then pressed my hand
upon the pounding of her heart stood up and gloried
at the beauty of that naked body given to me for taking
never having seen a female body in its skin so beautiful
and offered up to me and then i saw her bush this mound
of hair i must admit i found it odd the lack of penis there
no penis in between her thighs for me and of course
that was a foolish thought but in sex the norm would be
a penis in that place for me between the thighs and though
her bush was plump and fit in place i found it strange
there was no penis there for me and knew not how to act
i wished her to become aggressive then to thrill my cock
and balls excite me but i knew full well that this
was new to her to even see a cock and balls to have a sense
of how this all should play itself and surely i the man
should take the lead but truth be told my cock was limp
and uninspired and unfamiliar with a body such as this
though so exquisite to the touch and so available to me
yet not familiar thus my cock hung uninspired

i’d always loved the way she said to me in french
that i had lovely hands in fact i hear it in my head
tu as les belles mains at 77 she is so difficult to lay aside
to lay aside as if she never happened in my life and
not so long ago when it appeared that i was dying
and i thumbed through scrapbooks of my years with her
my sister made a stupid comment like that dear girl
was nothing to me surely nothing in my life nothing
to a man who’d come to live a gay life with a man
and i recalled all those who’d done the same who’d never
known the depth to which i loved my girl my one
and only female sweetheart whom i would have married whom
i wished had had a cock and then i told my sister
of the day my girl and i were on our way to tell my parents
we were finished tell them that we were no more
because my parents too had hopes that we would marry
they too had dreams that i had found the woman of my life
and my sweetheart sat so close to me as we were driving
there to tell my parents and we laughed and had not ceased
to love at all and that was when she said perhaps the only
way that we can tell them why is to tell them that you finally
put your hands between my thighs and discovered
there’s no penis there and though my sister laughed
i don’t believe that she nor anyone believed then
nor believes now just how much it hurt to lose my girl
how much i hurt to lose her how she wakes alive again in me
and i in her these days or so it seems but in fact i lie beside
my kind and faithful man of years and years of better days

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!

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.