A Letter for 2018

Hi Amber,

It’s 2018!  Wow!  Can you believe it?  Somehow you’ve survived this long, and maybe things aren’t looking too bad.  You’ve got new medication and a little more energy, and even though your last counseling session of 2017 wasn’t ideal, maybe now you and your therapist are on the same page.  So… that’s progress.  It’s scary.  I know it’s scary, because starting new is always unsettling.  But here is a new year and you are so very brave.  2018 is the year of venturing into the unknown.  It’s our first full year out of college.  We’ll finish AmeriCorps and then… well, I don’t know yet.  But you know where you want to be, and at this stage in your life, that’s in the classroom.  Already you’ve applied to two programs, and the odds are in your favor.

Listen, if you’re ever feeling uncertain or lost for purpose, let me tell you: you love the children.  You love them with all your heart.  You want for them to succeed more than you want anything else, and you can, and they can, because they are small but smart, and they are young and resilient and deserve every chance.  No, you can’t save them, we can’t save people, we just can’t, but hey – you can be there, you can be understanding, you can stand up for them and love them.  There are going to be bad days and hard days and rough days; there are going to be plenty of people who you think don’t love them enough or don’t believe in them enough or are in it for the wrong reasons or are painfully negative.  Keep your head up.  You can find your own balance and your own tune.  You don’t have to bend to the culture of any teacher’s lounge.  You can trust what’s within you.

You can trust what’s within you.  On a bad day when you’re reading this, or maybe any time at all, this is going to sound awfully cheesy.  Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, beats me.  But you can.  There is a voice in there and it’s sometimes real quiet, but I believe in you and I’ve seen you listening to it more and more.  Maybe we haven’t been perfect, but life is less and less about being faultless and more and more about being true.  You’ll get into fights.  You’ll let people down or frustrate them, and sometimes you’ll be angry and wrong and that’s okay.  You gotta just be, babe.  Be stunningly yourself.  Don’t be quietly polite to boys you go on dates with, don’t lie about having favorite things to seem less weird, don’t hide your way of being, and above all and in summary, please refuse to be small.  This is not a year for being small.  This is a year of becoming.  You’ve been building to this.  This year has no end goal, but it’s a beginning.

2018 is a beginning, and don’t you feel your life opening up in front of you?  It is, it will, I promise.  I know.  The world is not going to stop sucking, but you’ve been preparing and you’re ready; you’ve been building yourself up to fight.  Do not be quiet.  Life has become politics and there is no more neutrality if there ever was.  This is a year to not go quietly.  This is a year to spend in the streets, fighting and giving and being as kind as you can.  Your kindness is radical.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Maybe the people you know are together while you start again on your own, maybe they are getting married, getting engaged, getting success in spades.  But didn’t anybody ever tell you that Facebook is a liar and a comparer and a thief?  Honey, this year, let’s practice being accepting of where we’re at and letting that be.  Let’s find joy and survival where we can.  So we’re using paper plates, alright.  But there’s really no wrong way of being.  Give yourself some breathing space.  Like your therapist says, “Meet yourself where you’re at.”  Demanding and demanding and demanding will exhaust you.

You’re brave and you’re strong and you have goals and ambitions and hopes and dreams.  There are no limits, but no requirements either. Feel it out.  Take it a month, a week, a day, an hour at a time.  Use your support system.  Love people.  Keep on.  Hold tight to yourself.  Everything you are is enough.  It’s everything you are meant to be at this exact moment in time.

I love you.  Be true.


January 2, 2018


The Solidarity of the Internet Generation

“Africa” by Toto is the greatest song ever made.

I couldn’t tell you precisely why, but it’s a fact that anyone born between, say, 1980 and 2005 has collectively accepted to be true.  Whether on twitter and tumblr and instagram and vine and snapchat, you can find this kind of discussion all over the internet.  The irony of choosing a song that came out early in (if not before) our lives reveals a lot, I think, about the zeitgeist of a generation entering adulthood.

Yes, this is yet another essay on millennials and their younger counterparts, but no, I’m not planning on listing all of the decrepit institutions we are killing off.  This is a generation being reported on in an unprecedented way – not because previous generations didn’t think youth culture wasn’t newsworthy, but because in the age of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle, there are more people saying more things about us than about any other age group in history.  They wonder why we aren’t buying (uh… no money ?), why we aren’t conforming to our parents consumer habits (again, um, please just think about that), why our priorities are out of line with the traditional American dream.

There is a great article, on Thought Catalog I believe, that digs into why 90s kids are so unanimously and deeply nostalgic.  A tl;dr for you all: we were born in a moment of rapid change, where we went from cord phones to cell phones, dial up to wireless, a mixture of cultural elements drifting from the 80s while screeching toward the millennium.  It’s not at all surprising that we long for the days we grew up in, if not even earlier, when we have felt our lives accelerating non-stop, the exponential shrinkage of time combining with the compacting of a globalized world.  It’s not surprising, particularly when so many issues that have been simmering at the surface have begun to boil… perhaps because no one older than us was watching the pot.  This generation is more fluent (I write, perhaps idealistically) in the languages of social justice, gender, race, sexuality, mental health, and ability than our parents’.  It’s a blatant, useless, and potentially dangerous generalization to argue that this makes us more liberal as a generation, implying all young people are liberal (and I shudder to say this, but we can look at Trump’s supporters to see this is false), but I will argue that we are exposed to these dialogues far earlier and far more consistently.  I had never considered white privilege in high school.  Never had a conversation about sexuality, never even heard of a spectrum beyond the gender binary.  My dear friend Mia, who is a junior in high school this year, not only is aware of these things, but discusses and advocates for the rights of the people concerned.  At 16, she is learning to think critically about identity.  On the other hand, I didn’t go to my first protest until January of last year, at 22.

The thing that is important to consider here is this: our parents didn’t teach us any of these things.  Our teachers largely did not politicize their history lessons to bring us the stories of people of color or explain to us the endless variety of ways gender and sexuality can be expressed.  Some of us didn’t even get factual sex-ed.  And no one, no one, spoke to us about mental health, encouraged us to take care of ourselves, to find ways to create our own wellness.  Becoming an adult is hard enough, and sure, Boomers, giver yourselves a pat on the back for getting through it.  But we are coming of age in a time where information is compressed and coming to us in a constant bombardment.  Unlike anyone before us, we cannot get away from the news.  We are coming of age in a time where our futures seems increasingly unlikely, whether from global warming or the increasingly rigorous expectations from the workforce, or the threats being made to policies our parents have been able to rely on, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re being sabotaged by the people who promised to take care of us when we were younger.  Sort of like swearing there are enough lifeboats on the Titanic, but cutting empty ones loose when it comes time for the ship to sink.

So we’ve educated each other.

When Boomers report on this generation, they see sloth, entitlement, laziness, greed.

When I think about it, I am astounded because we have innovated and used the tools at our disposal to create communities where we feel gaps, discourse where our education is lacking, support for total strangers and causes that we can only know about because of the internet.  A study came out recently, claiming that millennials are the least charitable generation in decades.  And perhaps we don’t have the funds to give twenty bucks a month to ASPCA or the Red Cross or what-have-you.  But what I have seen is the intense effort to pass along strangers’ stories until they reach someone who can help.  What I have seen is crowdfunding to find the money for someone’s insulin, or their therapy, or a surgery for their pet.  We are compelled to reach toward each other.  And so I believe that study is bunk.  Our charity is the most interpersonal charity a generation has had in decades.

The internet has given us a shared language that can be understood around the world like never before.  Social media (with (sorry) the exception of Facebook) has become a place of cultural exchange and creation that is absolutely unique.  To whatever extent that people are involved with these platforms, most have an understanding, if not a direct participation in the shaping of humor, lexicon, discourse.  We enjoy and use fatalistic humor.  We know acronyms and understand variations on linguistics, even when we haven’t seen them before.  Millennial culture depends on a rich underpinning of interconnected jokes and beliefs and concepts that are often meta and self-referential and wordlessly complex.

And this, my friends, is why I love memes – because they are a distilling of years worth of references into a common expression; an in-joke between thousands and thousands of people.  Their implicit, rather than explicit, nature of presentation (for example, the collective decision that this year, “elf practice” would become a meme without any single person deciding so (and again, this relates back to the whole nostalgia thing)) means that they are enriched by background knowledge, but not exclusively decipherable because of it.  Nobody understands memes when they first come into existence, but we incorporate them into our cultural knowledge without needing explanation.  How cool is that?

And so, this is why, from time to time, I am in awe of our imperfect, fractured, sometimes downright fucked (or fucked up) generation.  We have created places for ourselves and a dadaist approach to meaning on a massive, collective scale, and that’s kind of amazing.  Because each time I laugh at a meme, I know I’m a part of a community larger than just me.  And then I go listen to Toto.

My Love/Hate Relationship with TV True Love

I haven’t written in a while, because of Big Life Changes… moving, working, learning how to be an adult in this strange, sometimes kind of apocalyptic world.

Life, personally, and on a worldwide scale, has not been easy lately. But early on in my journey with depression, I learned that sitcoms could be a great coping mechanism.  In sitcoms, things are funny when the news is devastating, love exists no matter what, drastic changes never disrupt life for more than 20 minutes.  I’ve been working my way through the pantheon of the modern greats: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Friends, 30 Rock.  I started with How I Met Your Mother (which is not in the list of the greats, because I have more than a couple of bones to pick with that show), but you get the point.  So, with all these recent Big Changes, (and because my building has pitiably terrible internet, Netflix on a regular basis is out of the picture), I’ve been watching The Mindy Project on DVD from the library.

It’s a great show – I love Mindy Kaling’s style of comedy.  Finding it felt like coming home, since she was the producer and writer of so many episodes of The Office.  The Mindy Project has all the stuff I love in a sitcom: original plots, heartfelt and dynamic characters, legitimately funny writing, and of course, the romantic subplot.

In The Mindy Project, the whole premise is that the romantic subplot is more of the A plot, as Mindy wanders her way through quirky relationships in search of rom-com perfection.  Except that somehow, despite Mindy’s search for a relationship being the entire point, the show still includes sitcom subplot staple, the true love plot.

Does that make it sound like I’m annoyed about it?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I love the true love subplot.  The true love subplot is my bread and butter.  I only started watching The Office because I had heard of the magical wonderland that is Jim and Pam.  Chandler and Monica are uncontestedly the best part of Friends.  And it’s not just sitcoms… the smoldering Scully and Mulder, the originators of true Unresolved Sexual Tension, are half the reason I love The X-Files so much.

I love love.  I love true love, especially.  I love TV love because it’s so obvious, it’s so present, because the actors embody these characters created especially for each other.

Earlier tonight, I finished the second season of The Mindy Project.  I’ve been slow in getting through the last few episodes because (spoilers, I guess:) Danny broke up with Mindy just after they’d begun to date, and though I know it’s too easy to just let your leads get together without the whole dance of misunderstandings (it is called a situational comedy for a reason, you know), I was so mad.  I was so mad at Danny for calling things off because he was scared of commitment and then setting us up for several episodes of a confused dynamic and awkward “are we still friends?” game.  And as you do, he made some pretty poor choices, that, had this been real life, would have caused me several breakdowns, at least one anxiety attack, and a damn good screaming session.

Of course, they got together, and things ended well for now.  That’s how TV works.

Here’s the thing though – I get so, so emotionally invested.  I live pretty much alone, I’m a quiet person in a new city, and I’m not ashamed to admit that these characters become my friends.  I think that we all feel that way to some extent, or else these shows wouldn’t work the way they do.  I love TV love because it’s comforting.  It says, yes, this does exist, yes, people do end up together, yes, everything is okay at the end of the day.  That’s why I watch sitcoms to cope with negative feelings.  I don’t expect realism, I expect safety.

I’m also demisexual/demiromantic, which means my romantic love & attraction feelings toward others are pretty minimal.  True love subplots provide me a way to feel represented or participatory (or something) within the heteronormative narrative, because they are characters I’m emotionally invested in “transcending” just physical attraction.  In most plots about true love, we see physical affection as an expression of emotion, as opposed to the ‘real world’ where (so I’m told) people feel attraction first and then go on to develop emotional rapport.

So when it doesn’t work out, if even for just a few episodes there’s no relationship resolution, it physically hurts me.  It’s actually devastating.  I cannot rewatch a good portion of season 9 of The Office because the out-of-the-blue conflict between Jim and Pam gives me such bad anxiety.

I take these shows (probably) way too seriously, but I do so because I’m looking for confirmation of love and happiness in the world.  I went through the break up of my first and only major relationship almost 3 years ago now, but still when I see a TV portrayal of a relationship I love put in peril because of a man who refuses to communicate, panic seizes a part of my heart.  Particularly when it’s uncalled for in the plot or is at odds with the tone of the show (looking at you, Jim Halpert).  Between my anxiety, my depression, and my weird defensive neuroses about love, what can I say?

This isn’t an article to say TV romances are good or bad, that they aren’t realistic enough, that they give impressionable young girls (ie, me) terrible expectations toward relationships or anything else even vaguely argumentative.  I don’t even know what I’m really trying to say, other than I’m trying to understand my own relationship with media & romance and why they are both salving and triggering to me.

This is not justice

It has been two weeks since Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty in the death of Philando Castile.

He had been charged with second-degree manslaughter (specifically meaning the defendant caused a death through recklessness) and endangering safety by discharging a firearm.

And I repeat: Yanez was cleared on all charges.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when an officer uses a weapon and it results in somebody’s death, it seems like that somebody’s safety has definitely been ‘endangered’.

We should be enraged at the implication that the court did not even consider Philando a somebody.  He worked at a school.  People knew him.  People loved him.  I was teaching in Minnesota when the shooting took place, and some of my kids had had many interactions with him.  They lived just blocks from where all this took place.

But this is the thing with black bodies: the state does all it can to avoid recognizing them as human.  Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was in the car when the officer shot him, and began livestreaming immediately afterwards.  You can hear her, sitting next to her boyfriend’s bloody body, saying, “You shot four bullets into him, sir.”  She says ‘sir‘.  She says ‘sir’ at the end of every one of her sentences.  In the midst of this traumatic and horrific moment, Diamond Reynolds had the presence of mind to use to term of respect and deference to the man who had just shot her boyfriend.  This shows both great strength on her part, and the depth to which people of color know that their survival depends on successful and defused interactions with the police.  You find this lesson again and again in black history.  To be considered even barely human, people of color must follow all of the rules of white society better than perfectly.  At the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, black students wore their Sunday best to sit-ins.  Women got their hair done each time.  And still, for all this ‘civilized’ behavior, they were spit on and attacked and screamed at.

Perhaps Philando had a gun in the car (which, under the 2nd Amendment, mind you, is perfectly legal).  Perhaps he had marijuana.  These ought to be irrelevant details, because had Philando Castile been white, they would not have gotten him killed.  At worst, he would have been fined.

A few months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I remember having a conversation with my mother about the officer, Darren Wilson.  He claimed that he had been frightened for his own safety when he shot Brown.  We sat in a Panda Express watching him speak on Fox News, and discussed how this murder was racially motivated even while from his own perspective, Wilson was likely telling the absolute truth about being afraid.  The stereotype of black men as dangerous and violent is so deep and so ingrained in the American imagination, that when Wilson encountered Michael Brown, all of these unconscious alarms started going off in his head.  I do not doubt his fear was real.  But its basis is a lie constructed on centuries of oppression.  As wrong, as terrible as his actions were, I could follow the logic that had motivated Darren Wilson.

I feel no such empathy now.

There have been too many acquittals, too many repetitions.  The precedent is now that police officers that kill people of color face no repercussions.  They are overwhelmingly found innocent and sent on their way, and nothing changes, and black people keep dying.  They’re often not even charged of murder.

Yanez faced the charge of second-degree manslaughter.  Recklessness resulting in death.  But keep in mind, Yanez shot Castile not once, not twice, but four times.  How can recklessness possibly explain pulling the trigger four times?  It can hardly be considered an accident.

I feel no such empathy, because we cannot keep explaining away individual cop’s motivations, their trains of logic.  The fact that this keeps happening, despite media coverage, despite protests, despite literal footage of cops shooting African Americans with zero justification, and that they keep getting away with it, is indicative of a far, far, far larger problem systemic in America’s policing and judicial institutions.  They are by nature, racially biased.

Philando Castile was guilty of nothing.  He was reaching for his wallet, like he was asked by Jeronimo Yanez, like you are supposed to do when you get pulled over by a cop.  For that, he was killed, and for that there has been no justice.  These are murders, straight up.  The longer we deny that, the closer we get each day to court-excused genocide.


(Mostly) In Defense of RENT

Here’s a story:

Our characters are a diverse bunch (although the leads are likely white men, but also we’ve got some variety in sexual orientation and race and gender) who don’t like paying for their living situation.  They’re kind of artsy and liberal across the board, maybe some of them do drugs, though certainly not everyone, and there’s a reasonable percentage of them who’ve come from a solidly middle class background, but who go around telling everyone how poor they are, and overall, you could say they’re pretty content.

But wait!  Here’s a kink in our plot!  Some authority figure who our characters thought they could trust wants to disrupt things and to build a bougie creative space it’s unclear if anyone actually wants, but goddamnit, they’re gonna do it.  Cue creative if ineffective protests, grumbling, name calling and displacement.

Now here’s the question: is this the plot of RENT, or is it about the “entrepreneur space” being built on the second floor of my college library?

Ha!  Trick question!  The answer is both!

You’re thinking, “Amber, where are you going with this?”  And let me tell you, just stick with me, it’s going to be great.

My school loves the hell out of a good controversy.  Our most recent and most vehement issue on campus is the creation of an entrepreneurship space, not just any old place, but on the second floor of the library, where, you know, people study and find books and stuff.  The administration seemingly dropped it out of the sky and put the wheels in motion before anyone had to much chance to protest.  When it did come to light, it became clear that at least 50% of the study body wasn’t pleased.

Because ‘liberal arts’ and ‘well-rounded education’ are not quite the buzzwords they once were, it’s become something of a trend here to emphasize the less ‘arty’ parts of ‘liberal arts’.  The STEM, economics, and comp sci departments have boomed over the past four years – more funding, more focus in recruiting, etc., etc.  When I arrived way back in 2013, internationalism was the name of the game.  But the selling points have changed.

The entrepreneurship space has been advertised as a ‘creative space’ for… well, we don’t really know.  Rumor has it there will be a sewing machine and maybe some Legos, and perhaps some fun shaped tables to be inspiring, I guess.  They’re taking suggestions, so I hear.  Part of the problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on.  The humanities side of the college, however, is feeling pretty PO’d because this project represents the growing privileging of business on campus and the diminishing support by the admin of the humanities.  And they’ve plopped it in the library, the spiritual home of the humanities.  Where are all the books currently occupying that part of the floor going to go?  What’s going to make up for the loss in storage and study space?  I’ve personally been to the dumpster where they’re chucking backlogs of journals and unused books, and can only speculate that they’re probably connected.

And now to return to where we began: RENT.

The similarities between the entrepreneurship center and the crux of RENT’s first act struck me one day when a group of friends and I were walking home from getting drinks.  We were complaining about all of the above, when I stopped in my tracks and said to myself, “Isn’t this the plot of RENT?”  I asked my friends this and they laughed and shrugged.

But one of them said, “No, RENT is about a bunch of people who have the unrealistic expectation that they don’t have to work to pay rent.”

I mean… fair point, honestly.

(Note: I swear this is the one and only time I’m going to pull a “well, technically….”: Mark and Roger (and presumably everybody else in that building) had been paying rent until Benny bought the building and promised them they didn’t have to.  It’s not like they just started refusing to pay out of the blue.  Then Benny shows up and demands a full year’s rent by Christmas!  Christmas, I tell you!  Nobody is going to be able to come up with a year’s worth of rent out of nowhere, especially when you were promised you didn’t have to think about it.  I’m just saying.)

It’s RENT’s 20th anniversary this year, and I’ve seen a lot of mixed feelings about it.  People argue that the music/the story/the characters are dated, or that it’s a ridiculous plot because of course you have to pay rent, duh (which is, again, true.  See note above).  People criticize primarily Mark (and to a lesser extent, Roger) for being a white middle class, heterosexual, all around pretty privileged man, who chooses to be poor and disadvantaged, who we know has a supportive and stable family situation, but who play acts at poverty for his art.  And you know what?  That’s also completely accurate.

But I find a kind of irony in the criticism my friend pointed at RENT, because no small percentage of us at this school are in a similar boat.  Majority white, majority well-enough-off, protesting a change to our holistic liberal arts, while professing the truth that I kid you not every college student has said at least once, “I’m poor, I’m a college student.”  It’s easy for us to say, because we don’t really mean it, forgetting that there are some who do.

RENT is not problem-free.  Not at all.  But I think it’s useless to get caught up on the “we’re not going to pay rent” thing (and as for Mark… we’ll get back to him), because the show was and continues to be revolutionary in so many other ways.  So let’s make a list!

  • We have depictions of drug use that do not come with immediate moral condemnations.  Roger is a former user (and we can still see how it’s affecting him) and Mimi uses throughout the play, but neither are portrayed as evil or morally debauched.
  • Speaking of Mimi, guess who’s super sex-positive and works at a strip club but isn’t shamed for it or denied happiness or inclusion?
  • Not to mention Mimi is traditionally a Latina character.
  • Maureen is canonically bisexual,
  • And in an interracial relationship (albeit not the most healthy of relationships).
  • But look at Joanne – a gay, black, female lawyer who rocks at her job and is powerful and smart.
  • Collins is a black intellectual.
  • And Angel, the darling of all our hearts – there is some disagreement as to whether s/he is transgender or a drag queen.  But I think of how much trans rights have entered the media since twenty years ago, and in any case, she is the radical beacon of love and hope and acceptance at the center of the play.  S/he and Collins have the most functional and powerful relationship of all.

This all goes without mentioning the running undercurrent of AIDS, which not only killed millions in the 80s and 90s when RENT came out, including the creator of RENT, Johnathan Larson, but was also horribly and tremendously stigmatized, leaving many to die in fear and shame.  They were kicked out of hospitals, denied treatment, and people quite literally were afraid to even touch them.

Mimi, Collins, Roger, and Angel all have AIDS.  But Johnathan Larson tells us they are all deserving of love, redemption, forgiveness, family, no matter their identity or their contraction point.

And yet somehow, despite the argument that the play makes for the validity of diverse identities, we’re still talking about how it’s stupid to teach theater goers that rent should be free.  I feel like somebody missed a point somewhere.

If you want to talk about rent, talk about how the play employs it as a metaphor for our limited time on Earth together, our inability to ever completely control the circumstances of our own lives :

I think they meant it
When they said you can’t buy love
Now I know you can rent it
A new lease you are my love
On life, oh my life…

— “I’ll Cover You”

Or how about the sense that the modern age does not provide us the means to ever truly own ourselves, how we must make meaning by fumbling through the actions, and expending ourselves for those little moments:

So I own not a notion
I escape and ape content
I don’t own emotion, I rent

— “What You Own”

Maybe Mark and the gang don’t pay literal rent, but they make up for it in emotional tolls.

(Get it?  Clever, right?)

And – oh yeah – there’s Mark, again, our problem child.  What do we do with Mark?

It’s true Mark comes from a lot of privilege.  He has the option to decide at any moment his suffering is too uncomfortable and then pick up and leave, which is something the other characters can’t do.  His mom calls – she gets him a hotplate – and it’s clear from the beginning that his ‘starving artist’ is more like a ‘dieting filmmaker’ kind of deal.  Mark thinks he can do this with impunity, that he can use poverty as an exotic inspiration for his art.  I don’t want to excuse this or diminish its problematic-ness in any way.

At the same time, I wonder how many people going to see this on Broadway had much, if any, firsthand experience with poverty and AIDS.  I could see Mark, particularly when the play first came out, as a sort of audience surrogate.  He is the entryway into the play, literally, from the first scene, and his camera work is a method of showing the audience a different world.  I don’t have any statistics on Broadway audiences, but I’m willing to bet that like Mark, it’s majority white, stable financially, and artistically minded.  My theory is that maybe his problematic-ness is intentional in some way.  (Whether or not this makes it acceptable is up to you.)

And it’s not as if RENT is blind of Mark’s privilege.  Several characters call him out on it, most notably, when he is attempting to film the police harassing a homeless woman. Once the police leave she turns to Mark:

Who the fuck do you think you are?
I don’t need any goddamn help
From some bleeding heart cameraman
My life’s not for you to
Make a name for yourself on!

Just trying to use me to kill his guilt
It’s not that kind of movie, honey
Let’s go – This lot is full of
Motherfucking artists
Hey artist
You gotta dollar?
I thought not.

— “On the Street”

Much more so in the play than in the movie, RENT addresses poverty and recognizes the hypocrisy of its own characters’ beliefs.  Many of the short songs in between the well known hits are sung by a chorus of people on the street, often suggesting people who are homeless or sick or struggling to get by.  It isn’t one of the main points of the musical, but RENT is aware that Mark and the chorus inhabit different worlds and that there is conflict and condescension inherent in their interactions.  Perhaps by the end Mark is supposed to have learned something about this, or perhaps he continues in his ignorance.  It’s an ambiguous point.  But if we can say anything about it, comparing his first awkward-as-heck visit to the life support meeting and his deepening embrace of Angel and her identity (such as his pronoun correction in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”, or the featuring of Angel at the center of his film that ends the play), we can at least guess Mark might be getting somewhere.  And hopefully, so has the audience.

Another thing to add:  Mark is canonically Jewish, which in case we’ve forgotten, is a group also traditionally subject to intense and violent prejudice.

All in all, my point being, despite the fact that RENT gets shit from the exact same kind of person that they’re giving it shit about featuring, it’s a fantastic musical.  It’s beautiful and emotional, features acceptance and diversity, and negotiates the subtleties of class and status to a 90s rock and roll soundtrack while looking a lot like a couple of love stories.  It’s not perfect, but that’s the point.  We’re meant to accept it, like its characters, flaws and all.

Reclaiming Myself: Thoughts on Tattoos and Depression

Nearly anyone you ask who has tattoos will tell you it’s kind of addictive.  I can confirm this, because in two weeks, I have an appointment scheduled to start on my third.  I’m not sure what it is about getting one that is so magnetic, but I remember I’d barely left the shop after finishing my first before I decided that I would be back.  It was only a matter of time.  I loved the process, the hum of the needle drumming against skin and muscle until you’re achy and numb, the smell of the ink and the antibiotic ointment, the plasma, the plain soap and unscented lotion I use for months afterward.  I just frickin’ love the smell of new tattoos. And (although maybe that’s kind of weird), I know I’m not alone in this drive to fill my body with art and drop hundreds of dollars while I’m at it – I’ve had this conversation many a time.


Tat #1, back a couple of years when it was new

What is it about tattoos that’s so special?

Obviously, there’s no single answer.  But personally, my newest ink coincides with another major life change, meaning that as I’m counting down the days til that new tattoo smell, I’m also just a few weeks away from graduating college.

Let me explain why these are related: I’ve gotten a tattoo ever year since my sophomore year.  That was also the year of a deeply traumatic breakup that coincided with the manifestation of my depression and general anxiety (but just so we’re clear, the tattoo did come first in that sequence of events).  It’s not surprising, because statistics show that most mental illness seriously presents between the ages of 18 and 22.  But contrast this fact with the image we circulate in American society that your college years are supposed to be some of the best years of your life – see an issue?  Not only was I depressed and only just beginning to realize that anxiety was eating away both at myself and my interactions with others, but I have also felt deeply and grievously guilty that I was not having the proper college experience.  In fact, I’m willing to say that I hated it about as equally as I enjoyed it.  And that’s normal.

I got two tattoos, I got (and am still getting) help.  And now college, this symbol of my first struggle with major depression, is coming to an end.

A while back, I read this article by John Donovan, where he discusses the results of a study by Jerry Koch, a Texas Tech sociologist who studies body art.  Koch argues that women who have 3-4+ tattoos often have higher self-esteem, but also have struggled with mental health issues, namely suicide attempts.  And even though Koch acknowledges that by no means is this a fully comprehensive survey (obviously not every tattoo aficionado is horribly depressed), he says, “We’re speculating that there’s a connection there, that the acquisition of body art up to that point might be an effort at a sort of emotional restoration…”

To steal a little more from Donovan’s article, Koch goes on to speculate, “I would suspect that part of why people seek to attempt suicide is they get the idea that who they are isn’t worthy of life… and once they survive that, maybe they’re saying, ‘Hey, screw you, I’m worthy, and here’s the proof. I’ll adorn myself and present myself, maybe in a pretty dramatic way, just so you know for sure that I’m who I am.’”

(A side note: if you are now opening a new tab to Google something like “women + depression + tattoos”, stop what you’re doing and… no, just stop.  There are some fantastically misogynistic posts on this subject.  Be careful out there, friends.)

Personally, I’ve never attempted suicide.  I know and have known people who have, and I’m so thankful that most of them are still with us.  If you are looking for a sign to stay alive, right here, right now, I’m telling you: please, your pain means something, we care about you, and as much as it feels like forever, nothing truly is.

Personally, on the other hand, I have spent my fair share of time in passive suicidal thoughts, the sort of thing where I think, “I really would rather be dead right now,” or “If I could just not exist for a little while that would be great,” or “I feel so screwed up I might as well be dead.” (As I write this, I feel like I’m exaggerating – that I don’t want the folks at home to think things are this bad.  And they’re not – most of the time.  But given that these are all thoughts I have literally had, they don’t really qualify for the exaggeration realm.)

My main point is that when you spend all that time suffering, isolated by an invisible illness, besieged by the weight of your twisted perceptions of reality, battered by your brain into the belief of your own worthlessness, you don’t even feel like a real person anymore.  You get confused about who you are, why you’re even on this planet (or any other, not judging), what the value of your individuality is – what is the worth of my soul?

And so, Koch’s conclusion make sense to me, because they are the conclusions that I too have come to.  I have felt for so long that this body is not my home, angry that I didn’t choose it, didn’t choose to be alive in it, didn’t choose to fill it with strange and crushing sadness.  I have felt as if my life has been inhabited by a stranger who goes through the motions of day-to-day living, this gray, vague fog that has made this skin dull and un-enthused.

When I choose to put something on my body, I have chosen a little bit more of myself to voluntarily stay in the world.  It’s as if 90% of my body was taken hostage by this illness, and each tattoo, each quantity of skin I cover, I take back for myself.  I bump it down.  80%.  75%.  It’s like saying to my depression, “You don’t own me.”  These tattoos are the parts of myself choosing life, on my terms.  I would like to think of them as my movement towards a more authentic life, becoming braver and bolder and learning to stand up for myself and my enough-ness.  They are pictographs of the person inside of me, working her way to the surface.  Or I guess, from the surface, into my skin. (Ha, it’s a tattoo joke, get it? Because the ink has to settle… Never mind.)

Tattoos have been permanence when I am faced with upheaval, markers of strength when I don’t feel so strong.  It feels fitting to add another to my collection as I reach the denouement of my college career and turn toward the future.

Plus, they’re just cool.

Of Eaten Plums & Love Poems


“This Is Just To Say”, by William Carlos Williams, is one of my favorite poems in the entire world.  I have a deep love for the sparsity of William’s style, the way he creates evocative images by refraining from complication, allowing his words a certain purity, the verbs and adjectives standing for themselves, un-harried by figurative language.  They evoke in me the same feeling I get when staring especially at impressionist paintings – you know that in the real world, that shadow they’ve painted is not actually violet on a cream-colored sleeve, but it looks so true, so honest to the very nature of the thing that it seems even truer than reality.  It’s the kind of simplicity and frankness of vision that almost always makes me want to cry from its beauty.

If William Carlos Williams doesn’t ring an immediate bell, you might know this poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

It’s perhaps his most popular, most-studied-in-schools poem.  But just look at the way he breaks up words to make their images strike you: ‘wheel/barrow’, ‘rain/water’, ‘white/chickens’.  Look at the most perfect use of the word ‘glazed’ ever put to paper – ‘glazed with rain’, how much feeling is in its simplicity, this little verdant farmyard, these living things, the world of rain and white chickens and red wheelbarrows.

But I’m getting off-topic.  Here is the poem in question:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Now the story goes of this 1934 poem, that Williams wrote this as a note to his wife, after eating her plums, I guess, and then picked it up later as a piece of ‘found poetry’.  It’s absolutely so mundane, that interpretations of it have run the gamut, from “literally, he’s just apologizing to his wife, the dude ate her plums” to biblical Adam-and-Eve apple, sin, sexuality, ‘academia’ types.

I certainly am in no better position to judge Williams’ intentions than anyone else, but in my mind, this is a love poem.  I guess it’s not a popular opinion, or even a faintly common one, but it feels so intimate, so personal, that I can’t help feeling that we’re made privy for just a moment, to the inner workings of a relationship, a gesture of subdued passion between lovers.

“This Is Just To Say” implies such familiarity, an ‘oh, by the way’.  He knows the recipient’s (his wife’s) habits – that she is saving the plums for breakfast, in all likelihood.  And yet there is also this moment of impulse, that the plums were “so sweet/ and so cold” that he could not help himself, could not stop himself from eating them, and the quiet passion he describes them with: “they were delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold,” as if it were the way he were describing a lover in the early morning.

The interplay Williams achieves between passion and restraint, longing and satisfaction is perhaps to me what makes this a love poem, understated as it may be.  He writes this to her because he loves her, and everything about it feels organic – that it was not written as a poem, but was created from truth, that his actions are not thought through but natural, as if characterizing also their relationship, its tenderness and its earthiness and its spontaneity and its rightness.  It rings so intimate in its mundane subject, as if saying, these, these are the small moments where love is found.

Or, you know, might just be about plums.

(Postscript: It is a true fact that I tried plums for the first time in my life completely because of this poem.  They are indeed wonderful fruits.)

Film Thoughts: Prisoners

An hour into this 2 1/2 hour long film, I’m getting bored, and that’s generally not a good sign in a revenge thriller.

I vaguely remember seeing a trailer for Prisoners at one point or another, but recently a video blog I follow mentioned this flick.  It follows a maybe somewhat played out story, but the addition of Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and frickin’ Viola Davis among others made it seem like it would go on to do greater things.  Slicker.  More thoughtful.  Director Denis Villeneuve does go on to make Arrival, after all, and though I would’ve toned down the melodramatic somberness that sometimes bogs down the clever storytelling, I thought it was a pretty good film.

I can’t say I’ve seen any other Villeneuve films off the top of my head, but Prisoners takes the somber mood and coloring of Arrival and multiplies it.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the story to make it great.

The premise is, two families get together for Thanksgiving and their children (who miraculously happen to be of equal ages, just sayin’) stumble across a van.  Both families have a little girl, and the two sneak off together a little later to go back to the first family’s house.  They never come back.  From there, you can probably guess.  The police get involved, Jake Gyllenhal shows up as the perfect yet hardboiled detective who eats alone on Thanksgiving, the families are desperate and distressed.

(Also, side note: how do these people even know each other?  Why are they friends other than for plot?  There’s literally zero backstory and it really bothers me.  I can’t tell if they actually have anything to do with one another.  I’ve never been that chummy with my neighbors.)

(Second side note: what’s up with Gyllenhaal’s frickin’ incompetent boss? Also also: what detective has a 100% solved case rate?  None, that’s what.  What a completely useless piece of dialogue.)

And yet these decent actors are plopped down into these one-dimensional, stereotypical roles.  Maria Bello becomes the emotional incoherent mother.  Jackman’s persona is straightforward and easily stapled together: white, working class, religious, patriotic, and Masculine with a capital M.  And the further the film progresses, the less and less we hear from the other (black) family.  Literally, the voices of the only women and people of color in the film are covered by Gyllenhaal’s frankly kind of lazy performance as the on-the-case cop, and Jackman’s yelling and punching.  Terrance Howard’s character, who is the father in the Birch family, is initially seen refusing to participate when Jackman’s character, Dover, kidnaps the principle subject in the case.  The next time we flash back to them, Birch is silently and willing holding the guy up while Dover beats the shit out of him.  Where is the autonomy?  Where is the decision making?  There literally is none, because the only character we are supposed to be concerned with is Hugh Jackman’s.  What a waste of poor Viola Davis.  One of the most contrived bits of dialogue I’ve seen in a while was when Dover is trying to comfort his wife and she sobs, “You were supposed to protect us!

Image result for prisoners movie

Wow.  Didn’t you just feel that threat to your masculinity kick in?  Time to go reclaim your virility by literally kidnapping the guy who may or may not have kidnapped your children.

For all the positive reviews I’ve seen for this film, I’m pretty sure I’ve watched this exact thing before, just in B-movie format.

Image result for The Tortured

It’s even the same color scheme!

Oh well, there ya go.  A crappy film with lesser known actors (made three years before Prisoners, just so we’re clear), where a couple whose only child is abducted decide to take matters into their own hands by torturing the prime suspect.

I realize this isn’t the same, because Hugh Jackman doesn’t know for sure that the guy he abducts is the killer, nor do we, the audience, know whether or not the girls are still alive.  And the twist at the end.

But I mean, at least in The Tortured, the woman has a significant amount of agency.  And she, like, makes decisions and has actual conversations with words and time spent on screen.

It’s Dover’s masculinity and the things that that implies in American society that cause him to become a torturer, a monstrous un-empathetic being on a level similar to that of the people who kidnapped his daughter.  The values of strength, action, decisiveness, paternalistic protectiveness.  Is that what the film is trying to say?  Given the flat female characters, I think not.

Even when these people are doing things, they’re straight up crazy.  Who goes along with this?

Reviews say this is a heart-pounding, profound drama with an underlying commentary about terrorism or modern America or something like that.  I can’t say I watched the same movie, maybe because I skipped through ten minute segments in the second half and filled the rest in with the synopsis.  Or maybe because a B-movie with some convenient caricatures filled by big names is what makes for Oscar-bait material.  Jackman is better in Les Miserables.  If you’re going to spend 2 1/2 hours with him, it may as well be heart-wrenching a a good way.

Film Thoughts: The Shining and Shelley Duvall

I want to start by getting the Stanley Kubrick hagiography out of the way, because this post is not about him: The Shining is a brilliantly realized film, the use of colors, angles, and space are all innovative and smart, and it succeeds at being very creepy.

Okay, done.  Enough of that.

If you’re not familiar with The Shining, here’s a quick recap: based on Stephan King’s bestselling novel, the film is about a family of three – Jack, Wendy, and their young son Danny- who move into an old Colorado hotel for the winter, where Jack has been hired as caretaker.  They are completely isolated, which isn’t so great, because the hotel is kind of evil, Danny is kind of psychic, and Jack, a kinda recovering alcoholic with anger issues, slowly descends into murderous insanity.  You might notice that Wendy is nowhere to be found in that last sentence.  Keep it in mind.

Horror films are infamous for their poor treatment of women, including weak characterization, sexualization and objectification, and subsequent bloody deaths.  The tropes are so standard in the film industry that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, a parody of the teen horror genre, specifically lampshades the virgin/slut, life/death dichotomy.

Of course, The Shining is not a teen horror film, and Kubrick’s approach to the film was specifically to break the molds of horror movies that were cementing even in 1980.  However, misogyny plagues the film, from its making to its characterization, to its reception even today in the viewing public.

In the book, Wendy is, yes, a mother and wife, doing her best to deal with the issues of a tenuous marriage while taking care of her son.  She stays with Jack through his anger and alcoholism, not because she’s stupid, but because she legitimately has nowhere else to go.  She stands up to her husband and keeps an eye out for the return of reasons for divorce, although she simultaneously hopes for the best, trying to ignore the discomfort of potential dangers ahead.  She is allowed significant chunks of narration, and we know she doesn’t simply just follow her increasingly abusive partner around unthinkingly.

Image result for the shining

In the movie, Wendy is played by Shelley Duvall.  Kubruck characterizes Wendy as indecisive, jittery, and weak, and I get the sense he blames her for just being in a bad relationship.  She stays because she’s impossibly fragile.  What’s more, Kubrick centers the blame on her lack of ultimatums toward Jack, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, Jack’s abusive behavior itself?  Even as Jack becomes more and more violent, we don’t hate him, whereas it’s easy to condescend to the pathetic and sometimes blandly frightened reactions of Wendy.

Stephen King, who famously hates the popular 1980 adaption of his book, has said of Kubrick’s Wendy that she is “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

Watch practically any YouTube video about The Shining, and you will see plenty of hate directed at Wendy/Shelley Duvall.  Some people out there like Kubrick’s Wendy and Duvall’s performance; however there’s no lack of viewers that consider Wendy to be weepy, overplayed, and boring, and they tend to blame this on Duvall as an actress.

Image result for the shining

It has come out over the years that during the filming of The Shining, Kubrick terrorized, verbally abused, and isolated Duvall.  He refused to give her any praise for her acting, ordering other not to “sympathize with Shelley”, constantly criticized her performances, ideas, and suggestions, and condoned her when she didn’t have the latest version of the constantly changing script.  Duvall told Roger Ebert that their were periods where she spent ’12 hours a day crying’, and she can be seen on behind-the-scenes footage showing Kubrick and Jack Nicholson tufts of hair she was losing due to the stress of filming.  And that’s not even mentioning the scene where Wendy confronts Jack on the stairs with a baseball bat, which Kubrick forced Duvall and Nicholson to do 127 times.

By contrast, Nicholson described Kubrick as “warm”.

Do I even have to say it?

It honestly enrages me that people have the gall to critique Shelley Duvall.  If her acting is indeed weak, it’s because she was being terrorized by a misogynistic director for months on end.  If her character is weak, it’s because Kubrick wrote her that way.

In the meantime, the brilliance of the film has been accredited to, (who else?), two men.  Praise is lavished on Kubrick for his control and style.  Fans say that it is Nicholson’s impeccable acting that make it so frightening and exciting.  Duvall sits through all of the adoration of the men around her (she actually calls it sycophantic) and demurely says only, “Of course, I get a little jealous.”  Kubrick and Nicholson have monopolized the narrative surrounding the making of the film.  The months of intense work Duvall put into The Shining have been washed over, or worse, labeled lazy, bad acting, annoying.

Image result for the shining

And even worse than that is the posthumous adulation that Kubrick receives, while Duvall’s mental illness is exploited on daytime TV, like her recent appearance on Dr. Phil.  Did filming The Shining cause Duvall’s mental illness?  No, probably not entirely.  But was there an underlying condition she had that was gravely aggravated by Kubrick’s enforced ‘method acting’?   I don’t doubt it.

One of Kubrick’s daughters has sought to raise money on Duvall’s behalf, speaking out against her Dr. Phil appearance.  I may be wrong, but in this I see an act of repentance.

Just one more thing: while researching for this post, I stumbled across a short essay by Danielle R. Pearce (you can find it on her Tumblr).  In this essay, she argues that Kubrick’s “complex use of misogyny can be attributed to his authorial signature – one of using cinema to explore and develop understandings of humanity and the self.”  Pardon my french, but this is bullshit.  Kubrick’s ‘understandings of humanity and the self’ are not about humanity, they’re about men.  And believe it or not, you can make movies about men and misogyny without making them misogynistic.  Rather, Kubrick uses women across his canon as mainly objects and plot points for his male protagonists (in The Shining, we have only Wendy, who’s there as helpless audience surrogate, the female doctor, and if you really want to stretch it, the woman in the bathtub).  This isn’t a complex use of misogyny.  It’s just plain ol’ misogyny.  The fact that he has been lionized and enshrined by the academy does not make this acceptable.

Shelley Duvall deserves far better.

Why You Should Listen to The Hilarious World of Depression (or at least the first episode)

I’ll tell you two things about my recent chronic obsession with podcasts: first of all, I am without fail at least three months behind on listening to new shows because there are too many of them downloaded on my phone and I don’t have the heart to delete them, because what if that one is an interesting one and then I miss it?

Secondly, over the past year, no voice has become more of a comfort to me than Peter Sagal.  If you don’t know who that is, he’s the host of one of NPR’s most popular shows, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, a weekly hilarious news quiz (a popular NPR host is probably a contradiction in terms, I understand the irony).  He’s unfailingly warm and witty, and to my mind, just a generally excellent human person.

In plowing through some of my oldest podcasts during a recent flight, I put on the first episode of The Hilarious World of Depression.  I’d subscribed to it because, well, a) as established, I have a deep love of podcasts and not enough of them already, b) *cough, cough*… I deal with depression, and c) my beloved Peter Sagal was the first interviewee.

There’s this fairly common trope that often comedians are the people dealing with some of the darkest emotions.  Robin Williams, Maria Bamford (who’s in episode #2!), etc.  We often forget, as host John Moe points out, that these people suffer because outwardly, they make us laugh.  They display boundless energy.  I had never considered that Peter Sagal suffered from depression.  I was really taken with this first episode in particular, because I resonated with so much of what Peter had to say.

For example, I too am an acclaimed NPR host – no, actually that’s a lie.

But in reality, like Peter, I’m a high-functioning sufferer of depression, which means I’m good at hiding it and going about my shit on a daily basis fairly well.  I’ve never, until just recently, been open about it – and in fact, this blog is the first time I’ve ever written about it – because it felt (feels) like this shameful thing, this ugly weakness.  Both Sagal and Moe discuss how this is the cunning of the disease: it wants you to feel alone.  It thrives when you feel cut off.  And though unlike Peter Sagal, I have never been through a traumatic divorce, I too have used Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation as therapy.  (Also, Friends, 30 Rock, and the first eight seasons and last episode of The Office (season 9 was stressful.  Let’s not get into it)).

Alongside Peter, John Moe is a wonderful and compassionate host.  He begins the episode relating (so to speak) his ‘depression credentials’, his personal story, the paralyzing fear that I know pretty well that you’re just plain going crazy.  He discusses the power of comedy that has drawn so many people (knowingly depressed or not).  And how it wasn’t until adulthood that anyone bothered to explain to him that no, he wasn’t a weirdo, he was depressed.  He also mentions how frightened he was to go public with his depression… and the in-pouring of support and comradery he received in return.

When I say that these two men, chatting openly about their mental illnesses, both seriously and in jest, made me feel less alone, don’t take it lightly.

I’ve heard all of the counseling stockpile statements about how many people secretly deal with depression, regardless of how unique and isolated and misunderstood I felt.  I know the gist, I’m not the only one and I’m not alone.  But how many of us really believe that when our brains our telling us the other 23 hours in a day that we are complete outsiders to real, neuro-typical society?  I’ve worked hard to make it so other people don’t see me struggling.  But I never assume that other people I encounter are fudging it just as much.

The day I listened to this was a week or two after one of my worst breakdowns in real recent history, a day where multiple weeks of pain had built up and I couldn’t figure out a single concrete reason that I was alive (other than to feed my cat, I kid you not), and had my first panic attack in months at my therapist’s office.

But then John Moe and Peter Sagal came on, and they told me everything was mostly going to be okay, and that they knew what I was struggling with, and suddenly I wasn’t alone and I was going to be okay, and I knew that with a clarity that I haven’t had in months.  They made me feel seen.  Understood.

So, if you’re struggling with mental health right now, I see you.  I can count there’s at least four of us now.  Go listen to John Moe say calming things.  We can still be real, good people even with depression.  Like Peter Sagal.

If you aren’t, you probably know people who are, and it’s a beautiful and moving and funny listen anyhow, so put it on and do whatever chore you’ve been putting off.

You can find The Hilarious World of Depression here: https://www.apmpodcasts.org/thwod/2016/12/peter-sagal-opens-up/ 

And then, once you feel all fuzzy inside, put on a Wait, Wait for good measure. Peter Sagal will appreciate it.