Words

Plague Poems #4

PandemicMoi
Day 56

No one is chasing us
through bombed streets
or trying to systematically
hunt us down and murder us

except for this virus
like a mine bobbing in the droplets
of our own spit, or a mace that
cudgels the careless and arrogant,
which we can outwit
by holing up like
the Frank family
sans Nazis and
plus grocery and liquor delivery
and Internet.

Don’t say you can’t take this anymore.

Six weeks is nothing
in wartime.
Ask the Afghanis
and Syrians, the Somalis
and Congolese,
the grandparents and great grandparents
who fled Europe
with only what they wore,
or who lived nightly
in terror of bombs
dropping on their houses
and beloved cities.
Think of their years of uncertainty,
how much sweeter
stability and peace were
when they found them again.

Think of yourself as called
to this moment in history
as to a vocation.
It is our turn to
practice lovingkindness.
It takes so little
to save someone else
in this invisible conflagration,
this firestorm of infection,
this slow-motion earthquake
of the Old Ways:
soap, twenty seconds of diligence,
a mask, a temporary resistance
to the human need for
proximity and touch.

Our calling now is not to fight
except with words
against the ignorance
that could destroy us,
and to resist
returning to the world
that spawned that ignorance
and the poverty of thought and time
and compassion
that led us here.
Our calling is
to learn patience with
ourselves and others, learn
compassion for their fears
and our own, learn
to be with ourselves
and ones we love
and don’t yet love
in a new way
for an unknown time
that—if we allow it—
can reshape not only us
but the world
for the better.

‒April 25, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #3

PandemicMoi

Black Horses

I hear them in the night
when the flesh is weakest,
somewhere at a distance,
our little crossroads
of small houses and
apartments hardly taller
mostly spared
until today.

This one, brazen,
stopped right outside, silently
painting my walls red/white/red/white
under the storm-grey skies,
the driver and partner
masking and gloving up
like highwaymen
but carrying two tackleboxes
like fishers of souls.

It used to feel like help was coming
to see the strobes of light
come up the street and park.
Now it’s like seeing
the black coach-and-four of the Cóiste Bodhar and
the hearing the siren wail of the Bean-Sidhe.

And yet I called out the window
to thank them
for wading into a building
like a leper colony,
afire with infection,
only to be relieved, later,
to watch them leave again
without a passenger
and no hearse behind them—
no one overrun
by nightmares
this time.

‒April 23, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #2

PandemicMoi
Psalm

The day before Easter.
Astarte’s season,
before the branches are so heavy with leaves
that there is no sunlight
below them,
only a dappled, cool shadow,
and skies are bluer and wisped with
high frivolous clouds
limned in spring sunlight.
My neighbor, who is a poet
in Polish and English,
calls this the
coming out of darkness:
out of winter’s short days, growth pushing up
out of the dark soil, buds furling
out from the closed knobs of branches,
the weak little chick peck-pecking
out of the wet dark of the shell, and she herself
out of the dark hopelessness
of her Lord’s death
into the light of His resurrection.

Six feet apart, we talk in the courtyard,
I in my mask and nitrile gloves,
she with her cigarette
and apron from the Easter meal
she’s cooking, each food a symbol,
as a third neighbor, eighty-seven, joins us
wearing green woolen mits
to take out her trash.
We stand in the spring sunlight
pouring down on us,
Jew, Buddhist, and Catholic,
faces turned to the bare branches
not yet in flower.

Tomorrow I’ll bake leavened bread
and break it alone
in my quarantine of sunlight
not knowing what shadow
summer might bring us.

-April 12, 2020, Brooklyn
© Lee Kottner, 2020


Baby Steps

DreamingBooksThe solstice is a time of new beginnings. The light starts to come back, overpowering the dark, the seasons turn, and we hunker down for the winter, which is a time of introspection and creativity. So it seems, I hope, oracular that I had the day I did yesterday. I've started doing some electronic housecleaning, getting my bookmarks and passwords back in order for accounts I haven't touched in several years. These are mostly creative accounts connected to my website building, or bookmaking, or my now defunct teaching and freelance careers. Some of them are old enough that I've already been scrubbed from the sites themselves, which is fine. Most of those are obsolete or I don't use them anymore anyway. It's a little sobering that it's been that long though.

I'm also trying to change the way I work, so I set a repeating timer for 20 minutes and then got up out of my chair and did something else for varying amounts of time when it went off. Peed. Made the bed. Did the dishes. Looked over the mail. Had lunch. Made tea. (I just found a great Darjeeling from Arbor Teas in Ann Arbor. Fragrant and lush.) Planned dinner. Cooked. Stood up and sang a bit, which felt great! Ran out to do shopping. Swept the floor. Emptied the catbox. I thought it would be annoying, but it was actually good to get my ass out of the chair and not get sucked into the Intertubez so deeply, as deeply as I have been. I've also been weening myself off Facebook in preparation for my exodus in January (which won't be a total one, at east not yet; I'll be over at MeWe, too, for those who'd like to join me, just not as often, either).

Not Hopeless bullshit
credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

All of that electronic housecleaning and organizing seems a hopeful (and useful) step in my personal rehabilitation. That's what this feels like: rehab. I'm still feeling a little displaced, or maybe "unplaced" would be a better description, in an apartment that's not quite home but becoming it, in a life that's very different from one I knew for 25+ years. Yesterday was a bit like rediscovering that old self, or maybe unearthing her again (hopefully not like a zombie or vampire). I'm reminding myself of what I used to do when Facebook hadn't become an escape and a focus for my energy and rage. First thing in the morning, I used to read Arts & Letters Daily, which is a great aggregater for the kind of stuff writers and readers read. I used to read the comics every day, so I spent some time weeding my comics bookmarks, and adding some to Feedly. I reconnected with some old 2D friends, major portions of whose stories I've missed and may never catch up on, which makes me a bit sad. I may have to buy books to do that. (Oh no! Not that! Don't make me buy books!)

I also spent part of the day cleaning up my poetry market bookmarks and adding new ones. It's sad to see how many journals have folded in the time since I was regularly sending work out. But there are plenty more to take their places and lots of venerable ones hanging on. I won't start with how it pisses me off to have to pay to have my work read, which is one of my many soapboxes, this one about how our government doesn't support the arts in this country. Regardless, I'm at least thinking about submitting work again, which I haven't done much of, lately. And starting to act like a real writer again, whether I'm writing or not. It's a business if you're serious about it and some of your time has to be spent doing the business end. So while I'm waiting for my brain to clutter itself up again with voices, this seemed like a good way to spend my time.

And it led to a really wonderful and exciting day-making interchange with an editor who seems like she might be a new friend. 

Perfidy-Report-buttonI've been wondering what to do with all the poems I wrote about T-Rump in the first year of his reign, poems I wrote in a white-hot rage, one a day for a long time, until I was worn down and couldn't keep up with all the acts of cruelty and vileness. They were posted on Facebook and a resurrected blog I'd run during W's torture regime, The Perfidy Report. Fifty-four poems later, Days of Perfidy became a collection I despaired of ever finding a home for. Then, while trolling through the Poetry Submissions Portal on Facebook, I ran across a call from Headline Poetry & Press, which is all about political poetry. I looked over the submission guidelines, which included an email address to drop the editor a line if you had questions. I didn't just want to upload the whole manuscript so I shot her a note instead, explaining the manuscript's genesis and that the poems had been published on The Perfidy Report and giving her a link, thinking I'd hear back in January at the earliest. Much to my surprise, she responded only a half hour later with an enthusiastic interest. That started a really pleasant and fun back and forth email chain of the kind you have with new and interesting people, asking questions, answering them, sussing out what each of you like and are like.  

It's always gratifying when people like and are interested in publishing your work but it's even better when you make a personal connection with someone who likes your work. This was really great because I don't often email editors with personal requests like this. Like, never, in fact. Maybe I'm getting bolder in my old age. I'm not sure I can explain why this whole thing was so delightful. In part, it was the speed of the reply, the curiosity and openness and collaborative nature of the person on the other end and her sense of humor. I realized this morning that she reminds me, at least on paper, of my grad-school friend Gwen, another poet and generous soul that we lost to cancer a few years ago. Anyway, it was a really delightful experience back-and-forthing with her. Just what I needed to restore a little faith in myself.

 

 


Patriot or Not

RadicalMoiI've been watching bits and pieces of the impeachment hearings (who hasn't?) this week, in between work tasks, and it's quite different from either the Nixon or the Clinton hearings. The latter was truly a farce over largely farcical and personal misconduct that should have just been handed to Hillary to deal with. (Yes, Clinton lied to Congress, but that's not what that was really about, was it? It was a foreshadowing of the mentality that's festered in the Republican Party to stay in power at all costs, even the loss of democracy.) Nixon's was far more shocking to a nation that still believed in itself, and it was clearly a criminal act, sprung from the paranoia of another Republican that mirrors the minority party's current paranoia.

Lord of the liesT-Rump's hearing is different. The criminality is equally paranoid, and serves Republican paranoia about loss of power and a conspiracy of Others, but it's wrapped up in his own narcissism, attempts to be more subtle, and is more complex in nature than a break-in, as befits a second-rate, wannabe mob boss without a mob. Nice country you got here. Be a shame to lose it to the Russians. How about saying in public that you'll start an investigation of Joe Biden and his kid? We'll see what we can do for you. Jesus, the ineptitude. Of course, the denial of this kind of extortion only gets a pass when you propagate a distrust of the press and the career bureaucrats and diplomats who are the true professionals running the government. That distrust didn't exist during Clinton's or Nixon's hearings. 

Which brings me to Dr. Fiona Hill and the decorated Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Immigrants both, serving their adopted country at the highest level and at the cost of personal injury in the latter's case.  Vindman telling his father, scarred by Russia's methods of dealing with dissenters,

Dad, I’m sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union, come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.

Fiona Hill, daughter of coal miners in the north of England, insisting, 

This is a country of immigrants. With the exception of very few people still here, everyone immigrated to the U.S. at some point in their family history. This is what, for me, really does make America great.

Both statements brought me to tears (admittedly, it doesn't take much), I think because I once felt this way myself when I was younger, and because it had to be a covert emotion. Roger Cohen writes in the Times about the ideas I've wrestled with since I was a child: an emotional love for the place where I was born, and disgust with the injustice it perpetrates, i.e., patriotism. 

WeThree2Let me give you a little of my background for context: On Dad's side, I'm a second-generation American. His folks emigrated from somewhere in Austro-Hungary (it was always a big secret, so I'm not sure where) and Dad was born here. Like Vindman, he joined the army (the Army-Air Corps then the Air Force) and fought in one of our wars (WWII), in his case, against people who spoke the same language his parents did (they were German-speaking Hungarians). Most of Mom's people, by contrast, have been here a very long time indeed, long enough to have left the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War to take up big land grants from King George in Canada. I'm not a Daughter of the American Revolution, but a Daughter of Union Empire Loyalists. At least one of the Canadians came back to the US to marry my Welsh-American Grandfather, whose family had been in Pennsylvania for a couple of generations, too. So I'm sort of the nexus of both aspects of American colonization and immigration: newcomer and founding colonialist. Add to this that as a Jehovah's Witness, I was supposed to not stand for the pledge (which I still don't; loyalty does not require pledges), not celebrate the 4th of July (boy that was tough in 1976), not vote, to have no loyalty but to God's Kingdom, and to be utterly neutral politically. Not just non-partisan; non-political.

That last one was a kicker. Politics and history, inextricably intertwined, were the number one topics of conversation in our house: Dad was a relentless FDR Dem; Mom, in a non-JW life, would have been even farther left. We supported unions, didn't cross picket lines. Dad voted fairly often and he and Mom always talked about who was running. Dad was also an inveterate writer of Letters to the Editor, mostly about politics and politicians, as well as local policy issues. Being retired WWII military and someone who got out when he saw what was happening in Vietnam informed a deeply ingrained sense of Honor and Right, the same kind Vindman exhibited and spoke about before Congress. You find this in a lot of career military people. They join up because of a real desire to Do the Right Thing, to give back and to serve in the only way they know how—with their lives. You see the same thing in many career diplomats and civil servants as well. They have a vision of a country and government that at least tries to Do the Right Thing, to make the world better, no matter how often or badly it fails, and they want to be part of that work.

It's no surprise Dad hated Nixon with a fiery hatred. I can only imagine what he'd say about T-Rump. There would be a lot of swearing. He hated Lieutenant Calley too, for sullying the uniform, so the recent pardoning of war criminals would result in much more swearing. He wasn't fond of the damn hippies, but he knew they were right about Vietnam, and supported their right to protest. Members of the KKK and the "goddamn John Birchers" were beneath his contempt. He was, nonetheless, ferocious in standing up for people's civil rights, especially if he didn't agree with them. "That's what I fought a war for," he'd say. Mom pretty much agreed with him, but extended her dislikes to most organized religion, except her own, fondly (and rather hilariously) quoting Marx's "religion is the opium of the people." She took any injustice in the world personally: racism, sexism, religious persecution, persecution by the religious, wage inequality, war—you name it, she hated it. I finally realized that the thing that appealed most to her about being a JW was the idea that Armageddon was a way to burn it all down and start over. I think she was really a thwarted Anarchist at heart. 


Conservative vs. liberalBoth my folks were outraged by injustice, for different reasons. But I always think of Dad as one of the most patriotic people I knew. He couldn't care less about the Pledge of Allegiance, or the flag or the visible trappings people sport. He was a reluctant respecter of authority, so God help you if you abused that authority. Dirty cops, dirty politicians, war criminals, there wasn't anybody he hated more. He was a little guy and the little guy you didn't piss on. If you wanted to burn the flag as a protest, he'd support that. Free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to dissent were deeply important to him, but he was a "work within the system" guy. Mom was the one who wanted to see it all burned down and replaced with something better.

So here I am, raised by a couple of shit-stirrers and closet radicals. All the while I was clinging to being a JW, I was frustrated by their inaction and "giving it up to god" attitude that said humans were incapable of fixing anything. I was most frustrated, finally, that the attitude included poverty and hunger, which we manifestly can fix. It took me leaving my religion to become a card-carrying, out lefty. I pined in secret to go to anti-war protests, and finally went to my first march in college, the No Nukes rally in DC in 1979. That makes me proud in a way being directly connected to American colonialist history doesn't. I've always been, like Mom, a dissenter, and demanding, like Dad, that we as a society Do the Right Thing. One thing I'd never call myself is a patriot.

I've never had a good definition of patriotism, and it's always been a semi-dirty word to me because of how often it's trotted out in support of something really vile. The line about fascism coming to America wrapped in a flag and carrying in cross, whether Sinclair Lewis said it or not, is chillingly true. We're watching it happen. Every time T-Rump says "Make America Great Again," he's personifying what's worst about patriots and patriotism. It so often the refuge of fools and scoundrels, to justify acts that benefit no one but themselves and their increasingly tiny interest group of old white men. In that sense, the Patriot Act is aptly named, because it negates, in the name of "safety," the rights that are codified in the Constitution for everyone. 

This is part of what I wrestle with: the harm we've done and are still doing versus the good we try to do, the ideals we hold up and so often fail to uphold. I am heartened and touched by Vindman's belief that he will be okay telling the truth before Congress, even while the Army has had to relocate his family to a military base to keep them safe from the fucking Trump troglodyte MAGAites. It is still not the government coming after him and his family, as it would be in Russia, and that's what matters to him. I am heartened by the fact that Hill succeeded so well here when she couldn't because of the even more rampant classism in her country of birth, and touched that she decided to repay that opportunity by serving in the government. Her calling out of officials of the government she works for, right in public, in front of God, Country, and Everyone Else, to stop lying about Ukraine's meddling with the 2016 election—that's a patriotic act if ever there was one. 

And while that self-serving prick Devin Nunes insults him by not recognizing his rank as a serving U.S. Army officer, Vindman reiterates his belief in the U.S.:

As Vindman’s testimony neared the end, Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from New York, asked the witness to reread the message he delivered to his father in his opening statement. He obliged....

“Why, then, do you have the confidence to “tell your dad not to worry?” Maloney asked.

“Congressman, because this is America,” he replied without hesitating. “This is the country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.”

Right matters. 

Maybe that's what patriotism is in a democracy: the dogged insistence that morality and ethics matter, that Doing the Right Thing is our duty, not a part but all of what being an American is, even if it means holding your leaders' feet to the fire of accountability in public. Maybe especially that. And to have two recent immigrants do that shows how important immigration is to who we are. Cohen, in his opinion piece on Fiona Hill, writes,

This [that American is a nation of immigrants] is the very revolutionary American idea under attack from Trump and his Republican enablers and the Fox News fabulists. Make America Great Again is, in fact, Deny What America Is.

Dissent is patrioticThe people who come here from all over the world—even from places we've helped ravage like Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam—come here with a sense of hope and idealism that we born-here citizens often have lost. Look at the new crop of immigrants, and first and second generation Americans newly elected to Congress, how they're tearing it up. They're tearing it up because they believe in the system. And what they believe of the system is that it's supposed to work for all of us, not just Big Business, not just stinking rich people. They believe that government's main job is to take care of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable of us, to lift us up, to protect us from the predatory and the greedy, to give us equal opportunities to succeed and pursue happiness. It's what I still believe and demand but don't expect. That these people are working for it when their colleagues on both sides of the aisle (with some exceptions) are not only shows how much we need immigrants to renew our democracy. That kind of faith in the process can only come from the young and from people who have experienced far worse times than most American citizens have. When you come from war, or genocide, or desperate hand to mouth poverty, or a land savaged by climate change, or authoritarian government, America still looks like a haven and a promise. People like these are not what Thomas Paine called Sunshine Patriots. They become, instead, our Winter Soldiers. 

And we need them because what's Right is grossly at odds with our practice of capitalism, which, unchecked and unregulated, is anything but Right. It's grossly at odds with the gospel of bootstrapping, as well. The idea that every person—regardless of skin color, sex, nation of origin, or any of the artificial labels we slap on each other—has a set of inalienable rights that a government cannot strip from you is the foundation of Right. Without getting into what the founders meant by "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," I think we're at least starting to accept the notion that the inalienable rights include the right to basic necessities, health care, and education, all of which are necessary to life and the pursuit of happiness. And you certainly don't have liberty without them. The freedom to starve, be homeless, and die young is not liberty.

And Right is grossly at odds with the two party system as it's in play now. Too many of the Democrats are in thrall to special interests and Money, especially when they call FDR's policies "radical left." And where to start with the Republicans? Where? Oh Lord. Let's just say, if you have to lie and cheat and allow others to break the law to stay in power, you are Wrong, not Right.

Sadly, we are currently being governed by the most Wrong administration ever, and opposing it is probably one of the most patriotic things we can do.  I fear that our democratic experiment is failing  and has been failing for a while now, a good part of my lifetime, every time we allowed money and/or power to matter more than people. And that experiment matters because people's lives matter. The whole point of civilization and government is to make people's lives better. Everything else is gravy.

So, patriot or not? If dissent is patriotic, then yes. If I need a flag for it, then no. Unless I can burn it.


Use It or Lose It

BooksMadeHereBeen thinking a lot about creativity lately and how I seem to have lost mine. It's always been a bit of a struggle for me, in contrast to some of my friends who seem to have new things pop out of them all the time (I'm looking at you, Marcia Gilbert. And where is your website for me to link to?) That goes way back. My mom was a creative person too; she crocheted a bit, did embroidery, needlepoint, and crewel work, tatted, sewed quilts and clothes, baked, poured and painted ceramics, and most of all, painted china. Needlepointing and china painting were her two main creative outlets and she was really good at both. She and I made ceramics for a while when I was a kid (the kind you pour in molds with slip, not the thrown kind) before she started china painting, and that was fun, but I think I would have liked thrown ceramics better. Messy, more intent involved, glazes to mix and a bit of chemistry to learn. Still a goal. I love ceramics the way Mom loved porcelain.

Rose&Lilac_10in
One of Mom's painted plates

She was also a perfectionist and really tough on herself, so I had that role model, which didn't make it easy to be creative. And she was an honest critic, which was both good and bad. Kids need a mom who thinks everything they do is brilliant; I had one who thought everything I did had the potential to be brilliant. On the plus side, I learned to take criticism well pretty early. It made me practice and practice and practice and practice when I was teaching myself guitar, but it made it excruciating to take lessons in anything. Failure wasn't an acceptable part of the process. But it has to be, and it's taken me a long time to allow myself to do that, to fail, to make failures, and not feel like one at the same time.

I think Mom was hoping we'd have a hobby or craft we could do together, so I tried crocheting, hooking rugs, embroidery, and making ceramics with her. She really wanted me to learn china painting, but I didn't have the patience for it and, well, see above about taking lessons. I explored very different creative avenues from Mom's, too: pencil portraits, pen and ink, guitar in high school, and finally writing. Writing was something Mom didn't do at all and it was it like breathing to me. The words were always there, shaping themselves into sentences or lines and stanzas. There was a voice in my head most of the time stringing them together. All through school, when my teachers thought I was taking notes like mad, I was writing stories—fanfic and stories about the kids in my neighborhood—that I shared around at lunch or on the bus after school.

Then I took a mechanical drawing class in high school and fell in love. I've always scored high on the spatial relationships part of aptitude and intelligence tests, the ones where you rotate 3D figures or take them apart in your head, and I liked the tools of mechanical drawing. I've still got my set of pencils and compasses and my T-square. And then I learned to type, on an IBM Selectric that was almost, but not quite, a typesetter. (In grad school, I got a daisy wheel typewriter/printer that was even closer; heaven.) I joined the yearbook staff. And that's how I got interested in layout. I learned real typesettng on the college newspaper, and when PageMaker came out when I was working my first job in New York, I was in ecstasy. I taught myself PageMaker, QuarkXpress and InDesign as they each came out, studying typography along the way. I bought a copy of Words Into Type. I bought typography and design books and learned to see what makes a good layout and good design. I bought art and artist's books. I laid out newsletters, pamphlets, proposals, posters, book covers, and reports. And that's how I wound up with the half-assed graphics/layout/word processing "career" I've had. I've never worked as a graphic artist in high end design jobs like magazines or advertising, but I've learned a lot from paying close attention to them. In one of my freelance proofreading jobs, I worked with a guy who was a fucking genius with Photoshop, who advised me to learn that instead of Illustrator. Turned out to be a wise choice for someone who's largely lost her drawing skills. I still hesitate to call myself a graphic artists, self-taught as I am. But I'm good at layout.

About ten years ago, I managed to scrape enough money together to take an intro to letterpress printing at the Center for Book Arts. And if the daisy wheel printer had been heaven, and the page layout programs had been ecstasy, working with a Vandercook and setting my own type by hand fucking blew the top of my head off. As a class, we designed and printed a broadside poem by Gregory Pardlo, "Glass," (which I loved). I suggested the design and set the type while everybody else picked it out and prepped the press. We each got a chance to set up and run off 25 copies ourselves. It. Was. Awesome. I fell in love with the Vandercook, which is a monster of an electric mechanical press. It fed all my love of machinery and tools and making large things do my bidding. I went home with dreams of my own letterpress shop dancing in my head. This of course requires that I win the Powerball lottery to buy a suitable building for my friends to live in and me to run  my press out of. Sure. Why not?

During the course of the long fanfic career I've had, I met a woman who was a conservator at a university library. When we became friends, she brought me into the lab she worked at and showed me how to do library bindings. I had no idea it was as easy as it was. That only fueled my press dreams a little more. We wound up making some very fancy fanzines together, a couple of which I'm still really proud of, with an imprint we formed called Two Vixens Press. In the meanwhile, as a poor substitute, I bought the equipment for a tiny, strictly digital press: a good Epson color printer, an HP laser printer, a powerful desktop hand built by another fandom friend, a big screen, and the Adobe software to go with it. I also bought myself a cast iron book press, which has been really handy. And I made some books (links in the sidebar). I started blogging about book arts, and going to book arts shows. Thus was born Maelstrom House. Then the Roommate happened.

So it's been a long, dry period of nothing creative and I'm easing my way back into making books, which appeals to my love of layout and typesetting and hand making things in mixed media. My equipment is outdated or broken now, so I have to rebuild that, and my hands are not as strong as they used to be and thanks to the growing arthritis, not as nimble. I feel like I've lost a lot of good creative time and momentum. I'm trying not to be resentful about that. It won't help.

For many reasons, I decided to ease my way back in with a book of my own poems. For one thing, I'm sick of the fact that the only way to get a collection published in the U.S. is to pay someone to read your work in a contest, the entry fees for which average $25. I've had enough individual poems published, and had enough people whose opinion I respect tell me I'm a good poet to not look at this as a vanity project but rather as another way of getting my work out there. I won awards for my poems in high school, college, and grad school. I've had a couple of near misses with contests, making it to the finalist pile. Besides, I'm in good company with Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, and Virginia Woolf. The stigma of self-publishing is largely gone now, and there are many avenues of it. I've decided to put it out through Maelstrom House in a new imprint, or the resurrection of an old imprint—Long Meg Press—to keep it separate from the publication of other people's work. I'll start with a few handmade, perfect bound editions, make some print-on-demand editions available somewhere (I'm trying desperately to avoid Amazon; suggestions welcome), and learn how to make an ebook, which is a skill I've been wanting to add. And I know a thing or two about making books now. 

Well. I'm relearning it, anyway.

Signatures-Adobe
Imposition in InDesign. credit: Adobe

When I left my job at AKRF, I was a power user of the then-very-new InDesign CS2 and I could make it sit up and bark. I've laid out a number of chapbooks and zines and pamphlets and cards since then, so you'd think I'd remember how that signature thing works. Oh hell no. InDesign's newer versions do this cool thing called imposition, where you lay out the book in the page order it should appear in when printed, and the program makes the signatures for you, without screwing up your original layout. In the early versions, you had to do this by hand and it was an unholy fucking mess of linked text boxes. One thing that taught me was to make dummies first. But now InDesign does the messy work for you. It's almost too easy. Nothing like printing on a letterpress would be. 

But could I get that damn program to give me five signatures of an 80 page book? I could not. Took me four tries and a trip to the Adobe Help Desk (where I should have gone first) to remember I had to treat the first and last pages like a half-signature (of 4 pages) and check the box to print blank pages. (JFC, Adobe, why would I include blank pages in a document if I didn't want to print them? That should be the default, you dumbasses. Not a special box to check, buried in the printer preferences.) Then I realized if I was going to perfect-bind this thing, I didn't need a set of five signatures, which I'd have to pamphlet stitch and then bind; I needed individual four-page signatures. Duh. *Dramatically smacks forehead.*

Anyway, I got the innards laid out and fancied up with a nice typeface and a few ornaments here and there. It needs a bit more futzing with, but it looks good. And now it needs a cover. And Long Meg Press needs a logo again. I was dreaming about making that, the other night. It's good to dream.


Catching Up, Starting Over

Feeling My Age MoiOkay, so it's been a while. The last thing I actually wrote, as opposed to just posting some graphic, was in 2015, about a year before I lost my summer teaching job at NJCU and things started to change. I promised in the last post that there would be a catch-up about why I haven't written anything here lately, and this is it. Its a long and kinda of ugly story, about five years worth of ugly story that I'm still sorting through and—though I hate this word—processing. Where one enters a story is crucial and I don't know where to do that to explain this to you; five years is a long time to encapsulate.

Encapsulate. Huh. The image I have of that is of a sliver, a piece of shrapnel that can't be removed, enveloped and surrounded by the body, encased, so it does no more harm, so the sharp edges are blunted and infection doesn't spread. That seems apt.

As I said, it's a long, convoluted tale with numerous actors and locations and consequences, bad employers and good employers, brokeness and broken-ness, desperation and relief, good friends and bad. It involves another move, a new job, the end of a friendship, another rescue cat, and what it feels like to be starting over while pushing 60. All kinds of doors opening and closing, losses and gains. I'm not sure how important the details are and I don't want this to sound like a wailing litany of misery, because it wasn't. It was just Not Right, and Not Good For Me.

O Hindsight, You are a Cruel Bitch.

IMG_0858
In Parkchester

Let's try this: back up a bit, to June 2013, when I take in a Friend who is jobless and being evicted from her apartment. Foreshadowing: I'm the only one of her friends or family to offer to do this. I'm living in Parkchester (pic at right) and have an extra bed, though the apartment is only a one-bedroom. She has two teeny cats that my then-beastie, HRH Queen Mab the Cruel and Beautiful, loathes (and has met before since Friend had been HRH's initial rescuer). So right off the bat, we have cat fights and separate litter boxes (more foreshadowing). I think the stress of two cats in her territory made HRH sick and killed her before she should have died. She gets sick and I have to put her down not long after the Friend moves in. That breaks my heart.

The humans living together doesn't go too badly otherwise, though we are worlds apart in ideas about neatness and cleanliness. Friend makes an effort, which I appreciate, though I fail to fathom people who have no personal concept of "cleaning up after yourself." She's getting welfare and SNAP benefits, but there's no way in hell I'm not going to share my food with someone who needs to eat, regardless of what those fuckers in the benefits office think is reasonable. Six months in, she gets a job, though the salary is minuscule and generally unlivable, and offers to split the rent. I tell her to keep it, to start getting herself back on her feet, thinking she'll use this as a launch pad to a better job.

About that time, my landlady, a friend of a sort-of former friend (there's another long story, but I have no need or desire to go there), informs me she's selling the condo I'm renting from her and offers me a very generous "buy out." Roommate and I decide we "haven't killed each other yet" (her words) and decide to keep living together to help each other out (my words). I still have to borrow money from my friends (you know who you are and I am still paying you back) to move us to a new place, smaller and four flights up, in Harlem, that Friend finds through her connections. It has the potential to be a cute apartment with decent amenities, but this is where it all goes to shit.

First of fall 2016-1
From the Dunbar, Harlem

I run out of money and can't retrieve roommate's stuff from storage after all, as I'd promised (although she's been working for three months now, she's contributed little more than half of one month's rent; I've covered the damage deposit and brokers fee, in addition to moving expenses and my half of the rent); I don't know what else to do but apologize, which I do. When it comes time to write the checks for rent after the moving is done, I get "billed" for her storage fees for the next couple months, until I reasonably ask why I'm paying for her storage. This precipitates screaming accusations of me lying to her (and reveals her failure to hear my apology), but she starts writing her checks for the full amount of rent she owes.

When I try to talk to her about splitting chores, she looks at me like I'm asking her to murder her cats and just shakes her head in apparent terror. I cannot keep up with her failure to clean up after herself. It's like living with a frat boy who never puts anything away, never takes out the garbage, never cleans a dish, never mops, wipes a counter or sweeps, never washes out the sink or tub or toilet, doesn't scoop the cat box, and tramps through the apartment with wet and dirty feet without cleaning the mud off. I never unroll my good carpet. The cats use it as a scratching post.

We argue. Loudly. Not often, but enough that I start walking on eggshells, never sure what will set her off. I am now the enemy. We stop talking to each other except when necessary. I hate this. I don't mind confrontation, but I hate unnecessary conflict. We're two adults, we should be able to have a reasonable discussion without name calling and screaming accusations. I hate the person she brings out in me; it's one I've fought all my life not to be, with the temper I have. A lot of passive aggressive shit gets done by both of us because there's no possibility of reasonable communication and I will not be screamed at. The cats shit and piss all over the apartment, ruin my furniture and belongings, kill my plants. Roommate (no longer Friend) ruins a fair number of my possessions too, out of sheer carelessness. This goes on for a total of four more years. By the last year of it, I'm only sleeping and showering in the apartment. I've quit trying to clean it. Another friend who's only here part time lets me hang out at her place when she's not there. I'm not homeless in the literal sense of the word, but I'm Home-less. And Home is deeply important to me.

Working (For) It

In the meanwhile, in June of 2016, NJCU's shithead Badmins close down the Writing Center where I've been working over the summer, without any notice, leaving me and my colleagues unemployed. Director and staff wage a hard-fought battle for its life, but we lose. I'm literally a week or so away from utter penury and considering bankruptcy. Roommate offers no help, doesn't seem to give a shit. So much for mutual aid. 

MDRCVeseyCube2
My office cube at Vesey St.

Miraculously, after sending out at least a couple of resumes every week for, like, five years, I finally get an interview with a non-profit for nearly the same job I had at AKRF, lo these many years before. It's even in the same neighborhood. But, unlike ARKF, it's full time and the pay is much better, as are the benefits. It's a nerve-wracking couple of weeks before I get hired, but get hired I do. I'm sad to leave teaching. I'm sad, to be specific, to leave the classroom and my students. I am not sad to leave the exploitation, the terror of not knowing if I'll have classes enough to live on every four months, the scramble to get by, the utter insecurity, the indifference of Badmin to both students and professors, the indifference of tenured faculty to the ruination of their profession and the living conditions of their colleagues. I haven't had a full-time job since 1990 and I'm worried about how I'll feel about it after a while. I've loved having the freedom to create art, to sit in cafes and write, to be able to take terribly paid but deeply rewarding teaching jobs in my field—but not the freedom to starve. The economy has changed too much and I'm 56. Freelancing is too precarious. Teaching doesn't pay well enough and is also too precarious. I need new glasses, good healthcare, dentistry, disability insurance, a retirement plan. A decent salary. Safety nets. Stability. I have to start taking care of myself.

Thanks to eight years of lousy academic "salary" and sudden unemployment I am up to my ass in debt: friends, credit cards, federal and state taxes. My credit rating is in the toilet. But I'm working now, in a great job with great people, and working toward getting the fuck out of this apartment. I cannot stand it any more. I start squirreling away cash in a strong box under my bed. State tax arrears come due and suck up all  my meager disposable income. This job is good, but it's not that good. Friends come to my aid—swarm to my aid—in a GoFundMe and I manage, with their financial and physical help, to get out of Harlem and into a new apartment in March of 2018. (Shout out here to Daniel Chow of Leonidas Realty, who really went to bat for me.) In a final fit of rage when I don't sign the lease again, Roommate accuses me of "always getting what I want." I'm not sure what that means. That I was supposed to keep taking care of her? There had been signs of that all along, and resentment when I haven't. She's still in the same badly paying job she was in five years ago, having made no effort to move on. Last I hear, she is in North Bergen, New Jersey, commuting to Times Square every day. 

20181021_204641
Jillybean Calico

A few months before this, I find a little hell-cat calico abandoned in her carrier on the street, with the door left open. She's scared and fiesty as hell, but I get her shots and spayed and move her into my bedroom, like I did with Taz, the tuxedo the Roommate brought back after her wee sister cats died. This calico stays nameless for a long time because I'm trying not to get attached to her, thinking it's going to be hard enough leaving Taz, who thinks she's mine. I don't have the emotional wherewithal for any more cats, or the income. But eventually, she convinces me that I'm hers now, and that her name is Miss Jillybean Calico. She's full of piss and vinegar and made of sharp edges, but a great snuggler and funny as hell. She comes with me out to Brooklyn in her carrier, in the front seat of another friend's car, and when I cut her loose after the movers have gone, she runs around the apartment in utter joy at all the space and snarls like a cougar that this is hers now. All of it. Me included.

It seemed to take a Herculean effort to move this time. It was too messy, in too many stages, and the last one involved way too much of me running up and down four flights of stairs, throwing out my possessions. I think that finally broke me, physically. Six months out, I'm just starting to feel a tad less exhausted and getting some stamina back. It's taken me that long to unpack, too. The last two boxes were just emptied this weekend, and the contents await the pleasure of the people I've offered them to, or of folks who will love them more than I do. 

This account, of course, has two sides, and many more details of everyday cruelties offset with moments of beauty. Harlem is a great neighborhood and I liked it up there. It feels like New York in a way Brooklyn or anywhere else I've lived doesn't. It's a close-knit neighborhood. I wish I could have afforded to stay, but it's just as well I couldn't. It doesn't need white people. It needs more well-paid Black folks loving it so people like me can go enjoy the great jazz spots, the restaurants, the architecture and art, and go home to elsewhere, leaving our money behind. I always felt a kind of guilt living in Harlem, and a lot like an interloper. Part of the problem, not part of the solution. So as much as I liked living in that part of Manhattan, I don't particularly miss it. 

As for the friendship that went south, well, after enduring four years of verbal abuse, false accusations, and irresponsibility, I don't miss that either. When people show you who they are, believe them.

Home Again, Home Again

20191005_132738
Fall in Bath Beach

The City of New York took a while to feel like home, but it's definitely that after 33 years. But nobody lives in the City of New York; you live in the neighborhood. In the run up to the move, I was forced to think about what I really require in a home and in a neighborhood. My previous moves have been opportunistic or of necessity. This time, I had the opportunity to find somewhere that felt like home, instead of having to wrest the idea from what I was given. I  had a cute, cheap apartment in Sunset Park, but the neighborhood was (then) pretty grungy and amenity-free. Parkchester was the closest to home that I've come, and I did love that apartment and neighborhood. But not the Bronx so much. Parkchester was an enclave, sadly, not part of a wider borough I felt at home in. Harlem was a great neighborhood that spoiled me in a lot of ways: great restaurants and bars, good grocery store, handy laundry, excellent cafes, libraries and bookstores, and a great commute. The building was seedier than it should have been, because it had clearly once been glorious, but the apartments had been chopped up and were tiny and claustrophobic, even without a roommate who, left to her own devices, would cover the floor knee-deep with her detritus. My bedroom barely held my queen-size bed, a dresser, my hope chest, and a dry sink. The closet was like a coffin. So was the room, after a while. I don't know how Jillybean survived in it for as long as she did. I'm not sure how I did, either.

I stopped looking for a new place in the Bronx after a while, disheartened by grunge and distance, and focused on Brooklyn. When I saw the picture of the building I'm in now, something about it just felt right. It was the third place I looked at on a really raw, rainy day and even in the dark, I knew this was it. I don't know what made it so, but I basically just told the realtor to take my money once we got inside. I gave them the down payment that night. Brooklyn feels like home and always has.

Some of my habitational requirements have been constrained by my accruing years. I'm done with non-elevator buildings unless I'm on the first floor. That's where I am now, with four steps up from the entry, and some days when I first moved in, it was all I could do to get up those. I don't know how I did four floors every day. I don't know how I dragged stuff up and down it. I want more quiet than I used to, and this is blissfully quiet. I want a neighborhood, like Parkchester, that I can walk around in and shop in, and Bath Beach is definitely that.

I'm still discovering its charms. Every workday, I stop and chat with Phyllis, my Jewish neighbor who feeds the pigeons at the end of the block. I say Ni hao! to the Chinese immigrant woman who fishes for cans and bottles in our recycling bins. Her smile is always luminous. The neighborhood is full of Chinese folks, storefronts in alphabets I can't read, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Italian food markets. My neighbors are Polish and Russian immigrants and long-time Brooklynites. I haven't tried the restaurants yet, but there are several that look enticing. Still looking for a bar, but found a good diner and a couple of bakeries. I come home via Bay Ridge, and it half feels like an extension of my neighborhood, it's so close. I've discovered the good grocery stores (even the Key Food here has a great pasta selection; advantage of living in an Italian neighborhood): JMart, Net Cost, and the little Middle Eastern shop with barrels of turmeric and gram flour and a Halal butcher.

Being close to the water—smelling it, watching the freighters come in closer than I ever did on Lake Huron, hearing it crash against the breakwater—is heavenly. It's a low-rise neighborhood of two and three story houses and apartment buildings, tree-lined so heavily on my street that when I come home at night I have to have a flashlight in the summer. In the winter, Orion hangs in the sky over my building. I don't miss Northern Michigan, where I grew up, but I have missed being walking distance from water and seeing the stars and fireflies. On July 4th, there were 360 degree fireworks: Coney Island, Satan Island, on the bay, and behind us in the park. 

It's different out here, a bit more suburban, though still urban density without the high rises. I don't miss those either. Not quite car country like the interior of Bensonhurst or Satan Island. Enough of a commute to get some reading done again. If I had the heart for that.

Next! Next?

So here I am, back in Brooklyn, the borough where I started out in 1986, alone again in a 700 sq. foot ground-floor apartment half a block from the water, where I can see Orion in the winter sky and fireflies on the lawn (lawn!) in the summer. I have a hilarious, half-mad rescue calico whom I never meant to keep. I'm simultaneously deliriously happy, relieved, exhausted, and ... numb. I've never felt like this before, so I don't have words to describe it. I hesitate to call it PTSD because I don't feel traumatized; I might be a bit beaten up, but I'm pretty resilient. I'm not suffering anxiety, nightmares, or any of the typical symptoms of PTSD. I suspect what I'm feeling is more like exhaustion, and has more to do with staring down the barrel of 60, but also with various losses and the grief of those losses, and with the realization that I'm starting over.

I've lost half my furniture in the last two moves and what I've got left has had the shit beaten out of it by Roommate and her cats and time. I abandoned a lot of stuff out of necessity, not being able to afford to move it. Some the smaller stuff disappeared into the maw of squalor that was the Roommate's bedroom and rec (wreck) room over the course of five years. I need a new dining table and chairs (old ones were claimed somehow by Roommate, who insists I promised them to her), a new daybed (given away when it didn't fit in the new Harlem apartment), new accent chairs (one gave up the ghost in Parkchester, the other was ruined by the Roommate; neither owed me anything at their age). I've already bought a new, cheap trestle desk, where I'm writing this. But I can't yet afford internet service (work has graciously loaned me a mifi) and I need a promotion and better salary. Half my take-home goes to rent. I lost $800/month in disposable income between higher rent and paying back the tax man. Only a couple more months of the latter, thankfully. 

I've lost a lot more than possessions, though. I've lost my cooking chops, which is weird, because up until the last year when the building management ripped up our kitchen and never fixed it, I cooked a lot. Things I used to make with confidence come out tasting weird, or just wrong. Maybe it's the ingredients. I'm buying cheaper stuff than I used to. Or it's learning the quirks of a new kitchen. And not having good pans anymore. I've also lost my singing voice because once the Roommate moved in, I stopped using it. I used to sing all the time, and I'm starting to do so again, though I don't have any music equipment set up but my phone right now. I suppose that will come back too, the more I use it. In the meanwhile it's painful. I've always had a good strong voice and now I sound like a weak old lady who can't carry a tune. I'm afraid I might be one.

The worst thing is that I've lost the sense of who I am when I'm alone, and this is the thing I'm having the hardest time both explaining and dealing with. I think part of the reason is that my fantasy life has wandered off on its own somewhere. I used to have a rich and deep one, full of characters and plots that developed over weeks or months as I walked through my day. Now it's all empty up there. There's no people to "try on." The non-rent-paying boarders in my head that I used to joke about have vacated. I'm alone in my own head.

Alone, but not lonely. I do miss my cast of characters, but it's bliss having space to myself again. I just ... I don't know how to fill it. I don't mean the furniture. You should see the Pinterest boards I've got for that. I mean that I spent so much time on my laptop on FB, raising hell and instigating by way of distracting myself from my home situation that I don't know how to be in my own head, my own physical space, my own body anymore. I'm disconnected enough that I don't even know what that feels like, what emotions I have about it. Not dissociated, but not entirely present, either.  Here in body, here in intellectual capacity; maybe it's the emotions that haven't caught up yet. Disconnected, maybe. 

In that disconnection is my need and desire to hunker down on the weekends, stay indoors, and not see anybody. When I was living up in Harlem, I saw folks quite a bit, in part because it was a way of being out of Hell Apartment, and partially because, well, I like my friends. And I had more disposable income. Now that I'm alone again for the first time in five years, I kinda wanna just roll around in it. I cook, clean, do laundry, tease the cat, watch a show or two sometimes when the signal is good. I'm done unpacking and mostly with arranging, until I get more furniture to arrange, and I'm making small things. What I'm not doing is writing or reading, for various reasons.

Island&cat_sm
Jillybean contemplates the Maker Space

Until I moved, I hadn't had a work space of any kind for five years, and now have more than I quite know what to do with. It's not all set up yet. I haven't hooked up the desktop and its peripherals, or got the maker space quite the way I want it. There's not yet enough storage space to clear the island top for working. I haven't made any books in ages, but I've been doing teeny little craft projects related to the apartment since I moved in. Last night I bought two 12x12 galvanized steel tiles to make into bulletin boards and got out the washi tape to put a border around them. I've made a gazillion magnets out of my old pins and buttons. I miss the sewing machine I left behind because all of a sudden I have a bunch of things I want to sew.

But the beauty of writing is that you don't really need much of a work space for it. What you need the most of is headspace, and I've lost that, too, in my lack of privacy and retreat from my living conditions. I haven't written much in the last four years, either fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. For a while there I was churning out a lot of political pieces for the Cause. I had a frenzy of poetry after the election and that seems to have exhausted me. And fiction... pfft. I've had this next novel churning around in my head for years now and I cannot bring myself to even do the research for it. I keep looking for a way into it and everywhere it's a locked door. Even the fanfic is on hold. I've been doing mostly graphics at work, since that's my job, and even got to make a book there, but it's not the same. It's work. Sitting in front of this computer at a desk again, crafting something with words, feels good in a way that sitting at the one at work doesn't. I don't feel blocked, just empty. That's more disturbing.

I blame The Orange Dumpster Fire for some of my malaise (for everyone's). The shit show that is his regime (not administration; there is no administration. There are only cronies and sycophants.) has taken the heart out of many of us, and added to a lot of the anger I was already feeling with the Roommate. It changed and reduced what I could bear to read, changed the focus of my poetry (not for the better), stripped me of energy to do anything more than run my political action boards on FB (The League of Nasty Women, a clearinghouse for resistance actions and education and Against Trumpism, which is my personal shitposting about T-Rump), and march when I have energy.  Because I do not have that energy anymore, dammit. It's occupied too much of my headspace too, both being angry about how I'm living and being angry about the Orange Regime.

All this is a very long way to saying that I am Starting Over. I keep thinking about Lewis Thomas's essay "The Selves," which I've written about elsewhere. If I've written this long screed as a way to figuring out what the fuck is wrong with me, I think it's this: I'm between selves. I'm aging, and getting used to that. I'm alone again, and getting used to that. I'm not teaching anymore, and getting used to that. I've become far more politically active and opinionated, and getting used to that. I'm living somewhere new and working somewhere newish. I have a new cat. It's all new. The integration has not yet happened and I'm still disparate parts of a whole.

What a puzzle. Hope the pieces are all still here.


The Problem of Intent

Writer Moi I haven't been back here in a while, due to various circumstances I won't go into here. If any of Rob's class is watching this space, I just want to say hi. Hope you enjoyed the essay of mine that he assigned.

Anyway, I woke up this morning thinking about the word "intent," as I have been off and on for some time, for reasons relating to the circumstances mentioned above (more on that in a later, catch-up post). My ruminations finally solidified yesterday after watching an episode of Red Table Talk on Facebook (another reason I haven't been back here in a while—Facebook, not Red Table Talk). It's a good episode with Chelsea Handler talking with Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Jones about white privilege and parts of it are really painful to watch, mostly the bits from Handler's documentary, in which she interviews white women, mostly poor and conservative, about whether they think white privilege exists (they don't). Handler's own previous dumbassery on the subject is also pretty painful, but she's getting it right now, and that's what matters most.

But there's a point in the video where she tells a story on herself, illustrating her former dumbassery and the person who calls her out said, "It's not about the intention, it's about the reception." A little further on, Handler acknowledges that white people don't want to learn because it's uncomfortable to learn not to be an asshole or a bigot to other people, "you gotta go head first into deep things and get in trouble and say stupid things to learn how to say smarter things." All of which is true. Not just say smarter things, but know smarter things, I would add. The process of learning to be a good ally to people who don't have your privilege is hard and embarrassing and upsetting. It's heartbreaking and guilt-making to realize you've been walking through the world hurting people (if you're not a Rethuglican who enjoys that kind of thing; but I digress.) 

And then Jada Pinkett Smith says that key thing that I've been thinking about for ages now: "I think we gotta make some room for people to say stupid stuff sometimes," because racism has been going on for so long that most of it is unconscious now. People don't realize they're being racist unless it's pointed out to them (and that's where other white people need to get off their asses; it's not Black people's job to do that). She continues, "Not every—you know, not every action is racist." So while it may feel racist to the object of the action, it may not to the actor and it may not have that intent behind it. 

This is why intent matters—also. Not by itself, but in addition to reception. Because if we are doing our damnedest to be a good friend and generous person, to do the right thing, to not be racist, sexist, bigoted, insensitive, ableist, oblivious to the experiences of others, and we fuck up along the way, a little compassion helps fuel the struggle for everyone. There's a mental health element to this too, and Handler prefaces her part of the discussion with what seems like her irrelevant experiences in therapy to make this point. She spends a long time talking about her own struggles with pain and anger and how realizing how angry she was was because she was in pain was the thing that broke her open, finally, and got some real work done. When we're operating primarily on a foundation of pain (and here I walked away to go make my bed, because, yanno, pain), then the world becomes our enemy. Everyone becomes our enemy. Everyone is out to hurt us, to insult us, to fuck with us, plotting against us to make us miserable, being mean to us. Everything everyone says or does to us that hurts us (and when we're already in pain, this doesn't generally take a lot) is intentional. Because people are bad and mean and hurtful and fuck all ya'll anyway. I hate people.

And that's clearly bullshit. It feels right when we're hurting, and damn if there aren't days when I get up in the morning and look at the news and think What the ever loving fuck is wrong with you people? about nearly everyone in the world after seeing all the hurt we do each other. But to think the whole world is your enemy, that every person you meet, every friend you make, will ultimately betray and hurt you creates a huge number of problems and solves nothing. First, believing we are somehow important enough for individuals in our lives (never mind the rest of the world) to spend their time machinating about how to hurt us is one of the best examples of narcissism I can think of, and utterly delusional. That's like gaslighting yourself. It's also an example of flawed perceptions and expectations. It's our expectations of others, ultimately, that wounds us: expecting perfection, expecting an intimate and automatic understanding of our POV, expecting unearned unconditional love, expecting all the attention. Love people as you find them, and if they, in their own pain and rage, hurt you, love them from a distance.

Worse than this, though, is that anticipating injury from other people assures that this is all we'll ever get from them. Ever. Because everything they do will be an injury to us if we fail to see their intent and their focus. One of the last times my mom came to visit me here in New York, we were walking along the street and she said, in what was clearly a revelatory moment for her, "wow, people are really so focused on themselves that they don't really pay attention to anyone else." This was coming from a woman who agonized over what other people might think of her if she went out without looking perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed, perfectly dignified, who was painfully self-conscious about how her disability made her look. I wish she had had more time to enjoy the liberation of that revelation. Because she was right about that. People are all dealing with their own pain, their own stuff, their own troubles, and hurting or judging you is not a high priority on their to-do list.

Unless they are so wrapped up in their own pain that they are going to lash out first, and there are some people who are that hurt, that broken. It's good to remember that it's still really not about you in those circumstance; if they are hurting and judging you, what they see  in you that they hate is almost always what they hate or feel insecure about themselves. Those folks have a lot of work to do that you can't do for them; all you can do is wish them well and get out of range. Because in their pain, they create more of it. This is what intentional, unexamined and institutional racism and sexism does to people. It creates a cycle of pain that needs work to be broken.

Again, this is why intent matters. If I'm hurting you out of maliciousness that's one thing; I need a slap upside the head and a boot in the rear. If I'm hurting you out of my own pain, that's more understandable but still not excusable; I've got some work to do on myself, then, and owe you an apology and an effort to do better. But if I'm hurting you by accident, because I'm learning to do better and still making mistakes, cut me a break please. Work with me. Call me out, by all means. I can't learn if I don't know I've screwed up. If it's really egregious, don't spare your anger. I can't rightly ask you to do that and I probably deserve it. But don't use my mistake to make judgments about what kind of person I am at the core, because then you're doing the same thing that bigots do. If you think I'm the kind of person who would intentionally hurt others, then we already have a problem of perception and reception on your end. And that's bad intent.


Closed Borders

Prick us
and we bleed
like all animals.|
And prick each other
we do
with guns and bombs and
fear most of all
until we see an enemy
everywhere
who does not look like us
as though our own tribe
were not capable
of the same atrocities.
Like the snailwe pull ourselves inside
our imaginary walls
and close the doors—
or think we can.
But the guns and bombs
are just tools,
the real enemy not other people.

When we look at each other
only through borders
we can’t see
what a wide and splendid world it is.

–For Beirut and Baghdad and Gaza and Paris, Nov. 14, 2015


Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat

SupermoiOkay, I have officially lost my mind. Here's what I hatched with a bunch of cronies over the weekend. We already have publisher interest. I am boggled. I think the project is suddenly taking on a life of its own. Get on board with us:

Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat

The career of college professor, giving back to the society that provided for them through education, was once a respectable path to the middle class. That class position is now slipping through the hands of the very people who helped create it, thanks to the erosion of tenured and tenure-track positions in favor of short-term contract positions without security. What should be rags to riches stories about the power of education to lift people out of poverty by providing a pathway to better jobs have become, for many academics, stories of stagnation, downward mobility, and outright impoverishment under the burden of massive debt uncompensated for by the very academy that helped contract faculty incur it.

Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariate will be a collection of voices from the world of so-called adjunct or contract college instructors who now teach 60-75% of all college courses in the United States and are paid wages equivalent to Walmart workers. In the tradition of Studs Terkel’s Working, Teaching Poor will honor both the difficulties and the triumphs of this new class of impoverished white collar laborers in the academic trenches, detailing personal struggles with the resultant poverty produced by low wages, crushing student loan debt, lack of healthcare and retirement provisions, and the professional and cultural costs this system levies on individuals and the students they teach.

I welcome creative non-fiction, biographical essay, short stories, poems, comics and, in the spirit of hacking the academy through digital humanities, may eventually expand to multimedia and a permanent archive of work similar to Story Corps.

This project is in its very early stages and I’m looking to see what kind of interest there is both in contributors and publishers before defining it or looking into other funding/publishing sources. I have publishers in mind (AK, Haymarket, Soft Skull, Atropos, Verso, ILR, Atticus, Riverhead), but also welcome suggestions. I do want this to be more than a self-published ebook though, and perhaps something truly groundbreaking if we can make a collaboration work.

Send your queries and submissions to Lee Kottner at teachingpoor@gmail.com.


New Year, New Focus

NYCMoiIt's been almost a year since I blogged here and I admit I've kinda missed it. I like writing, and I've been doing a fair amount of it (novel, poems, diatribes, conference papers), an awful lot of it on Facebook. In case you haven't been keeping up there, I've gotten myself neck deep in activism of various kinds, mostly the petition signing kind for human rights, environmentalism, social justice of various sorts. But I invested in a pretty big way in the labor movement too, especially educational labor.

For instance, over the summer, I went to the UALE/Cornell Summer School for Union Women, which was a fantastic experience, and at which I made some great friends/contacts. My local, (or one of my locals) AFT 1839 at New Jersey City University, where I'm part of the executive committee, footed the bill, for which I'm extremely grateful, as I couldn't have done so myself. I was on employment for the first time since 1992 because even freelance work is thin on the ground right now. While I was up at Cornell, I met women from all kinds of unions and labor organizations, from all over the world: retail workers from NYC, telephone workers from Africa, forensic lab techs from Puerto Rico, make-up artists, auto workers, housekeepers, cafeteria staff, and a number of faculty members, many of them from CUNY's Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and from SUNY's UUP, both unions I also belong to. I quickly became known as the three-union woman, because I was the only contingent faculty member there (I think). It was a warm, fierce group, and I thank Marcia Newfield of CUNY's PSC for suggesting I go there.

Also on Facebook, I've been doing a lot of national organizing and this last summer, nearly became an oAdjunct working conditions postern-the-ground organizer for SEIU upstate, at the urgings of my new best friend, Teresa Mack-Piccone, Texan English Ph.D. extraordinaire, who's organizing for them out of Albany. I think 25 years ago I would have been all over that job like white on rice, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy for it now. So my organizing has been quieter and a little more subversive. For Campus Equity Week, I plastered my New Jersey campus with signs that said A is for Adjuncts: Our working conditions are Student Learning Conditions, and encouraged folks to post how many adjuncts shared their office or where in their department in very public places. I'd like to follow that up this semester with some agit prop theater in the commons, but I'm not teaching there this time around, so we'll see how that goes.

In the spring. Teresa invited me to give a conference paper with her at the Washington DC SEIU HQ, where I got to meet Joe Berry of COCAL, Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, and reconnect with the inimitable Anne Weidner of UUP. We dragged along one of the few vocal tenured allies I've met, Seth Kahn of West Chester U, someone else I met through Facebook, and again met some amazing people fighting to get decent working conditions for adjuncts across the country. I really have to give kudos to SEIU, which is one of the few labor unions in country that's actively organizing adjuncts. The Steelworkers in Pittsburgh were chosen by the adjuncts to represent them, and the same with the UAW in Michigan, but SEIU has gone into DC, Boston, LA and now into New York and actively organized adjucts in a campaign that has been met with as much hostility as any mineowner's, including the hiring of union busting law firms. There's a good use of tuition and endowment money.

And the conditions, make no mistake, are killing us. In September, what I still think of as my semi-hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran a story called "Death of an Adjunct," detailing the miserable conditions 25-year veteran French adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko died in after not being rehired. I don't know an adjunct who isn't terrified that this might be us. More than a few of us are graying (remember, academic careers often don't even start until you're in your 30s or 40s), many of us have chronic conditions, children with chronic conditions, or have been struck down by cancer or other illnesses without any health insurance. Thanks to ACA, that might change, but that doesn't absolve the institutions we work for from treating us with the dignity we deserve. If you can pay for administrators, who add very little to the intellectual reputation of the university, you can damn well pay for the people who make or break your reputation as an institution of learning. More on that in later posts.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that somehow I'm becoming the activist I always wanted to be. I have a cause (several, in fact) and have found my voice, and don't have any fear about using it out loud anymore. I don't have to hide my outrage, and I can use my writing as a way to accomplish something good in the world. This doesn't mean I've given up the creative part; far from in it. In fact, I stumbled into a great writing group and have managed a rewrite of the novel I've been working on forever, and I've been writing a lot of poetry. So this change I've been undergoing, from silent, not very good Christian person, to vocal, skeptical Buddhist fellow-traveller proceeds apace. I like where it's going.

Stay tuned for more about education and activism and education activism.

 


Unsung

9-11Moi

The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
Except
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
from us.

No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys,  janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.

All that’s missing is the gods.

9/11/12


Keep it Secret

WorldWearyMoiShort article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about students sharing personal information. I'm a little surprised that this professor is shocked by what his students share in class. When I first started teaching in the early 80s, my students kept journals. One of the things you discover as an English teacher is that the moment you give students a written outlet for their feelings and personal problems, they'll use it with a vengeance. For many of them it's the first time they've had a written outlet and they find it as satisfying as the rest of us who've been doing it for a long time. I kept a journal from junior high through my first years in the working world in my late twenties and then took to blogging (I'm being meta here, see?) and online forums like the proverbial wet duck, and was thus not as surprised as this guy seems to be.

Writing can be an act of catharsis, and once you've written something down, it no longer "owns" you. You're free of it; you don't have to hide it and it doesn't have to rule your life as a shameful secret anymore. And once you share it in writing online, something wonderful happens; you get instant feedback: support, love, and the knowledge that you're not alone, that other people have shared or are sharing your experiences. You also get people trying to help you fix your problem: they suggest therapy, good local therapists, rehab programs, coping strategies, resources, and share their experiences with various treatment regimens. Sometimes they just offer good life skills advice. They give you links to online resources, they even, sometimes, help you pay your bills. (You also get trolls, but that's another story.) From our teens at least through our twenties, we're trying to figure out who we are and how to live our lives. Sharing that struggle makes it easier. With luck, we can learn from others' mistakes instead of our own.

I also think it's good that some of this stuff comes out in public. The politie middle class society I grew up in hid a lot of nastiness: child abuse, spouse abuse, ugly marriages, alcoholism. It never got fixed because no one talked about it, and there was shame in talking about it, as though, even if you were the victim, you had somehow let the community down. It's as though we were all striving to be Mayberry in our little town, and the people who wouldn't do it anymore and spoke out were somehow bringing shame on us. Everything had to be a secret. This wasn't just my little town either. It's one of the universal fictions that the Civil Rights movement and feminisim gave the lie to, that we all lived like "Leave It to Beaver" and the "Brady Bunch."

If my students had not had the courage to share their stories with me, I would have a very different view of life than I have now. That comfortable middle class home I came from gave me very little knowledge of the suffering other people go through. Hearing my students' stories about abuse, rape, abortion, misogyny, discrimination, drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and the struggles of their day-to-day lives has made me a very different and hopefully more empathetic person—and it made me angry that they have to live like this. It also made me immensely proud of the students I had who were overcoming these hurdles in their own lives. The first step in changing anything is to admit there's a problem, and for too long, most of these problems have been underground, hidden by the polite fiction that they're things we just shouldn't talk about.

Bullshit.

There's nothing shameful about taking medication for mental illness and struggling to get the dosage right while carrying on your life as best you can. There's nothing shameful in needing an abortion, except, perhaps the lack of available cheap birth control in this country. There's nothing shameful about admitting your relationship isn't going so well. There's nothing shameful in talking about your upcoming surgery (old people do this all the time, don't they?) no matter what part of the body it involves. There's nothing shameful in having thrown out your abusive boyfriend, or having to go to a shelter to get away from him (except for the boyfriend's conduct). There's nothing shameful in talking about your eating disorder, or the fact that you're still uncomfortable with your body, or even (gasp!) acknowledging that "hey! I'm fat!" There's nothing shameful about not being able to afford your books for school yet because your kids have to eat.

Screw all that embarrassed secrecy. Air it all out. Make people look at the consequences of poverty, bad political policies, misogyny, and racism. There are politicians, especially, who could use a good dose of Facebook realism.


Sticks and Stones

Depressed Moi Sticks and stones/may break your bones/but [words] will never hurt you.

The news is pretty grim this week, after the shootings in Arizona, and there's a lot of rhetoric about rhetoric floating around as well, some of it on the left just as vituperative as on the right. It looks like the shooter was mentally unbalanced, but when can that not be said about any shooter of fellow humans? It takes a certain insanity to want to end another person's life for any other reason than self-defense (and I wonder if that impulse isn't just to get the person attacking you to stop, any way you can, rather than a conscious, specifically you-or-me life-and-death choice). Assassination, however, which is what this was, is particularly cold and calculating and abhorrent, even when mixed up with mental illness.

Palin Graffito The big question on everyone's mind is how much the current poisonous atmosphere of hate and recrimination and vitriol (a favorite word to fling around) contributed to the mindset of the shooter. He seemed to be fixated on Congresswoman Giffords, and the other casualties occurred mostly because he had more rounds in his gun. His own ramblings were, as has been pointed out, "straight out of the Right-Wing Insanity Handbook," as William Pitt says on Truthout, above. Loughner seems enamored of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas, but whether the crosshairs posted by Sarah Palin or her "don't retreat, reload" (half-)witticism influenced him to pull the trigger will be impossible to determine.

Motive is always murky, even when the actor is not mentally disturbed. Do any of us truly know why we do what we do? What things in our lives make us act the way we do? It's just handy but standard procedure to blame our parents, blame society, blame our siblings, blame our neighbors, but none of us, except the truly mentally incapacitated, can escape personal responsibility. How much Loughner's capacity is diminished hasn't yet been determined, so his amount of personal responsibility can't yet be apportioned.

But those of us who aren't of diminished mental capacity, who function just fine in the world, who get up every morning and go to work, take care of our kids, pay the mortgage, vote, complain about the government, volunteer, and think of ourselves as decent human beings, what kind of responsibility do we bear for others violence? When does a nation become . . . a mob?

It's very hard not to hate someone who threatens your way of life and your cherished personal beliefs, and hate is a catalyst for anger. The knee-jerk reaction is usually along the lines of "what the fuck is wrong with you? Are you crazy? You idiot!" We're defending our territory and some of that territory is very personal: health care, the apportionment of wealth, education, our personal pet hobbyhorses. I get a little crazed when people try to tell me vaccines are the cause of autism and a product of a government conspiracy, because I'd really rather not see the spread of things like small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza kill or maim or even sicken anybody. It scares me on a visceral level, and that's never a good place from which to begin a reasonable discussion. Religious discussions tend to get heated for the same reason: the outcome, in believers' minds has to do with nothing less than life and death, not to mention the afterlife. When we are threatened on such a basic level, rationality and civility take a back seat.

But it's disingenuous to say that language that uses violence as a metaphor cannot be taken seriously. For Palin to claim “We know violence isn’t the answer. . . . When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our votes,” is worse than disingenuous, it's ignorant. Never mind that we don't know, really, who she means by that pronoun "we" and neither can she. One need only look at history for examples of how "coded" and seemingly innocent remarks  like the "second amendment solutions" and symbolic crosshairs can turn to violence. Anybody remember Thomas Becket?

Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, when one of the major issues (as it continued to be through the reign of Henry VIII), was the power and rights of the Church in England. Becket claimed the papacy's primacy in trying clerics for anything up to and including murder; Henry, busily reforming England's legal structure, claimed that right for his civil courts. Though appointed by Henry, Becket's conscience dictated that his loyalties and best interests resided with the papacy. Henry found this rather annoying, to say the least.

Whether Henry actually made that peevish, offhand remark from his sickbed—"Will no one rid me of this turbulent (or "troublesome" or "meddlesome") priest?"—or whether it was a taunting annoyance with his own courtiers, as Becket's contemporary biographer (and witness to the assassination) claims (""What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"), it led to the murder of a political figure struggling with Henry for the power of the kingdom. We'll never know if Henry made those remarks in a moment of frustration or calculatedly, knowing his word was law and that someone would take the hint and "get rid" of Becket for him. The point is, the words were said, and acted upon. When you let words loose in the world, whether spoken or written, in a place where others have access to them, you have lost control of not just their interpretation, but of their consequences.

In this country, we have the right to say whatever we like, if it's not like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. I posit that saying we should resort to "second amendment solutions" and similar rhetoric is the moral equivalent to that standard. Words like this are not just inflammatory but incendiary. In a country with slipshod regulation of guns, that's criminal behavior, too. There is such an offense as incitement. And while I believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to give the populace the means to protect itself from and, if necessary, rise up against a tyrannical government, picking off its representatives because you don't like what they say is not the best solution. I don't think we're in need of an armed insurrection. And that's not what this, or any other assassination we've experienced as a nation is.

We often exaggeratedly say "I could just kill X," or "So and so would be better off dead." because they frustrate or enrage us, and we know we don't really mean it. But sometimes, just for a moment, or maybe longer, we do. Worse, sometimes, somebody else thinks we mean it, and agrees, and has the means and will to make it so, and what we've said may be their tipping point or jusitification. Sometimes, that offhand remark is not much different than "get him!" That make us at the very least complicit, if not outright culpable.

Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

Street art by Eddie Colla. HT to Towleroad and Dennis Kleinsmith on Facebook.


Publisher Tinkers With Twain - NYTimes.com

TeacherMoi

Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave,” a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.

via www.nytimes.com

Can I just say that this is more a failure of the instructor than anything else, though I fault the publisher for going along with this bowdlerization. When you teach historical literature, you have to teach the historical period, as well. Teaching Huck Finn gives an instructor the perfect opportunity to talk about cultural influences, i.e., endemic racism, as well as the power of words. If you are too embarrassed to do so, as a grown up with a Ph.D., get outta the classroom. You've failed in your calling.

I'm often surprised by the number of my colleagues who have difficulty teaching anything but contemporary literature because they can't set a book in its historical context. The themes of literature are universal, but the way they discuss them is not. Folks in the past were both like us and unlike us, and that needs to be addressed when teaching literature written in the past. Language changes, attitudes change, politics change, world-views change, but our basic humanity doesn't. That's the beauty of teaching historical lit.


Resolved:

DreamingBooks So, no big retrospective this year. It's been kind of a blah year, without any real earth-shaking changes and a lot of work. I did reconnect with some folks, which was excellent, and got to see some new places I hadn't seen before, which is always good, but didn't get any of my projects done that I'd wanted to. Well, not entirely true: I'm almost done with one poetry collection and have been writing more poems, some successful, some not, and I owe Helen and Gwen a huge debt for flogging me through that. I blogged hardly at all, as you may (or may not) have noticed, nor did I get my novel revised, hence the following:

I don't usually do this because everybody knows that resolutions are just made to be broken, but these seem like a realistic ones, I hope:

  1. Write more
  2. Make books
  3. Submit to publications and shows
  4. Look into writing grants
  5. Apply to more teaching jobs

I want to start taking the science blogging more seriously, and I want to start taking this blog and my book arts blog more seriously too. I'm starting to get a good little collection of Cocktail Party Physics columns, but I need a lot more, and a lot more practice before I've got anything that might be worth editing into a collection. I'd also like to rethink my focus in that area, and find a niche to settle into. I don't think I'll ever be anything but a dilettante in the science writing arena, but it's something to add to the pub list. And who knows?

Ultimately, what I'd like this next year to be about is writing and making art. That means seeing less of my friends, but I feel like my writing and art are friends that I've neglected and who need some attention. Wish it were easier to find that balance. But that's life, isn't it?


Remembering Nick Bucci on World AIDS Day

Precipitation

That spring, a cold one, not enough
years later,
the trees bloomed on St. Mark's
like reborn, slumming angels,
petals blowing in drifts
like the snow we never had that winter,
like the year before
         and the year before
and the year you died
when I could not see them
for what they were.

Your ashes, long scattered,
carried by soles and skin and air
through the five boroughs, Times Square,
the summer fire updrafts of L.A.,
ride the high atmospheric winds
across the world on new wings
or form the core of raindrops, ice crystals, cloud.

Outside: a warm October drizzle,
the leaves
just tinged with color, impossible
to think that it would ever snow
again,
that you would ever become
just a memory,
a film of dust, rain-streaked.



© Lee Kottner 2010


privilege, culture, appropriation, stories

BNFMoiOkay, I rarely do this here, because I rarely let my non-fandom and fandom lives intersect, but in this case, they already do. I posted this originally on my LJ, where I usually post goofy Star Wars crap and my own fan stories. But fandom often gets its knickers in a twist over what litcrit types call meta issues. It seems there are a number of litcrit type people in fandom, especially in slash because of its transgressive appeal. Every so often, someone expresses the opinion that X shouldn't write Y because they're not Y. The latest round arises from a protest by some gay men about straight women writing male homoerotica and is just . . . stoopid, as stoopid as such protests always are. I say this as a pro writer, as a writing teacher, as a teacher and student of literature, and a straight, female writer of fanfic. I have a number of unpopular reasons for saying this, reasons that do not pay lip service to popular critical theory in the Academy, because those theories are mostly developed by people who do not write fiction, but only dissect it. Criticism, too, is a form of appropriation, if you like. Whatever, criticism and fiction writing are two very different heads and rarely coexist happily.

Am I speaking from the proverbial position of privilege? Why, yes, probably, depending on your point of view (thanks, Obi-Wan), but I have some thoughts on that too. I have some problems with this concept, not because I don't enjoy a certain amount of it as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered citizen of one of the richest countries in the world, but because I believe at least some of this idea, the way it is being currently expressed, also arises from a sense of not just exclusion, but of desire: desire for something one thinks one does not have and believes others do, i.e., the grass is greener syndrome. I believe, like Eleanor Roosevelt, that "no one can make me inferior without my consent." Now, I am female, and a feminist, so I do have a strong sense of what discrimination and injustice and exclusion mean and what they do to people's lives. I see it every day in the lives of my students, too, and hear it in the stories they tell me. Privileged? Moi? Depends on what you're comparing me to and how you structure your hierarchy. If you want my bio, check it on on Facebook and you decide.

Nonetheless, this is a bullshit issue from any POV.

First of all, this is not about the GLBTQ community. It's about censorship. Here's why:

Writing fiction is only partially a political act. It is only a political act if you, the writer, intend to make it one, not if someone interprets it that way. Nobody gets to say what the ultimate meaning of your piece of fiction is but you. Other people can interpret it as they like, and see what they want to see, and do, which is the wonderful thing about literature, but the only one who really knows What It Means is the writer. To say otherwise is to believe you, the critic, have a special mission from the Gods of Literature, and there are good drugs for that now. If the writer sits down and says, "I am going to write this story to bring this issue to the attention of the public," that's a political act; if that writer says, "I wonder what would happen in this situation with these people under these conditions?" and proceeds to write that story, that's not a political act, it's an act of imagination and psychological exploration. Either way, if you insist that writer has no right to tell that story, FOR WHATEVER REASON, that's censorship.

If fiction writers were restricted to writing only about their own experience, literature would be a dull, dull place. Because, yanno, writers mostly don't get out much, except in their heads, having to spend hours in front of their keyboards writing and DOING RESEARCH. Sometimes the DOING RESEARCH entails getting out and experiencing something new or talking to new people, sometimes not. But DOING RESEARCH is a lonely business too. The beauty of fiction is that, as a writer, you get to take on different personae. This does not make you that persona, or make you an expert, but it allows you to SEE THE WORLD IN A DIFFERENT WAY. Sometimes, looking from the outside in provides an interesting perspective. It's not the only perspective, just a different one.

(Here's where the flame war really starts:) It is absurd to say someone else is "appropriating" YOUR story. Unless you have a copyright on that baby, your story is just as free in the world as any other idea. If what you are calling "your story" has to do with your culture and upbringing and language, I have news for you, there is no one story of your culture or language. Even within each culture people tell different versions of the same story. And here's the thing: those stories? In all their different versions, they're told everywhere else on earth with different characters, wearing different clothes, in different cultures, in different languages in somewhat different situations. Every story told anywhere, I don't care what it is, boils down to an archetype and a motif. Every story told anywhere, about anything, can be boiled down to one of a large number of motifs or plots, something we'd all be more aware of if folklore studies were still a viable field. There is no such thing as a culturally unique story. There is only the human story, in various costumes. Human behavior is human behavior. Our cultures are just fancy dress. Stripped down to our cores in extreme situations (which is what fiction does) we are just human, that's all.

It's also absurd to talk about the appropriation of something as ephemeral as stories and culture because appropriation in this context refers to something akin to theft. I can't steal something that continues to exist in its original form when I use it. No matter how much I transform it, the original is still going to be there, as long as someone is telling that story, or engaging in those activities or whatever, somewhere else. Anglo Saxon Culture ca. Beowulf no longer exists, not because someone co-opted it, but because no one speaks Olde Anguish anymore (except Merlin, on TV). No one speaks Old English any more because History Happens: The Normans arrived, for one thing. Times change. Unless you wall yourself off entirely from everyone else in the world and become completely closed and insular society, outside influences are going to change your culture. Even if you manage this, say, the way China has managed it (incompletely but with more success than elsewhere), your culture will not remain homogeneous and monolithic. You think your culture has never, will never, is not now going to change? You are delusional, my friend. It is changing as I write this, with every breath you take.

I have more news for you: appropriation under this definition happens all the time, too. It's not just an act of colonization, though it can be that and sometimes deliberately is, though suppression of said literature is an easier and quicker method of assimilation. Any time you retell any story you've heard or read from someone else, you are "appropriating" it unless you tell it exactly the way it was told to you, with the exact same tone of voice, vocabulary, AND INTENT. (See Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.) Ever play that game Telephone? It's usually done to make a point: that we all edit and change everything we're told and that goes for what we read and write too. Human beings are storytellers, even if it's only of the "Man, you'll never believe what happened on the bus today!" kind. At one time, before the advent of copyright, stories were currency. The cost of a night of hospitality was often a story. During the middle ages, there were fairs where singers and storytellers met to exchange stories and learn new ones. The farther afield someone had been, the more popular their stories were because that was news. Stories are, and always have been, the way we learn about each other. If you keep other people from retelling your stories, you close a major highway of communication and information. One of the early ways we begin to know the world is through stories about other cultures, no matter who tells them. By trying to control those stories, you are turning them into propaganda, and preventing them from being vehicles of cultural exchange. You are stifling access to your own culture.

Once you start saying to anyone "Hey, you can't write that, you're not X," most of the canon--most literature ever written--goes out the door. That story about a hunchback? That story about musketeers? That story about a time traveler? Lady Chatterly's Lover? The Odd Women? Louisa May Alcott's horror stories? Sherlock Holmes? Edgar Allen Poe? Are you getting my drift? Literature is an exercise in imagination and in exploration of what other writers have written. If the storyteller's imagination does not match yours, tell your own damn story. There's plenty of room. In addition, books and authors talk to each other, so by stifling one piece of literature, who's to say what other writers you're stifling? As an example, let me direct you here.

Finally, fiction, while powerful, is still fiction, not fact. While it may shape one's personal viewpoint, it is not legislation. It does not cause harm in the same way that, say, the Ugandan legislation imprisoning people for being gay will. Fiction is  true in a particular way, in that it portrays the behavior of human beings and the results of certain situations in a more emotionally powerful and interesting way than mere fact can, precisely because it is unrestricted by fact. If you think all human beings act according to your own view of them, you are either naive, inexperienced, or extremely arrogant. To confine any story to that preconception is to have a failure of imagination. If your imagination fails there, you might learn something by reading someone else's view. If you're not interested in learning anything from someone else's point of view, then just get out of the way and stop whining. Or write your own. The best remedy for misrepresentation is not less writing, but more.

random thoughts on the end of the decade

DreamingMoiHmm, it's been an interesting 10 years. In just about 6 months, I turn 50 and it seems to be making me a little philosophical in my old age. The last 10 years have been, in comparison to, say, my 30s, really good personally, despite some things most people would call tragedies but that I've come to see as either life stages or just ordinary events. I think I've grown and changed more in roughly the last decade than I have in the first 40, with the possible exception of childhood, when pretty much every human being grows and changes exponentially. It's not that I've gained so much more knowledge (though I hope I never stop learning new things), but that I've figured out what to do with what I already know, emotionally and otherwise.

Continue reading "random thoughts on the end of the decade" »