Indecent Magazine Supports This Thing of Ours

The Sopranos Memes and Gifs - Sopranos Blueprint

A big Noo Joisey thank-you to Ky Huddleston, editor of Indecent Magazine, for being the first to publish two poems from my Sopranos-themed manuscript in Issue #2 (October 2022). The blurb they wrote for me is better than a plate of gabagool: “Jendi Reiter really shows mastery of ‘wow, there’s a lot going on here,’ in this poem set.” Yeah, people have been saying that about me for a long time.

Please enjoy my poetic tribute to the consigliere, and visit their website for “Ouch, Maenads”, my ode to Ralph Cifaretto.

Silvio Dante Contemplates Puberty Blockers

Sweetheart, you’ve got a very short window.
And don’t you think I know from short?
My suits are like my enemies: I take them out,
a jacket from the boys’ department’s
got no room for a piece.

You can’t spell Bada Bing
without those double curves,
but don’t get hung
up by your own shirt. Time is the great
claw that mothers you back
just when you thought you were out
of the garment bag. I’ve got passages
you wouldn’t believe.

My grandparents from Calabria were spit on
when they came to this country
and sixty years later
they saved it up for me.
My enemies are like my tits:
I genuinely don’t think there’s anything to gain
by keeping them around.

Full Beaver Blood Moon!

This morning at 5:30 AM, Adam and I woke up to see the Full Beaver Blood Moon. No, it’s not the world’s worst menstrual cycle, it’s the combination of a full moon and a lunar eclipse that makes the moon turn a reddish-brown hue. Early November’s full moon is traditionally known as the Beaver Moon because it was the season when Native Americans and early settlers set beaver traps to procure warm furs for the coming winter. (So say NASA and People Magazine!)

The pre-dawn sky was a clear deep blue with a few sharply bright stars. The moon hung low in the black bare branches, a soft russet color that reminded me of a peach or plum. Just a small crescent of white light was visible at the right-hand edge.

Enjoy this poem I wrote in November 2020, which appears in my new book, Made Man (Little Red Tree, 2022).

Full Beaver Moon

The names of moons are the names of the body.
Damp-swollen almanac
deems this the period
to be thick and trapped.
Scratching moon. Freezing moon.
Pages worn to wrinkles, soft hide.

The names of moons are out of season.
Older than milk, not yet the worm’s long night,
the almanac would say you’re no one
to glow
on that screen where supple globes
and thickets invite heated planting.

The names of moons call you otherwise.
Call you buck, hard and velveted
hunter, peeping strawberry nub.
Though the almanac on the cold bathroom shelf
sags under centerfolds stacked by men
who offer you murdered coats,
you bare your blue
and fullest phase in skies
winter-clean and dark.

November Links Roundup: Your Soap Is Gay

Happy transgender month of rage, national novel avoidance month, 60 shopping days till Yule, etc., etc. I am not participating in 30 Poems in November this year, since I am starting a new novel about butts and sadness, but I encourage everyone to sponsor our talented Western Massachusetts poets in fundraising for the Center for New Americans.

A fixture of my childhood was the Dr. Bronner’s shampoo bottle, every inch of the label covered in 4-point type that touted the “All-One-God-Faith” alongside inspirational quotes from Thomas Paine and “Man of La Mancha”. On National Coming-Out Day last month, David Bronner, the CEO (Cosmic Engagement Office) and grandson of the founder, published this delightful blog post, “My Journey to Embrace He/They as My Pronouns!”

I’ve considered myself “about 25% girl” for quite a while. I was in a fair amount of denial about this until a dramatic LSD and MDMA mediated initiation into spirit world in Amsterdam in a gay trance club called Mazzo, in the winter of ‘95, that was also the  main underground spot.

In that experience, I realized that I wasn’t “straight,” “gay,” or “man” or “woman”—but incarnate soul here to serve and get down, and that my toxic insecure aggressive masculinity was doing violence to my own feminine nature and soul…

David is rocking a fantastic purple feathered jacket in the accompanying photo. It inspired me to choose my most flamboyant shirt, rather than a more “masculine” business-casual, for my reading at Brattleboro Literary Festival the following weekend. Must have been a good choice because my books sold out!

“Pride” comes to Kansas: LiveScience reports that “Elderly female lion grows ‘awkward teenage mane,’ baffling zookeepers”. That transgender second adolescence can be a fashion dilemma, am I right?

Zuri began sprouting a mohawk-like tuft of fur not long after the zoo’s male died, [Topeka zoo curator Shanna] Simpson said. Her mane has since filled in, but isn’t as full as an adult male lion’s.

“She just basically looks like an awkward teenage male lion,” Simpson said.

Zuri seems more feisty since sprouting her furry new neck accessory, Simpson added, and has been growling, snarling, and roaring more often.

At eighteen years old, Zuri has well exceeded the lifespan of a lion in the wild, prompting Everatt to speculate that perhaps the lioness might be experiencing hormonal shifts due to extreme age.

Short king Harvey Guillén from “What We Do in the Shadows” is finally having his moment as the gay sex symbol I always thought he was. In The Advocate, he re-created Britney Spears’ 1999 Rolling Stone photo shoot, with adorable gender-bending results.

“I always had moments like that where … society would tell me, ‘You can’t do this because you’re fat. You can’t do this because you’re Mexican. You can’t, just because you’re queer.’ I just hated hearing those no[s],” Guillén says, adding that Hollywood tried unsuccessfully to pigeonhole him into those categories of his identity. “All those stripes were all my strengths. And I reversed it and put it into my character … if you don’t see yourself represented, then become the first.”

Guillén says he learned early in life to “do what makes you happy, and if someone gets in your way… then just go around them.”…

“It’s important for all of us to be able to tap into our feminine and masculine self and be comfortable in that space. There is both in each of us, both powerful and beautiful,” Guillén says. “I think when we let go of the fear of being too [much of] one or the other, is when we can breathe and just live.”

In River Raven’s Substack newsletter Liminal Legibility, the post “Haunted Masculinity” explores how the sins of patriarchy make it hard for us transmascs to envision healthy maleness, or even acknowledge that it’s something we want.

It’s a double bind often, being a transmasculine person. I am drawn to and desire to be masculine but the thought that this makes me a monster still slides into my thoughts on occasion. I want to be able to be a masculine person who is gentle and caring and loving. I like to think that I am, most of the time. It’s something I strive for. But that is also at odds with what masculinity is supposed to be, as understood by the wider culture that I live in.

When I am assertive or take up space I might be accused as being “toxic”. That particular accusation is new but it’s something I’ve always dealt with, being pushed to make myself as small as possible and to let other people determine who I am, to be accommodating. It’s hard to push against the way I’ve existed my whole life and it hurts when people accuse me of being the monster I have always deeply feared that I am. Yet, if I am to show myself as vulnerable then people will say that it is proof that I am really a woman. I don’t have the kind of power that many cishet men have, but I make an easier target for that anger. I know this is an experience I share with many trans people.

This stunning piece at CRAFT Literary weaves in excerpts of testimony from eleven anonymous sexual assault survivors in their lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University. Read “All the Women I Know (Sandra, Dani, Roma, Alex)” by Christine Hume and Laura Larson, a co-winner of CRAFT’s Hybrid Writing Contest.

…No woman I know hurrying across the street.

No woman I know accompanies me into the woods.

No woman I know could feel more lonely after.

No woman I know was alone on the swings when it happened.

No woman I know stages her own emergency. Not here. Not like that.

No woman I know needs to hear it today.

No woman I know wants to laugh along with the joke, but does anyway, a slight permanent hiss between her teeth.

No woman I know can read the writing on the wall or face it or find the wall behind the foliage.

No woman I know understands what she is up against.

No woman I know has an emergency greater than no-emergency, none greater than the normal emergency of her own body in the world.

Marissa Endicott’s feature article in Mother Jones, “Home Was a Nightmare, Then Home Was Prison. Finally Home Is Now a Refuge”, profiles a re-entry housing program in the San Francisco Bay Area for women who went to prison for killing their abusers. The piece details how the criminal justice system still fails to account for the factors that coerce women into committing crimes. Often the act for which they are punished occurs after years of unsuccessfully trying to protect themselves through legal means. The loss of bodily autonomy in prison then re-traumatizes them, making it even harder to establish a normal life when they’re released.

Not apropos of anything, but since I binged “BoJack Horseman” during the Great Lockdown and had no one to discuss it with, I’m always happy to discover some intelligent disk-horse (har har har) about it. Philosopher Adam Kotsko muses here about “Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon”. (Watching TV as research is one of the perks of being a writer!)

“How does such emotionally wrenching material fit with an absurdist premise—especially with an absurdist premise that is taken so seriously?” Kotsko asks. He suggests that the classic sitcom format grew up alongside an economic and political order in which the white suburban nuclear family with male breadwinner was both possible and desirable. The next generation, exemplified by “The Simpsons”, no longer saw that arrangement as ideal but still considered it tragically inevitable. In the third iteration of the format, BoJack, an alcoholic has-been actor, compulsively re-lives his past as the star of a cheesy 1990s family sitcom. That genre’s predictable return to the status quo at the end of every episode has become a Sartre-like curse of repetition.

Two decades of watching serialized cable dramas have taught us what to expect from the story of a self-destructive anti-hero who is past his prime—even an anti-hero who happens to be a cartoon horse. When what we get instead is a weird kind of intensified sitcom, it opens up the possibility of more intense emotional effects than anyone would have any right to expect. In part, it’s because of the animated format, which creates the kind of distancing effect I’ve already discussed in connection with the early seasons of The Simpsons. In the case of BoJack, the writers put that effect to good use, as the nightmarish back-story of BoJack’s grandmother, who is lobotomized after grieving her brother’s death for what her demonic husband considered too long, would come across as almost farcically over the top in a live action format. We somehow need a story of cartoon horses to give us the space to consider the very real cruelties of America’s postwar patriarchal order…

…The question that remains, though, is why animals? Why not just stylized, animated humans? Though it is a unique premise in the context of contemporary TV, it is nonetheless the case that many cultures have imagined a past era when humans and animals interacted as equals. For the Greeks, this was the age of fable. For the Hebrews, it was the age of innocence—because surely it was not only the serpent who could talk. This latter example shows how dangerous and ambivalent that primal moment can be, how it can stand in for a loss that will stop haunting us.

I would propose that for Americans, that primal scene is precisely the sitcom, and by portraying it in the format of a fable, BoJack Horseman is providing us with space to process the loss of that postwar ideal, that nostalgia or “pain from an old wound” that is all the more intense for those—like me, and I suspect like you—who never really experienced that ideal in the first place, for whom those images on TV were at once fascinating and mocking. It invites us to take up a certain distance from that cultural formation, to allow ourselves to feel the emotions and hurts at stake in it in a new and candid way, to admit to ourselves how deeply we have been formed by this embarrassing dreck—and to begin taking inventory of what is promising and what is defeating, of what we can work with and what we might need to leave aside. It invites us to reflect on how we have been broken by the cultural expectations that shaped us—but without indulging the fantasies of either a clean break or a final attainment of the illusory “happiness” that ultimately amounts only to conformity.

Binary Virtue and Transmasculine Confusion

Being transmasculine and a feminist is a confusing experience sometimes. I’m deliberately not using a blame-word like “erasure” because part of the confusion is not knowing how much space to occupy. Add my history of being rescued from abusive women by empathetic men, and the alignments get even more complicated.

What I’d like, first and foremost, is to decouple the fight against patriarchy from assertions about the relative virtuousness of “women” and “men”. When the discourse goes there, as it so often does, I get that feeling where the words stick in my throat and my skin doesn’t fit right.

My mom-of-choice streams lesbian movies for her friend group, which unsurprisingly includes many in her demographic of white butches over 70, as well as a few harder-to-categorize younger queers like me. I’ve seen some brilliant indie and foreign films in this series that wouldn’t have been on my radar otherwise. While folks are getting settled in, she likes to precede the main feature with a woman-centric short film or music video. One of those was Israeli protest singer Yael Deckelbaum‘s “War Is Not a Woman’s Game”.

I was stirred by the passionate music and message, yet faintly uncomfortable with the premise that anything (other than their lesser political power) made women inherently more peaceful than men. I wondered whether I should accept that this piece of media was simply not for me, and observe it with silent empathy, as an emotional release rather than a proposition I needed to agree or disagree with. But I did feel I belonged in the movement Deckelbaum was creating, and would have had no doubts about the invitation, had it not been for the gendered framing. That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw some men in the song circle in the video.

In the chat, four or five of the women watching the video with me became heated about the men’s presence. They said they were sick of men centering themselves in everything, and that there shouldn’t have been a man in the front row of the singing group. Nobody contradicted them. Now what could I do? To speak up as a trans man would have confirmed the very objection they were raising. So I’m taking up space on my own fucking blog instead.

The other day I heard an even better song on the car radio. The catchy melody, the clever rhymes, and the body-positive message gave me a physical boost of good energy. I’m talking about “Victoria’s Secret” by Jax. It’s an anthem to her younger self, and young girls today, to let them in on the real secret: stop starving yourself to comply with impossible “beauty” standards. “She’s an old man who lives in Ohio/Making money off of girls like me/Cashing in on body issues,” Jax sings. “I know Victoria’s secret/She was made up by a dude.”

Technically this is true–according to Wikipedia, Les Wexner of Columbus, OH (now chairman emeritus) bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and turned it into the sexpot brand we love to hate. The same entry, however, mentions a number of female CEOs and high-ranking executives throughout VS history.

More to the point, I’ve always seen it as a cop-out to blame the male gaze for women’s cruelty to each other, which is a primary mechanism by which these fatphobic and butch-phobic standards are enforced. In my adolescence, my failure to perform thin and sexually alluring femininity merely made me invisible to young men, but repulsive to my mother and my female doctor. Girls scrutinize each other’s bodies and style choices with forensic attention to detail, while boys are like, “Duh, is she wearing a bra?” Fashion industry editors and tastemakers are predominantly women, as are the consumers of these images.

As a contest judge and avid reader, I see no difference between male and other-gendered authors in using fatness as shorthand for telling us that a character is unlikeable or stupid. And after two years of weekly attendance at lesbian movie night, I can count on one hand the number of women-made films I’ve seen that don’t center thin, young, conventionally attractive femmes. (I especially recommend “Late Bloomers” and “Cloudburst”.)

At what point will we stop judging people’s virtue by their gender identity, rather than their allegiance or resistance to patriarchy?

Helen Leslie Sokolsky: “In the Company of Books”

Winning Writers subscriber Helen Leslie Sokolsky has just released a new poetry collection, When We Had Orchards When We Had Moonbeams. I favorably reviewed her earlier book Two Sides of a Ticket on this blog a few years ago. Helen has kindly allowed me to share a poem from her new book below. She says, “It was written for a dear friend of mine, an Auschwitz survivor. She and her two sisters were in the camps and her love of life for all the years I knew her was an inspiration to so many of us. Regina loved literature and poetry. That poem was on her night table when she died in her apartment a year ago last June. I was told by her neighbor next door that she had asked to hear it read shortly before she passed away.”

In the Company of Books

I sit on the other side of the table reading to her
she grasping the pages in a long good-bye
she who for so long has struggled to hold back an endless night.
Now with light beginning to abandon her as shadows move into her lens
she reaches for my hands to guide her back to a familiar landscape
that hallowed place she has created
a pyramid of nested books, many of them shelved in weathered jackets.

I look at myself in the lens of her glasses, featureless
trying to imagine what it is like in that sea of darkness
and continue reading to her believing in the power of language
letting the music of words flow into her hands
which she cups as if they were scattered butterflies.
Outside the window birdsong trill their scales across the field
the wind chases in and out of sycamore branches
like a cloud reshaping itself sounds become the new vista.

I pause for a moment, let that moment rest on my lap
nothing moves but my hand across the page.
Here in the company of books we share I keep turning the pages
applaud a smile that slides across her face
when she tilts her head to listen and inhale
the crickets just beginning their nightly crescendo
a welcome background chorus.
Sounds continue to magnify within her lens
leaving behind a filtered beam of light
as if someone had just lit a candle for her.

 

October Links Roundup: Farewell Divas

Happy Spooktober!

At the Naumkeag Pumpkin Show last weekend.

The entertainment world lost two legendary women this month, both of whom continued creating and performing well into old age. Country star Loretta Lynn died last week at age 90. Best known for her hardscrabble childhood anthem “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn also used her music to take a stand against sexism, as in the 1973 hit “Rated X” about the unfair stigma of divorce for women and 1975’s “The Pill” about the liberating power of birth control.

Dame Angela Lansbury, whom we lost yesterday at age 96, was beloved for her role as crime-solving senior citizen Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote,” a cozy TV series that our family watched religiously throughout the 1980s and 90s. But did you know she got her start as the maid in the 1944 film “Gaslight,” from which we get the popular term for reality-warping emotional manipulation? Lansbury was equally good at playing villains, winning a Tony Award for creating the role of Mrs. Lovett (seller of the cannibal meat pies) in “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway.

The Jewish Currents newsletter introduced me to the music of Ezra Furman, a mystical, anti-fascist indie rocker who recently released her ninth album, All of Us Flames. Interviewer Jael Goldfine describes it thus:

In the gritty world of the album, underground syndicates of Jews and queer people organize, traveling in gangs, speaking in code, and stockpiling weapons and intelligence while the powers that be are none the wiser. In a series of bluesy Dylanesque battle epics, love stories, and down-and-out road epics, Furman imagines the stories we might tell in the future about “the great transfiguration” that ended our current “brutal static order” and eulogizes those we lost to it.

The way she sings about revolution as inevitable can feel uncomfortable, like wishful thinking. But Furman, who recently completed her first semester of rabbinical school, takes seriously the idea of the messiah, and messianism’s point-blank insistence that the world can and will be improved.

Furman says, “I think I’m doing anti-despair work.” Listen to “Throne” from the album here.

A couple of good poems: At Frontier Poetry, Tyler Raso’s “Emotion Recognition Task” captures how children’s emotions are policed, doubted, and oversimplified by adults who don’t want to feel deeply themselves. At Palette Poetry, Mónica Gomery’s “Occupational Hazards” won the 2022 Sappho Prize. Interspersing fragments of a Talmudic gratitude prayer with troubling images from the news, this piece re-enacts the challenging practice of staying open to the wonders and sorrows of life.

The first Sunday of October is traditionally the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Kittredge Cherry at Q Spirit explores the saint’s gender-bending side:

His extravagant love crossed boundaries. Other Franciscan friars referred to Francis as “Mother” during his lifetime. He encouraged his friars to be mothers to each other when in hermitage together, and used other gender-challenging metaphors to describe the spiritual life.

He spoke of himself as a woman during his very first set of meetings with Pope Innocent III in 1210, when he was seeking permission to found a religious order.  “I am that poor woman who in God’s mercy is loved and honored.  God has begotten legitimate children through me,” Francis explained.  The Pope was impressed by this gender-shifting argument and gave Francis his blessing to establish the new Franciscan order.

He experienced a vision of an all-female Trinity, who in turn saluted him as “Lady Poverty,” a title that he welcomed. Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order. She had a queer dream of drinking sweet milk from the breast of Francis. Clare consistently communicated that she sought to imitate Jesus, while Francis compared himself to Mary.

My Sims Are Bisexual Communists

As I grow into the queer nerd boy I should have been, I’ve rediscovered an escapist pastime I last savored during the George W. Bush administration: The Sims. My 10-year-old tries in vain to teach me to play Minecraft together on our tablets. Invariably, after five minutes of hearing me exclaim “Why am I underwater?” or “Oops, I broke another wall!” he takes over both our iPads and plays our characters simultaneously, like Tom Cruise coordinating his array of touchscreens in “Minority Report”. Unlike most parents, I can’t wait till he gets his driver’s license. His spatial sense leaves mine in the dust. The car will be in better hands when he’s 16.

To stay in the gaming-together zone, I downloaded The Sims Freeplay to my tablet. I’m amused by the unintentionally radical things that can happen because the gameplay is so simple. In the full-blown game (The Sims 4) that you buy for desktop or gaming console, the characters have complex emotions and social relationships, which means they can feel jealousy and anger when someone else kisses or WooHoo’s (has sex) with their sweetie. Not so in the free iPad game. These innocent little creatures will “Be Romantic” with anyone they know well enough, but don’t fight about their polyamorous exploits unless you select the “Be Rude” interaction. Thus I was able to make a Sim woman fall in love with a man and a woman simultaneously, move in as a threesome and raise a baby together.

Another simplification of the free game is that your Simoleons (game money) go into a single account, whereas each household in the computer game has a separate budget. So in Freeplay I can send some characters to work, earn money, and spend it on building a house for other characters. Not to worry, though: iPad Sims live by the Marxist principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” They freely drop in on each other’s houses, eat their food, and fall asleep in their beds, whether or not the owner is home.

The free game is not all that interesting after awhile. Quest actions take too long unless you pay real dollars to speed them up. But it would open up some great possibilities if you could make your Sims 4 characters play in communist mode, or set possessiveness and monogamy as sliding-scale traits when you create a character, with some preferring more open-ended lifestyles than others.

Notably, all Sims are default bisexual. The Sims 4 lets you create custom pronouns, decide whether your character can become pregnant or impregnate others (“both” and “neither” are also options), and sort-of design transgender characters by dressing male-template bodies in female styles and vice versa.

One thing they will not let you do, unfortunately, is be a thot. Sims do not WooHoo on the first date, nor for some time thereafter. This fits the game’s structure of hierarchical goals, where putting in time on smaller interactions unlocks higher-stakes ones. To me as a fiction writer, however, it feels constraining and judgmental. A demisexual/slutty axis for character creation would be a lot of fun. The game developers have already put some thought into making it queer-friendly. Let’s go all the way!

September Links Roundup: Cthulhu at Costco

You just never know what you’ll find at Adam’s favorite superstore. I suppose Lovecraft’s Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young needs those jumbo-sized cans of tomato sauce to feed all the kids.

A bit late with the link-o-rama this month because I’ve begun Year Two of the Temple of Witchcraft Mystery School. This year I’ll be learning spell-crafting, altar-building, how not to kill my houseplants, and possibly an answer to the question “Is it cheating on your marriage to have sex with a god?”

Talented essayist Grace LeClair, a fellow regular in the Tarot writing workshops I’ve attended since 2015, pushed the boundaries of 1960s propriety when she challenged Barnard College’s outdated rules against cohabitation and its curfews for female students. The Columbia Spectator interviewed her recently about her undergraduate activism, which made her a target of the tabloids in New York City. The all-women’s college folded on its feminist principles because of pushback from wealthy pearl-clutching alumnae. Grace, then known as Linda, courageously stuck to her message that her campaign was not about sexual license but empowerment and equality–the very reasons she’d chosen a women’s college in the first place.

A less sympathetic tale of activism comes to us from–where else?–Texas. NBC News and ProPublica reported last month on a contentious school board meeting in the North Texas town of Granbury:

For months, the woman in the clip had been demanding that the Granbury Independent School District ban from its libraries dozens of books that contained descriptions of sex or LGBTQ themes — books that she believed could be damaging to the hearts and minds of students. Unsatisfied after a district committee that she served on voted to remove only a handful of titles, the woman filed a police report in May accusing school employees of providing pornography to children, triggering a criminal investigation by Hood County.

Now, in the video that Weston found online, she was telling the school board that a local Christian pastor, rather than librarians, should decide which books should be allowed on public school shelves. “He would never steer you wrong,” she said.

The clip ended with the woman striding away from the lectern, and the audience showering her with applause.

Weston, 28, said his heart was racing as he watched and rewatched the video — and not only because he opposes censorship. He’d instantly recognized the speaker.

It was his mother, Monica Brown.

The same woman, he said, who’d removed pages from science books when he was a child to keep him and his siblings from seeing illustrations of male and female anatomy. The woman who’d always warned that reading the wrong books or watching the wrong movies could open the door to sinful temptation. And the one, he said, who’d effectively cut him off from his family four years ago after he came out as gay.

I love erasure poetry because it flips censorship on its head. Words and lines are blocked out, not so much to silence the source text, but to make it speak a hidden message, or to talk back to its oppressive assumptions. When he was in prison, my pen pal “Conway” used to make powerful erasures out of disciplinary memos. Poet Jennifer K. Sweeney has a series of such “effacements” posted in the online journal Gasher, using collage and erasure to break open the constraints of a 1950s etiquette manual.

An insightful New York Times video series by James Robinson about living with disability profiled Paul Kram, who has prosopagnosia (face-blindness). As someone with a less severe version of this condition, I found his experience relatable. At one point the video shows faces turned upside-down, making them harder to recognize. This disorganization of data is similar to how facial information enters a face-blind person’s brain. Along those lines, I had a dream the other night where someone got my pronouns wrong, and I replied, “It’s okay, I can’t recognize people I already know, so I can see how certain things just don’t stick in your mind, either!”

Slippery identities and slanted stories are the theme of Kij Johnson’s “Five Sphinxes and 56 Answers” in the latest issue of the experimental lit mag DIAGRAM. The award-winning fantasy writer braids a Midwestern girl’s coming-of-age story with variations on the Oedipus myth, exploring the intergenerational misunderstandings and enforced silences of women throughout the ages.

You have come to accept that she is who she is because of her own confusing and critical mother, and the cycle goes back through forever it seems: women unhinging their pelvises to bear other women and then getting started on the hard work of dying, back and back and back, mothers and daughters and mothers of monsters.
Mixed messages, riddles you can’t solve. You stand at the entrance to a great city, the world. Your mother waits astride the rock that bars your way. The first riddle ends in your adulthood; it is unlikely she will be alive for you in your three-legged stage, though perhaps she is counting on you being there for hers.
The second riddle is existential, and there is no answer. Night and Day. Living ’til night or waking up in the morning is always a matter of faith. In the end, both women die.
Your mother is also Hera, angry and vengeful and punishing the wrong people.
You mother is also what you have tried hard not to grow up to be. Have you succeeded? Could she have done better? Have you?
There are other versions of this story, as well.

Also in DIAGRAM, Tyler Raso’s “Personality Index” cleverly reads as both a numerical questionnaire and, if you ignore the numbered part, a poem composed of the phrases in the left column. I do love me some psych-test satire.

Sanah Ahsan’s column in The Guardian, “I’m a psychologist–and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health,” unpacks why I often find psych checklists reductionist and insulting.

If a plant were wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions. Yet when humans are suffering under unliveable conditions, we’re told something is wrong with us, and expected to keep pushing through. To keep working and producing, without acknowledging our hurt.

In efforts to destigmatise mental distress, “mental illness” is framed as an “illness like any other” – rooted in supposedly flawed brain chemistry. In reality, recent research concluded that depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain. Ironically, suggesting we have a broken brain for life increases stigma and disempowerment. What’s most devastating about this myth is that the problem and the solution are positioned in the person, distracting us from the environments that cause our distress.

Individual therapy is brilliant for lots of people, and antidepressants can help some people cope. But I worry that a purely medicalised, individualised understanding of mental health puts plasters over big gaping wounds, without addressing the source of violence. They encourage us to adapt to systems, thereby protecting the status quo.

Da’Shaun L. Harrison’s book Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness (North Atlantic Books, 2021), which I’m currently reading, makes a similar point with respect to body-positivity. When standards of beauty and health are deliberately constructed to exclude your type of body and subjugate your type of person, you can’t self-esteem your way out of the material disadvantages this creates. More thoughts to come once I’ve finished this radical, brilliant book.

Over at The Philosopher, Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s piece “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference” critiques the simplistic deployment of “standpoint epistemology” to turn the minority member of an elite group into a spokesperson for even less privileged people in his demographic. For instance, the Black professor probably knows more about racial discrimination than his white colleagues, but the factors he has in common with them, such as social class and education, may outweigh the differences. But these spaces tend to operate as though handing the Black professor the microphone is the beginning and end of incorporating truly diverse perspectives. Meanwhile, they don’t notice the other ways their group is homogeneous and unrepresentative.

From a societal standpoint, the “most affected” by the social injustices we associate with politically important identities like gender, class, race, and nationality are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, underemployed, or part of the 44 percent of the world’s population without internet access – and thus both left out of the rooms of power and largely ignored by the people in the rooms of power. Individuals who make it past the various social selection pressures that filter out those social identities associated with these negative outcomes are most likely to be in the room. That is, they are most likely to be in the room precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room.

This “being-in-the-room” privilege, relative to other members of his demographic, doesn’t discount all the ways that this Black professor may also be disrespected within the room. Standpoint epistemology–deferring to marginalized people as experts on their own experience–can be a corrective “morally consequential practice…of giving attention and respect.” It’s just not the only thing we need to do. Otherwise you get the all-too-familiar political echo chamber of liberal academia, where arguments over symbolic deference take up way more energy than constructive material change. We need to build coalitions across our different kinds of vulnerability, rather than compete for attention by comparing our traumas, he concludes.

I honestly think there’d be a lot more support for affirmative action, reparations, etc. if we took these suggestions and moved away from an attention-scarcity economy.

Finally, enjoy some groundbreaking African photography in this 2020 article from The Guardian, profiling Ekow Eshun’s Africa State of Mind. Adam and I enjoyed seeing queer South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s striking black-and-white self-portraits at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this past February.

August Links Roundup: Barbie-Core

In anticipation of Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming live-action “Barbie” rom-com, which you know I’m going to watch even (or especially) if it’s terrible, “Barbie-core” is the new fashion trend. Or so says the New York Times, which pointed me to these links from Vogue and WhoWhatWear depicting celebs like Kacey Musgraves and Kim Kardashian in campy hot-pink attire. For us masculine folks, the look would be Ken-core. Last week in Provincetown I thought I’d died and gone to button-down shirt heaven. Never had I been surrounded by so many other middle-aged homosexuals in flamboyant leisure wear. I splurged on a Postmarc top with a color palette similar to my Angel Face Barbie’s floral-print dress in the photo above.

(Superstar Ken, 1977 — my first one.)

In less enjoyable news about people named Ken, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was among the 20-plus Republican state AGs who sued the Biden administration last month to oppose a Department of Agriculture school meal program that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to NBC News 5 in Dallas-Fort Worth:

The coalition of attorneys general are hoping for a similar result to a separate challenge from earlier this month when a Tennessee judge temporarily barred two federal agencies from enforcing directives issued by Biden’s administration that extended protections for LGBTQ people in schools and workplaces.

The judge sided with the attorneys general, ruling that the directives infringed on states’ right to enact laws, such as banning students from participating in sports based on their gender identity or requiring schools and businesses to provide bathrooms and showers to accommodate transgender people.

Because nothing says “I follow Jesus” like taking food away from gay kids, right?

I forget how I came across this 2021 piece from FilmDaze, “Anti-Queerness and the Pinkification of Allison of ‘The Breakfast Club'”, but it’s a worthwhile read about the familiar movie trope of the makeover into gender-role conformity. Columnist Nia Tucker says of Ally Sheedy’s metamorphosis from Goth rebel to debutante: “She doesn’t even receive any last words, keeping true to her character having the least lines and a lack of personal development. In exchange for her willingness to be made over, she has been given the gift of the male gaze.”

I had the same reaction to the late great Olivia Newton-John’s transformation in the other direction, from Sandra Dee “lousy with virginity” to sexy spandex chick in “Grease”. What kind of love turns a girl into the opposite of who she was when you met her? There’s an important difference, I feel, between a love relationship that gives both partners the security to grow and change, and a romance that eliminates your eccentricities so you can become “desirable” by the other person’s standards.

Femme style is revolutionary in M.A. Scott’s prose-poem “Pink Magic” at the DMQ Review. “Go ahead & relive that prickle of crinoline, subvert it as drag. Pink magic favors a post-Barbie podiatry, acts as road opener to your slut-crone phase.” Put your Ken doll in a dress!

“How choirs can welcome trans singers”, a recent article on ClassicFM by Sophia Alexandra Hall, reports on several professional choirs that are decoupling vocal parts from gender identities. For instance, Jane Ramseyer Miller, director of One Voice Mixed Chorus in Minneapolis-St. Paul, doesn’t assume that sopranos and altos in her LGBTQ ensemble must be women, or tenors and basses men:

“Most of my conversations are really about the health of a voice,” Jane explained. “If someone’s auditioning, and I’m not quite sure of their gender, I will usually ask pronouns, just so that it’s a little orienting for me.

“Sometimes I will ask if they’re on testosterone, because it makes a difference where I’ll place somebody in terms of voice.”

Some of her chorus members told the reporter about upsetting experiences where choir directors tried to make them wear wrong-gender clothing to fit in with the other singers in their section.

“We are singers, and we wear black,” Jane told Classic FM about the dress code for One Voice.

As opposed to how some ensembles gender their outfits, the singers in One Voice can “choose any kind of black outfit that they want – it’s completely up to them”.

On top of the black outfit, the chorus also wear rainbow scarves.

Listen to this choir sing “Where There Is Light in the Soul” on YouTube.

Poetry by David Kherdian: “The First Problem and the Last”

Poet and memoir writer David Kherdian is the author of numerous books about Armenian-Americans and working-class life in the Midwest. His most recent poetry collection is Blackbirds Over Aurora, an account of an Oregon community based on the mystical teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. He has kindly allowed me to publish one of his newest poems below.

THE FIRST PROBLEM AND THE LAST

I would like to think we end
here to start over again there,
or else continue again from here
where we have landed,
naked, alone, to learn for ourself
what is expected of us here now.
Nothing bedevils me more
than not knowing what’s next.
Can it be that this futile life
is without a sequel,
could anything be worse then ending
without knowing what comes after.

What we want to know above all is:
If death is the answer to life,
what was the question we failed to ask
before it became too late, as it is now,
here / now, always the same conclusion
with nothing said about The After.
How do we approach the end
without knowing either the question
or the answer, and is it enough to say
at the end I lived Fully.