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workshops I’ve attended since 2015, pushed the boundaries of 1960s propriety when she challenged Barnard College’s outdated rules against cohabitation and its curfews for female students.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.

May Links Roundup: Rock Polishing

I promise, I was not Googling “sexy stalactites”. I was innocently browsing Twitter the other day when @sbearbergman decided we all needed to be cheered up by “Do Not Fuck This Rock” discourse. Tumblr user Astolat’s picture of what seems to be a naturally occurring malachite dildo prompted a scientific thread about why the pH and temperature of the human vagina can dissolve rocks. Then it swerves into a useful and timely political example:

The good news? Biochemically speaking, you’re probably ok to put it in your butt. It’s not as acidic or salty in there, plus there’s a huuuuuge stockpile of gut microbes right upstream that can quickly repopulate the colon after spelunking is complete. However this stalactite is not flared at the base so it is the wrong shape for putting in your butt. Do not put this stalactite in your butt.

This all looks like fun and games, but I think it’s really interesting that the internet’s mistake in concluding that this stalactite is fuckable is very similar to the mistake made by the Flint water management system. Hear me out.

Central to the Flint lead poisoning crisis is that authorities only looked at & tested Flint’s water in its central treatment plant before it went out through the pipes. Not after it went through the pipes. They did not consider what would happen biochemically as it went through the pipes and metals started dissolving.

Similarly, in concluding that the stalactite is fuckable, the internet only considered the stalactite itself. Not the biochemical processes that would happen to it as it, welp, went through the pipes.

Media frequently reports that the Flint River’s water is “corrosive,” leading many to believe the river is full of industrial waste. This ain’t the case. You’d need industry to fill a river with industrial waste, and industry left decades ago. That’s why Flint’s so poor. So what IS in the water? Road salt. Plain old stupid road salt. The old Detroit-based source didn’t have salt because it came from Lake Huron which has a large, mostly rural watershed. Meanwhile the Flint River runs through a lot of towns, making it slightly salty as everything melts down in spring. And as we recall from the stalactite experience, a little salt is all it takes to get metals to dissolve…

Morals of the story: when dealing with a biological system pls consider asking a biologist, your vagina and/or city could depend on this.

If you’re not already in awe of pussy power, check out Vice’s list of “Vagina Dentata Myths from Around the World”. For example, a Russian folktale tells of:

…a beautiful young woman who is married off to a gross, old man. In order to avoid having sex with the guy, the young bride puts a fish head in her vagina so its teeth will cut him every time he tries. The husband is traumatized, she “calls him a fool for not knowing that young girls’ vaginas usually have teeth,” and she lives the rest of her life without having sex with him.

The blog When You Work at A Museum… recounted an incident in 2016 where a “Christian school” teacher asked for her high school students’ tour to avoid any artwork with sex, violence, or “pieces that glory in immorality”. As the blogger noted, that leaves out the vast majority of museum holdings:

Obviously anything with nudity is out. That shuts down much of the sculpture wing and the NeoClassical, Rococo, and Mannerist collection, which ironically includes many of the Christian paintings.

Could we show them the armor or weaponry collection? Probably not, since links directly to graphic violence.

What about a mural depicting slavery? That’s unquestionably immoral.

A follow-up post featured the satirical “Universal Never-Nude Art Museum Tour Map”.

Last night I attended an enjoyable online reading by Callum Angus from his new story collection A Natural History of Transition. He read a magical-realist piece titled “Rock Jenny” about a young woman who transitions from boy, to girl, to mountain, and beyond. It made me feel momentarily liberated from the pressure to choose a binary gender expression that would be legible to the mainstream. London-based DJ and performance artist Dahc Dermur VIII expresses a similar attitude in his “Extreme Beauty Routine” video for Vogue Magazine, demonstrating how he creates his over-the-top Goth couture looks. In his vestment-inspired, operatic gowns, Dahc has reclaimed the flamboyant majesty of the Christianity that once oppressed him.

At Jewish Currents, Jules Gill-Peterson, author of Histories of the Transgender Child, contends that “The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda” is to redefine citizenship in cis-het white Christian terms.

Since at least the antebellum period, as historians have detailed, the racial innocence invested in the figure of the white child has served as an anchor of proper American political feeling. Statecraft and governance often invoke the hypothetical child’s welfare and protection as a justification for dismissing real people’s political demands. The politics of “protecting” the innocent white child have rationalized the disposability of entire populations, like immigrants, the descendants of enslaved people, criminals, people with disabilities, and so-called deviants. Today we are witnessing trans children’s addition to this list.

Meanwhile, in Current Affairs, journalist Noah Berlatsky (whose teenage daughter recently came out as trans) wonders “Why the Panic Over Trans Kids?” He debunks pseudo-scientific studies about “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” and “trans trenders” as the skewed perspectives of parents who can’t accept that their children have independent private lives. Moreover, even if peer influence and the greater visibility of trans discourse online helped some kids latch onto this identity, why is that a problem? “If we had a study showing that kids are more likely to want to be poets if they’re friends with other kids who consider themselves poets, that wouldn’t make love of poetry a dangerous plague. Even if our gender identities are affected by those around us, or the media we take in, unless you are transphobic—i.e. you think it’s bad to be trans—then [so what]?”

They might even become trans poets!

January Links Roundup: Greetings from the Failed State

Shortly after my post yesterday celebrating the Democrats’ Senate wins, white supremacist terrorists invaded the US Capitol to try to block certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. I’m with those who believe there’s more than simple incompetence behind the security failure. Fascism has made significant inroads in American police departments.

Baptist minister Candace Simpson, who tweets as @CandyCornball, posted this insight today: “‘Apocalypse’ does not mean ‘the end of the world.’ It means ‘revealing.’ You can choose to notice or you can choose to ignore.” Black Americans like herself have long known the fearsome truth that we are now seeing acknowledged in mainstream news: the Confederacy never died. We will need clarity and courage, and not premature “unity”, to fight it again.

Rebecca Solnit pulls no punches in her LitHub piece from November, “On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway”. Democrats want marriage counseling while Republicans want war. It’s as simple as that. Mainstream media’s numerous sympathetic profiles of Trump supporters–what critics have taken to calling “Cletus safaris”–rest on the naive belief that:

…urban multiethnic liberal-to-radical only-partly-Christian America…need[s] to spend more time understanding MAGA America. The demands do not go the other way. Fox and Ted Cruz and the Federalist have not chastised their audiences, I feel pretty confident, with urgings to enter into discourse with, say, Black Lives Matter activists, rabbis, imams, abortion providers, undocumented valedictorians, or tenured lesbians. When only half the divide is being tasked with making the peace, there is no peace to be made, but there is a unilateral surrender on offer. We are told to consider this bipartisanship, but the very word means both sides abandon their partisanship, and Mitch McConnell and company have absolutely no interest in doing that…

There’s also often a devil’s bargain buried in all this, that you flatter and, yeah, respect these white people who think this country is theirs by throwing other people under the bus—by disrespecting immigrants and queer people and feminists and their rights and views. And you reinforce that constituency’s sense that they matter more than other people when you pander like this, and pretty much all the problems we’ve faced over the past four years, to say nothing of the last five hundred, come from this sense of white people being more important than nonwhites, Christians than non-Christians, native-born than immigrant, male than female, straight than queer, cis-gender than trans…

I grew up in an era where wives who were beaten were expected to do more to soothe their husbands and not challenge them, and this carries on as the degrading politics of our abusive national marriage.

Yesterday’s coup attempt reminds me of the behavior burst when you set boundaries with abusers. They are most dangerous when their victims are trying to leave. In today’s column for Medium, nonbinary feminist author Jude Ellison Sady Doyle cautions that “Trump Is Leaving, But the Revenge of Men Continues”. The alt-right movement appeals to, and strengthens, many men’s identification with a toxic brand of masculinity, characterized by bullying and anti-intellectualism. Regarding feminization as worse than death, they are actually dying (and killing) rather than admit their vulnerability to Mother Nature: hence climate-change denial and the refusal to wear masks in a pandemic. “The contemporary push for men to give up their ‘masculinity ideology’ — to be softer, humbler, more cooperative, to think of others first, to support the leadership of others rather than assuming they are entitled to lead, to listen rather than doing all the talking — is simply asking men to cultivate qualities that can help them survive in an increasingly complex world. It’s adapt or die.”

Four years of the narcissist-in-chief screaming “Fake news!” has made “gaslighting” a household word. Ozy at Thing of Things objects to how the word has become Internet shorthand for any argument that causes cognitive dissonance or uncomfortable paradigm shifts in the hearer:

Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person you trust manipulates you into distrusting your own perceptions, memories, and judgments… It is not gaslighting when someone contradicts you, or intentionally causes you to doubt your beliefs, or leaves you uncertain of what you believe, or even makes you think that they think you are crazy. Gaslighting is about someone lying to you in a way that causes you to lose trust in your own capabilities as a rational person.

Following philosopher Miranda Fricker, Ozy recommends the term “hermeneutical injustice” for something that can feel like gaslighting but is distinct from it: when you have an experience, but your community has denied you a framework to understand and believe in that experience.

If you don’t have the concept of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to put together your body image issues, your depersonalization, your deep-seated jealousy of women, your desire to wear skirts, and the fact that you never play a male RPG character. Those will all seem like discrete unrelated facts that don’t point to anything.

But the harms of hermeneutical injustice go deeper. There are harms to the individual as a knower: you feel stupid or crazy because you can’t articulate your experiences, and that makes you feel stupid and crazy in general; it is hard to cultivate certain epistemic virtues if you can’t understand yourself and your own mind. And quite often– especially in more serious cases of hermeneutical injustice– there is a harm to your identity. The harm of growing up conceptualizing yourself as a sodomite rather than a gay person; the harm of thinking of yourself as a person who freaks out about normal flirtation instead of a victim of sexual harassment; the harm of having your very sense of self shaped by narratives and concepts that were developed by people who don’t understand people like you at all.

Hermeneutical injustice isn’t only perpetrated by conservatives. Feminism’s transphobia problem is documented in this Atlantic article by Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Secret Internet of TERFs” (trans-exclusive radical feminists). Like QAnon cult followers, TERFs have created an echo chamber in Internet communities where they spread paranoid conspiracy theories about the “trans agenda”. TERF discourse, though ostensibly from the Left, shares with right-wing homophobia the dangerous assertion that other people’s mere existence threatens the meaning of your life. Not a stretch to compare these folks to the tiki-torch-wielding racists in Charlottesville whose battle cry was “You will not replace us!”

I wrote my college religion thesis on original sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Hawthorne didn’t have the word “narcissism” at his disposal, but his moral tales were targeting TERF logic. The fatal flaw of a character such as Aylmer in “The Birthmark”, the scientist who killed his wife in an attempt to perfect her beauty, was that he treated his fellow humans as pieces on the chessboard of his own symbolic scheme. Purity of concept mattered more than real people’s pain. That’s what Christian conservatives do when they argue that marriage equality devalues their straight marriage, or when cis women claim that including trans women in their spaces would erase the significance of childbirth and menstruation. It’s an assertion that some people don’t have the right to narrate their own lives. There’s nothing feminist about that.

June Links Roundup: Cop Out

I spend a lot of time on trans Twitter, where the acronyms “AMAB” and “AFAB” (assigned male/female at birth) are common. So when I started to see “ACAB” show up in people’s feeds, I was like, what gender is that? No, white boi, it means “All Cops Are Bastards”.

Folks are saying that, of course, because of the recent police murders of African-Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and the courageous protests that continue to fill our cities. For the first time I can recall, mainstream discourse has taken up the idea of defunding, or even abolishing, the police force as we know it. Even LEGO stopped advertising their police minifigure sets for a day or two.

I don’t know what a society without any police would look like, but radical change seems necessary. I’m learning a lot about the systemic problems with how America trains its cops, and the racist roots of the current institution. This long-form exposé at Medium, “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” (anonymous for safety), describes how police are indoctrinated to cover up their fellow officers’ misconduct.

Let me tell you about an extremely formative experience: in my police academy class, we had a clique of around six trainees who routinely bullied and harassed other students: intentionally scuffing another trainee’s shoes to get them in trouble during inspection, sexually harassing female trainees, cracking racist jokes, and so on. Every quarter, we were to write anonymous evaluations of our squadmates. I wrote scathing accounts of their behavior, thinking I was helping keep bad apples out of law enforcement and believing I would be protected. Instead, the academy staff read my complaints to them out loud and outed me to them and never punished them, causing me to get harassed for the rest of my academy class. That’s how I learned that even police leadership hates rats. That’s why no one is “changing things from the inside.” They can’t, the structure won’t allow it.

And that’s the point of what I’m telling you. Whether you were my sergeant, legally harassing an old woman, me, legally harassing our residents, my fellow trainees bullying the rest of us, or “the bad apples” illegally harassing “shitbags”, we were all in it together. I knew cops that pulled women over to flirt with them. I knew cops who would pepper spray sleeping bags so that homeless people would have to throw them away. I knew cops that intentionally provoked anger in suspects so they could claim they were assaulted. I was particularly good at winding people up verbally until they lashed out so I could fight them. Nobody spoke out. Nobody stood up. Nobody betrayed the code.

None of us protected the people (you) from bad cops.

This is why “All cops are bastards.” Even your uncle, even your cousin, even your mom, even your brother, even your best friend, even your spouse, even me. Because even if they wouldn’t Do The Thing themselves, they will almost never rat out another officer who Does The Thing, much less stop it from happening.

The anonymous author goes on to say that the good things he did as a cop didn’t require him to be armed and dangerous:

The question is this: did I need a gun and sweeping police powers to help the average person on the average night? The answer is no. When I was doing my best work as a cop, I was doing mediocre work as a therapist or a social worker. My good deeds were listening to people failed by the system and trying to unite them with any crumbs of resources the structure was currently denying them.

It’s also important to note that well over 90% of the calls for service I handled were reactive, showing up well after a crime had taken place. We would arrive, take a statement, collect evidence (if any), file the report, and onto the next caper. Most “active” crimes we stopped were someone harmless possessing or selling a small amount of drugs. Very, very rarely would we stop something dangerous in progress or stop something from happening entirely. The closest we could usually get was seeing someone running away from the scene of a crime, but the damage was still done.

At Vox, historian Khalil Muhammad explains “How racist policing took over American cities”, based on his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2019). Because the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery contained an exception for people convicted of a crime, Southern states after the Civil War aggressively criminalized everyday behavior by black Americans. Then white social scientists in the late 19th century looked at the higher conviction rates for black people and concluded that they were inherently criminals. This assumption underlay the creation of the modern police force. Muhammad notes, “The same basic idea that in white spaces, black people are presumptively suspect, is still playing out in America today.”

In The New Yorker, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor asks “How do we change America?” Why are the same police reforms proposed after every death like George Floyd’s, to no effect? Taylor sees the roots of our current unrest in (among other things) 1990s Democrats’ betrayal of black voters:

The nineteen-nineties became a moment of convergence for the political right and the Democratic Party, as the Democrats cemented their turn toward a similar agenda of harsh budget cuts to social programs and an insistence that African-American hardship was the result of non-normative family structures. In May, 1992, Bill Clinton interrupted his normal campaign activities to travel to South Central Los Angeles, where he offered his analysis of what had gone so wrong. People were looting, he said, “because they are not part of the system at all anymore. They do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.”

Democrats responded to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by pushing the country further down the road of punishment and retribution in its criminal-justice system. Joe Biden, the current Democratic Presidential front-runner, emerged from the fire last time brandishing a new “crime bill” that pledged to put a hundred thousand more police on the street, called for mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes, increased funding for policing and prisons, and expanded the use of the death penalty. The Democrats’ new emphasis on law and order was coupled with a relentless assault on the right to welfare assistance. By 1996, Clinton had followed through on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Biden supported the legislation…

The 1994 crime bill was a pillar in the phenomenon of mass incarceration and public tolerance for aggressive policing and punishment directed at African-American neighborhoods. It helped to build the world that young black people are rebelling against today. But the unyielding assaults on welfare and food stamps have also marked this latest revolt. These cuts are a large part of the reason that the coronavirus pandemic has landed so hard in the U.S., particularly in black America. These are the reasons that we do not have a viable safety net in this country, including food stamps and cash payments during hard times. The weakness of the U.S. social-welfare state has deep roots, but it was irreversibly torn when Democrats were at the helm…

This points to the importance of expanding our national discussion about what ails the country, beyond the racism and brutality of the police. We must also discuss the conditions of economic inequality that, when they intersect with racial and gender discrimination, disadvantage African-Americans while also making them vulnerable to police violence. Otherwise, we risk reducing racism to the outrageous and intentional acts of depraved individuals, while downplaying the cumulative impact of public policies and private-sector discrimination that, regardless of personal intent, have crippled the vitality of African-American life.

At the Atlantic, Annie Lowrey unpacks the phrase “Defund the police”. Short of abolition, this could mean diverting much of law enforcement’s massive budget to the social safety net that could actually prevent crime.

As a general point, the United States has an extreme budget commitment to prisons, guns, warplanes, armored vehicles, detention facilities, courts, jails, drones, and patrols—to law and order, meted out discriminately. It has an equally extreme budget commitment to food support, aid for teenage parents, help for the homeless, child care for working families, safe housing, and so on. It feeds the former and starves the latter.

…[Defunding the police] would mean ending mass incarceration, cash bail, fines-and-fees policing, the war on drugs, and police militarization, as well as getting cops out of schools. It would also mean funding housing-first programs, creating subsidized jobs for the formerly incarcerated, and expanding initiatives to have mental-health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls.

IMHO, social workers remain problematic so long as they’re mostly white middle-class women with the power to take children from poor, neurodivergent, disabled, and nonwhite families. But at least they don’t carry tear gas.

 

Answering Detractors of “Black Lives Matter”

Like many other literary organizations, last week our company Winning Writers sent out an email responding to the latest incidents of police killings of black people and the protests they’ve inspired:

Winning Writers stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and all those who are speaking out, offering mutual aid, and peacefully protesting to end state-sanctioned violence against people of color. We are grieved and outraged by the police murders of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and many other African-Americans. We believe in the power of art to offer hope, inspire empathy, and correct the white supremacist American history that we were taught.
This was followed by some book recommendations by black authors and/or on civil rights topics. We received mostly positive feedback and a couple dozen hot complaints from our subscribers. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s much I can say to someone who thinks it’s a controversial statement that black people’s lives matter! I guess because I’m white and haven’t faced this first-hand, I was caught off-guard by the intense fury that this simple declaration triggers. But I remember the immaturity, economic stress, and status anxiety that led me to stake out some unwittingly racist positions as a college Republican, and I try to hope that some of our readers can also be moved by powerful stories and good arguments. I highly recommend Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race (Hachette, 2018) for thorough, accessible debunking of common errors we white people can make.
As a starting point, let me briefly address some of the most frequent objections we received:
We are stifling artistic freedom by politicizing Winning Writers.
It’s our company, folks. We can have a point of view. While we value diverse perspectives, some views are not worth entertaining. “Black lives don’t matter” is one of them. As contest judges and literary tastemakers, we strive to be fair rather than neutral. We feel that actors that claim to be neutral are often upholding (intentionally or not) the interests of the powerful and the status quo.
ALL lives matter; singling out black people is reverse discrimination.
Where did anyone say that only black lives matter? The BLM movement and its supporters focus on black Americans because they’ve been uniquely singled out for oppression and extermination for the past 400 years. All lives don’t matter equally in America. We want to change that.
Black Lives Matter is a far-left violent movement. BLM are looters and violent protesters.
The same people who say this, often say “Bad cops are not representative of the police.” Contradict yourselves much? White Americans generally get to be judged as individuals, whereas black lawbreakers’ behavior is attributed to the group as a whole. This too is racism. Moreover, protests have been infiltrated by right-wing agitators who want to stir up violence so black activists will be blamed. In the cellphone camera era, we’re suddenly seeing how often the police lie about the causes of altercations with suspects, inventing attacks to justify police brutality as a defensive measure. According to the Marshall Project, the problem is so widespread that some big-city prosecutors have “do not call lists” of cops who are untrustworthy witnesses. Be a critical thinker and double-check your news sources.
BLM wants to defund the police, which will make everyone (including black people) more vulnerable to crime.
Supporters of the current protests comprise a diverse group whose views on the police range from reform to abolition. Endorsing the movement doesn’t imply endorsing every viewpoint or action of its members. Politics is always a trade-off. (I’m looking at you, every Christian who voted for Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump because he would appoint pro-life judges.) Additionally, the catchphrase “defund the police” doesn’t always mean complete elimination, but rather, radically changing our city and state budget priorities to divert money from armed forces to human services. For a look at what it could mean in practice, see this Atlantic article by Annie Lowrey. She writes:

Defund the police…is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities. As a general point, the United States has an extreme budget commitment to prisons, guns, warplanes, armored vehicles, detention facilities, courts, jails, drones, and patrols—to law and order, meted out discriminately. It has an equally extreme budget commitment to food support, aid for teenage parents, help for the homeless, child care for working families, safe housing, and so on. It feeds the former and starves the latter.

[Defund the police]…would mean ending mass incarceration, cash bail, fines-and-fees policing, the war on drugs, and police militarization, as well as getting cops out of schools. It would also mean funding housing-first programs, creating subsidized jobs for the formerly incarcerated, and expanding initiatives to have mental-health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls.

Winning Writers, and Reiter’s Block, are on board with that agenda. Want to help? One thing you can do is donate to your local community bail fund.

What Do People Do All Day?

Remember this book? I still have my 1968 edition with Blacksmith Fox, Grocer Cat, Eli Cottontail the Farmer, and their equally hardworking housewife partners. Essential workers, all. No Hedge-Fund Hedgehogs or Insurance Inchworms here. The great pandemic of 2020 has highlighted the importance of the blue-collar and public-sector workers who are not paid anywhere near their true value.

For those of us with the privilege and duty to stay home–either suddenly under-employed, or trying to work and educate our children without the social structures we’d depended on–we’re collectively reckoning with the role of work in our identity. What were we doing that was so important, that it’s worth making heroic efforts to keep it going? When it’s a battle to make our children concentrate on schoolwork, what kind of learning should we prioritize?

Forced into a virtual world of infinite Zoom meetings, many of us have instinctively turned to old-fashioned, hands-on activities: arts and crafts, baking, gardening, needlework. Tending the homestead is how we spiritually nurture ourselves when the apocalypse is at our door. It’s a protection ritual, drawing the life force of the earth into our bodies and imaginations. I’m wary of the gender essentialism in terms like “the divine feminine” but even I can’t help noticing that our current popular pastimes were historically women’s work. Could the ancestors be guiding us to counterbalance the toxic machismo of our government?

Why didn’t I make time for this before quarantine? My regular workload has only increased since the lockdown, so it’s not a matter of scheduling. I felt childish, girlish, sitting down by myself to paint dollhouse furniture during the “workday”. Sitting in front of the computer, on the other hand, counted as “work” whether or not I was using the time productively.

Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, skewers the American cult of productivity in his essay “Animals Are Pointless, and We Should Be Too”.

A big part of the right’s opposition to the lockdowns, and its desire to open up the economy again as quickly as possible despite the risks, comes from its staunch opposition to “paying people not to work.” (This is one reason they don’t like paid family leave, too.) There is a cult of work: We must produce, produce, produce, and if we are not producing we are bad. The “ethic” part of “Protestant work ethic” is important: Work is supposed to be a positive good rather than a necessary evil.

I do not think this way, because I have been to the aquarium. And I have watched schools of fish just go around in circles for hours and hours. They do not have a point. They do no work. They just exist. Plants are the same. It is not always easy being a plant, but there is a lot of down time. We should take much more of a cue from the flora and fauna that surround us. Once you have the basics, it is enough just to bask in the sunshine and potter around. And if your “contributions” dry up and you do crosswords all day, that’s okay too. You matter. The ducks matter… Life is beautiful in and of itself, and I do not need the old folks to produce scholarly papers in order to care about keeping them alive.

Nature is patient. A mother robin has made her nest right under my second-floor patio. She’s very good at “sheltering in place” on top of her babies. I feel comforted when I walk out the door and see her plump little body resting on the woven twigs.

Poet Sabrina Orah Mark weighs the merits of academic job-hunting and sourdough baking in “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over”. It’s the latest installment of her column Happily at The Paris Review, which focuses on fairy tales and modern motherhood.

In fairy tales, form is your function and function is your form. If you don’t spin the straw into gold or inherit the kingdom or devour all the oxen or find the flour or get the professorship, you drop out of the fairy tale, and fall over its edge into an endless, blank forest where there is no other function for you, no alternative career. The future for the sons who don’t inherit the kingdom is vanishment. What happens when your skills are no longer needed for the sake of the fairy tale? A great gust comes and carries you away.

…I send my sons on a scavenger hunt because it’s day fifty-eight of homeschooling, and I’m all out of ideas. I give them a checklist: a rock, soil, a berry, something soft, a red leaf, a brown leaf, something alive, something dead, an example of erosion, something that looks happy, a dead branch on a living tree. They come back with two canvas totes filled with nature. I can’t pinpoint what this lesson is exactly. Something about identification and possession. Something about buying time. As I empty the bags and touch the moss, and the leaves, and the twigs, and the berries, and a robin-blue eggshell, I consider how much we depend on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves. I consider how much we depend on these tasks so we can say, at the very end, we succeeded.

…Over the years I have applied for hundreds of professorships, and even received some interviews. I’ve wanted a job like this for so long, I barely even know why I want it anymore. I look at my hands. I can’t tell if they’re mine.

“Of course you can tell if your hands are yours,” says my mother. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I have no real job,” I say. “Of course you have a real job,” she says. “I have no flour,” I say. “Fuck the bread,” says my mother again. “The bread is over.”

And maybe the bread, as I’ve always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone is changing color. Our criteria for earning a life, a living, are mutating like a virus that wants badly to stay alive. I text a friend, “I can’t find bread flour.” She lives in Iowa. “I can see the wheat,” she says, “growing in the field from outside my window.” I watch a video on how to harvest wheat. I can’t believe I have no machete. I can’t believe I spent so many hours begging universities to hire me, I forgot to learn how to separate the chaff from the wheat and gently grind.

I doubt I’ll ever learn how to scythe wheat, but I have been ordering bulk frozen cookie dough from the cafeteria of a local university that’s closed for the spring semester, and I can attest that my home-baked cookies are more popular than my writing. This Grace Paley poem is evergreen.

May Links Roundup: Hypersane or Hyperactive

May the Fourth be with you! As month #3 of my captivity begins, I am falling back on my lifelong strategy of outrunning my emotions through frenetic activity. I haven’t yet succumbed to the sourdough bread baking trend on social media (I don’t like sourdough enough to work for it) but I have made very good banana chocolate chip muffins and several indifferent watercolor paintings, while plugging away at the Endless Sequel. Meanwhile, the Young Master spends his days happily digging holes in the backyard. Who’s homeschooling whom?

The Harvard Divinity School alumni magazine offered some trauma-management ideas from different faith traditions in their article “Walking the Pandemic”. For that overwhelmed feeling, Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens recommends the meditation practice “Tilopa’s Six Nails”:

Don’t recall. Let go of what has passed.
Don’t imagine. Let go of what may come.
Don’t think. Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t examine. Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t control. Don’t try to make anything happen.
Rest. Relax, right now, and rest.

Jesuit priest Francis X. Clooney, a Hinduism scholar, finds parallels to the stories of Easter and Passover:

In the Christian story, the narrative of death and resurrection can be rephrased as wisdom or advice for people who don’t want to commit to being Christian or don’t want to come to church or any of that. It’s the understanding that we are finite beings and that even when there’s no pandemic we live only a certain number of years and then we’re gone. However painful it may be to strip away the stories and the progress and the ‘busy-ness’ and say, ‘I see myself in April 2020 under these constraints and concerns,’ there is an abiding peace in the rediscovery of the moment in which we’re living. It’s the realization that we are more than this. This is not the end of our story.

To live by this kind of hope is not just saying, fancifully, ‘I hope things get better.’ It’s a deep understanding that, whatever the difficulty of the moment, if we face it and don’t run, we will pass through. To echo the Passover feast, we shall leave the slavery of Egypt and cross the Red Sea.

If traditional religion is not your thing, visit Speaking While the World Sleeps, the blog of a queer ex-Christian sexual abuse survivor. In this March post, “Getting Through When It’s (Not) the End of the World”, blogger Tor shares what they learned about managing apocalypse anxiety, back when they were evangelical.

If you can, if at all possible, try and figure out what future you would want out of this moment. Since it will pass, since you will reach a point where you will feel better than you do right now, sometimes the worst moments are knowing that you believed it was the end when it wasn’t. You operated like there was no more future, and then the future happened. Conceive that your future self exists: where do they want to be after this moment in time?…

…You are moving through time, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I put this one last because maybe it’s obvious for other people, but this one is something I’ve clung to my whole life. When I was being bullied in school, it was often on the walk home from the school bus, and I would tell myself: every step that I take I am moving through time and space and then I will be home and this will be over for the day. Take a breath: another second passed. That second will accumulate into more seconds and those seconds are creating a history that you are living through and then it will be done. It will be done, and you will have survived.

The other day, I recalled the title character’s advice from the Netflix comedy series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, about how she survived 15 years of captivity by a cult leader: “Do you think you can handle this for 10 more seconds? I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you have to do is take it 10 seconds at a time.”

While we’re itching to return to normal, it’s worth reflecting on the ways that “normal” wasn’t optimal. What do we want to take this opportunity to change? This article at Pocket by psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton explores the concept of “hypersanity”, suggested by the writings of psychiatrists R.D. Laing and Carl Jung. Both thinkers believed that deeper truths might be found on the other side of “madness”, i.e. the breakdown of mental processes and beliefs we took for granted. Burton summarizes:

It is not just that the ‘sane’ are irrational but that they lack scope and range, as though they’ve grown into the prisoners of their arbitrary lives, locked up in their own dark and narrow subjectivity. Unable to take leave of their selves, they hardly look around them, barely see beauty and possibility, rarely contemplate the bigger picture – and all, ultimately, for fear of losing their selves, of breaking down, of going mad, using one form of extreme subjectivity to defend against another, as life – mysterious, magical life – slips through their fingers.

Need a radical shift in perspective? Enjoy the Sexual Minorities Archives podcast (with transcripts for those of us who don’t like podcasts) and the Gay Art History reference site for a different angle on familiar cultural icons and events. (Download the section on Achilles for some cross-dressing bisexual adventure.) I also recommend the Advocate’s article “19 LGBTQ Hindu Gods” with the caveat to be wary of cultural appropriation. If you feel drawn to working with one of these figures, but you’re not from the ethnic or religious tradition where they originated, first read a book like Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess to understand your responsibility to that community.

April Links Roundup: Let’s Talk About Anything Else

Week Three of my captivity: We have decided “The Magic Schoolbus” counts as homeschooling. I have a slight crush on Ms. Frizzle (that sultry voice!). Doing a 500-piece Harry Potter jigsaw puzzle despite not caring about Harry Potter or puzzles. Bought four pints of ice cream today, even though only weird flavors like Whiskey Hazelnut Latte were left. At least that’s what I think it’s called; I could hardly see because my face mask was fogging up my eyeglasses. For some reason I thought this was a good time to start binge-watching “Bojack Horseman”, perhaps so I’m not tempted to consume the alcohol-laced desserts too fast. Also have a slight crush on Mr. Peanut Butter.

If you want more coronavirus news, it’s at the end of the post. I thought we could all use a distraction.

Gay literary fiction author Garth Greenwell was all over the news at the beginning of 2020 for his new book Cleanness, a sequel to his award-winning debut What Belongs to You, about an American teacher in Bulgaria whose sexual encounters reflect his existential crisis of both wanting and rejecting intimacy. In this interview at Craft Magazine, Greenwell shares insights about, among other things, the connection between queerness and literary technique:

I’m interested in the way that the shapes we make in art can mirror or resemble or question or complicate the shapes we make in pleasure. One of the things that interests me about queerness in art is I do think that novel affective and sexual arrangements demand novel forms…

[T]he idea that I hear in fiction workshops espoused as an ideal of good narrative-making is that you have a story that has a dominant plot and subplots, and you have a story that has a through line, you have a story that has a center. All of those things are fundamentally monogamous, they’re fundamentally predicated on the idea of life as monogamous, as life being drawn to a single affective center. Well, what if life doesn’t look like that? Then it seems to me that your story could have a very different shape.

And yes, I guess I am interested in the idea, it’s a very old idea, that fundamental idea we have of ideal structures in art as gendered, and that they are connected to sex. That’s an idea I encountered first as a music student in the 1990s reading feminist musicology, that many of our ideas of musical structure basically seem to resemble male orgasm. Feminist musicologists and feminist music theorists [were] sort of asking, what would music look like if instead of taking the experience of the male orgasm as our primary experience of transcendence, we took the experience of female orgasm? What would that look like? How would that change what art might be? That seems to me a really profound question and one that it’s not the kind of question you answer, but that you might explore in art. To me, it’s a question that unsettles my sense of what art can do. The way that I feel like I grow as an artist is by seeking out questions that unsettle my sense of what art can do.

Greenwell also pushes back against the pressure to create unambiguously “positive” representation, saying that as a gay teen in “pre-Internet Kentucky”, even tragic literature about homosexuality was liberating because “it gave me a sense of my life as accommodating of dignity.” He concludes:

I think the relevance of art to our lives is always endlessly mysterious, and never corresponds to a one-to-one relation of “I need a story to suggest to me that my life can be bearable and I can have the life I want to have.” I don’t think that’s how art works, and I think it’s really important to remember that. Any time we feel, as I think as a culture we are expressing this very much, very often, that we can place those kinds of claims on art—we cannot. It is illegitimate, I think, to ever tell an artist they have a responsibility to represent reality in a certain way.

AU: America’s AIDS Magazine last month profiled 80-year-old artist and activist Jack Fritscher, a former Catholic seminarian whose eclectic projects included the 1972 book Popular Witchcraft. Fritscher said: “During the Sixties sexual revolution and the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council revolution, it seemed worthwhile to research witchcraft as another evolving theology in American pop culture.” I was struck by his description of creative synergy:

I am not a Satanist. I’m a journalist. I’m also a magician. As an erotic writer, I conjure sex magic to seduce readers into transformative orgasm by casting the ‘spell’ of words into erotic runes that burn the reader down.

Another gay elder, prolific children’s book writer-illustrator Tomie dePaola, passed away last month. His distinctive artwork, with plush rounded forms and gentle colors, was a fixture of our 1970s childhoods. I particularly remember cherishing The Cloud Book and The Clown of God. When Shane was a toddler, a friend gave us a board book of dePaola’s Strega Nona, about a witch with a magical pasta pot (#lifegoals). See his complete bibliography on his website.

Poet and nonfiction writer J Brooke recently won Columbia Journal’s Womxn’s History Month Special Issue contest with eir excellent, nuanced essay “Hybrid”, about the many permutations of eir gender identity from childhood to middle age. Now the parent of a young trans man, Brooke reflects on the similarities and differences in how they both express their masculine sides. E describes an epiphany from reading Chas Bono’s transition memoir in eir 40s:

Born a boy in a female body, Chas eventually realized he needed to transition into a man. With such similar early years, I wondered, for the first time, if I’d denied myself my true gender. And, if I had, now what was I supposed to do about it?

…Exploring with a therapist whether I still wanted to be the male I’d wanted to be back in my teens, I discovered that while I would have blinked my breasts away at any point in my life, my aversion to surgery would keep me from an elective double mastectomy. As for facial hair, I’d outgrown my desire for it along with my silver spoon shaving years. Learning how testosterone alters the brain, I didn’t want that either…liking the wiring of my female-male brain, however it’s been fused and formed over the years. And, while I’d once perfected peeing while standing, I didn’t wish a penis appended to my body. I was born male and yet no longer felt wholly male; I had morphed into something other.

My favorite poet-mystic Ariana Reines lays down some astrological wisdom in her March 23 New Moon Report. Writing about our new default state of enforced solitude and quiescence, Reines declares:

In order to handle it, the luckiest among us—those of us who are staring down the barrel of nothing worse than boredom and loneliness—are going to need skills and commitment on the level of the great yogis and saints, of deeply committed artists—simply to remain sane, or rather to attain sanity.

What we are facing right now is death.

And somehow I wish neither to give comfort about this fact nor do I wish to scold you about those people and causes to whom and to which you should be devoting your copious spare time and, very likely, dwindling material resources.

There are things I could say about what artists know about being alone, about the transubstantiation of loneliness into solitude that has guided us spiritually since the Buddha first left his wife and kids to wander and sit under that tree . . . and long before that . . . I could preach to you about the touchless touch of the unified field, the negative space that unites us all, about the substance of our love and longing dilating like the auras all about us, about the immanence of God and the reality of angels, about how lucky we are to have the internet and how lucky we are to finally have a chance to learn how to use it for good instead of evil . . .

But I need to remind myself and you that what we are facing is death. It’s not just that people we love will die, but that every time we wash our hands and every day we don’t go outside, mathematically, fewer people will die. We have been drawn into a new calculus. But it isn’t just this either. I suspect we’re also moving into the death of the era in which any of us belongs sitting quietly alone in a room. Whatever America has been, and whatever we have been, we are facing its death.

And in another sense we are all pregnant and this is our lying-in…

…And what about solitude’s products? What about great works of art? These lonesome productions of genius seem to me now like melancholy miracles of an epoch that has devoured without pity the real genius of this place, by which I mean Earth—the cultures, animals, plants, and spirits—hundreds and thousands of spirits, of every description and disposition—that have lived and even thrived here. It has occurred to me that art simply returns to the world some of the abundance it has given us, in the same way that in elder cultures song and ritual would do, and it has occurred to me that art restores balance to the world, which is tilted on purpose, and that there is something about this gift—compelled as it is from us—that is especially hard to accomplish with things set up the way we’ve organized them since the Industrial Revolution.

We cannot live without art, but the Promethean force required to bring it forth is immense, is even sick, an index of our greater sickness. It takes a quantity of human grit to accomplish anything great that I don’t see how any school could teach. And now everyone gets to have a taste of it: what it means, and what it takes to be thrown back on yourself, and to summon out of absolutely nothing, less than nothing, some kind of treasure, some kind of nectar on which not only you but others might feed, something deeper than food and older than even ideas and without which your soul would die.

Need a laugh? How about art produced without tears? Janelle Shane’s neural networks are here for you. Neural networks are computer learning programs that look at large data sets to generate other possible examples of the same genre–sometimes accurately, sometimes hilariously off-kilter. Here, the AI has applied itself to in rem jurisdiction lawsuits, a/k/a “Court Cases That Sound Like the Weirdest Fights”.

One of the quirks of the US legal system is that in certain cases the court will set up a case against inanimate objects–something to do with the process of seizing contraband or dangerous goods…

Some of the strangest have included:

United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film
United States v. One Book Called Ulysses
United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton
United States v One Solid Gold Object In The Form Of A Rooster
Quantity of Books v. Kansas
South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats

Those are the real ones. The REAL ONES.

What would they be like when imitated by a neural net?

A couple of months ago, the AI’s United States v. Two Packs of Filthy Watermelon Pretzels sounded like a farce; now it’s a description of the stripped shelves at Walmart. What a world.

I’ll give the last word to horror novelist Chuck Wendig, whose funny and foul-mouthed writing advice brightens my Twitter feed. He wants to remind us that “None of This Is Normal”:

You cannot meet abnormality with increased normalcy. It just doesn’t work. There’s no countermanding it that way. We’re told we can be more productive, that we’re all work-from-home now, but lemme tell you: this isn’t your average way to work-from-home. This isn’t how to accelerate productivity. It’s like being told to work-from-home during a locust plague and a forest fire. “Just sit there and do the work, head down, don’t look outside, definitely don’t match eyes with Baalzebub, who is currently stalking the neighborhood next door with a SCYTHE made of BITING FLIES. It’s fine! Ha ha ha! Haven’t you always wanted to learn how to crochet? Now’s the time! Just ignore the screaming!”

It’s hard to concentrate when everything is so strange, so broken, so dangerous. It’s like being told to paint a masterpiece while on a turbulent flight. It’s just not the time.

And so, I want you to know, you shouldn’t expect yourself to be somehow a better, more productive person in this time. You can be! If you are, more power to you. That doesn’t make you a monster. But if you’re finding yourself unable to concentrate, that’s to be expected. That is normal. Normal is feeling abnormal in response to abnormality. You must be kind to yourself and to others when it comes to what we think people can and should be able to accomplish during this time. Ten million people are out of work, suddenly. People are sick and dying. The thing we crave at a base level, human interaction, is suddenly fraught and fragile. Hell, everything is fraught and fragile. We’re only realizing now that it was fragile all this time.

Maybe I won’t try to finish my novel by Easter.

Not Business as Usual: Our Forced Lent in a Non-Liturgical World

The symbolism is too on-the-nose to be good fiction: America in the time of COVID-19 is observing Lent whether we want to or not. We are anchorites (if we’re being responsible, that is), sequestered for contemplation and mourning.

This can be especially hard because we don’t have a cultural template for nonresistance. Everything is supposed to be a battle. Obituaries say that someone “lost their fight against cancer,” as if we’re all obligated to treat the human condition of sickness and death as an adversary. The United States is rhetorically at war against drugs and terrorism, all the while exporting both of those misfortunes to countries that our leaders don’t care about. After a hate crime like the Orlando gay nightclub murders, the queer community shows our undefeated spirit by marching, celebrating, and coming out.

When I was living in NYC during 9/11, I remember it was scarcely a week before the banners went up along Seventh Avenue: “Fight back New York, go shopping!” Every tourist kiosk was hawking American flag pins and Death-to-Osama shirts within days of the attack. With the exception of a few anti-war protesters, as a culture we somehow decided instantly that the best response to a paradigm-shattering event was denial or aggression.

But the virus doesn’t care about our indomitable spirit. We aren’t proving anything, except our ignorance of biology, by tweeting defiant pictures of ourselves in a crowded bar. Stay the fuck home.

I’ve noticed a change in my attitude toward time and routine this week. The first couple of days I was panicking: holy shit I’m alone with my feelings and my 8-year-old. I don’t have regular TV and all my appointments are cancelled, how am I going to remember which day of the week it is? Then his wonderful hardworking teachers who should be paid a million dollars sent home a huge packet of homeschool curriculum ideas, and I realized, it’s too soon to return to the “normalcy” I thought I wanted. (Obligatory privilege check: I’m insanely lucky to have a work-from-home job already, and a yard to run the Young Master around in.) Let’s savor having nowhere to rush to. Let’s allow our brains to work only at half capacity because anxiety attacks are screwing up our executive functioning. Let’s tune in to springtime and the awakening earth. We’ll need that refreshment and spiritual strength when the news is scary, i.e. every fucking day.

Make a shit ton of art.

Stay Home, Read Things

Greetings from week one of the pandemic. As I’m a self-employed introvert, the cancellation of everything has only slightly intensified my normal sessile lifestyle, but (like everyone else) I’m too stressed to concentrate on writing my novel. Wish me luck at homeschooling the Young Master.

The next month will be crucial in slowing the spread of the disease. Stay the fuck home, people! Here are some good book recommendations for you to pass the time.

Ariana Reines, A Sand Book (Tin House Books, 2019): My favorite contemporary poet just won the Kingsley Tufts Award for this visionary collection, which pursues sublime self-transcendence through radical honesty about the messiness of the flesh and the addictive ephemera of “the age of spectacle”. Reines can write a deadpan account of the nightly ritual of squeezing pimples and changing tampons, and in the next breath, proclaim “I had an idea of symmetry/Bordering on theology/That dictated I consume/Darkness in proportion/To ‘the world’s'” (a mission statement reminding me Johnny Cash’s vocation to “carry off a little darkness on my back”). This is a book to support you through the apocalypse.

Cynthia Lowen, The Cloud That Contained the Lightning (University of Georgia Press, 2013): Elegant and unforgiving as equations, these poems hold us accountable for living in the nuclear age. Persona poems in the voice of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”, reveal self-serving rationalizations and belated remorse, while other poems give voice to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This collection is notable for exposing the emotional logic of scientific imperialism, rather than revisiting familiar scenes of the bomb’s devastating effects.

Rachel Cline, The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019): This slim, incisive, timely novel of the #MeToo Movement explores the long aftermath of a popular teacher’s serial predation on tween girls in a 1970s Brooklyn private school (which bears a not-coincidental resemblance to St. Ann’s, which Rachel and I both attended). Two middle-aged women, once childhood best friends, find themselves on opposite sides of another sexual misconduct case because of the different psychological strategies they employed to cope with their victimization. I’m currently trying to get through the movie “American Beauty” on DVD and feeling disturbed by the high school cheerleader’s confident pursuit of her friend’s sad-sack father, which doesn’t ring true to the complex power dynamics in real-life “Lolita” situations. The Question Authority fearlessly examines the gray areas of consent, understanding that young women routinely overestimate how much choice and objectivity they could really bring to a relationship with an older male mentor.

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): This novel about the last day in the life of a corrupt real estate developer in New Orleans is an insightful, morbidly funny story about how tragic choices reverberate through the generations. One could call it a Jewish version of “The Sopranos” but where that show was cynical and bleak, this book is full of compassion and even a kind of poetic justice at the end. I loved the unusual technique of shifting perspectives suddenly to the thoughts of a minor character in the scene, like the ferryman or the drugstore checkout clerk. It reminded me of the moment in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch where Theo discovers the truth about the contraband he’s been obsessed with protecting–a refreshing turn from the claustrophobia of tragedy, to comedy that humbles and reconnects us to the mass of humanity.

Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (Viking, 2020): Journalist, public speaker, and science fiction writer Mikki Kendall’s new essay collection combines personal anecdotes and thoroughly sourced data to argue for a more intersectional feminism. She explains how race and class analysis gets left out of mainstream white feminism, and makes the case for treating issues like gun violence, food insecurity, and educational access as specifically feminist issues. Follow her on Twitter @Karnythia.

Courtney Milan, The Brothers Sinister box set: Four books and three novellas of delightful Victorian romance with a social conscience. Milan’s heroines are suffragettes, scientists, a chess champion and more. Her heroes are the kind of aristocrat who wants to reform factory conditions and give the vote to commoners. The main pairings are all M/F but there are a few queer side characters including two lesbian couples.

Suanne Laqueur, A Charm of Finches (2017): This gay romance novel about male survivors of rape handles brutal material in a responsible, compassionate way, with a hard-earned and believable happy ending (or the beginnings of one) for its wounded characters, and no bullshit about forgiveness. I discovered the first book in this series, An Exaltation of Larks, because it was submitted to our 2019 Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for self-published books. We awarded it first prize in the Genre Fiction category! I do recommend reading the books in order because “Finches” gives away all the major plot revelations of the preceding book.

That’s all for now, folks. Make sure you have enough lotion for all that hand-washing and…whatever else you thots are doing since you can’t go on Grindr.