Coming of Age in an Apocalypse

Is it normal for 9-year olds to write poems for a nuclear holocaust, ones that wistfully imagine the earth carrying on and humanity swiped from its surface?

I had no idea that nature could not persist in the aftermath. In my poem, which was published in the left-wing newspaper my father edited, everything got incredibly quiet. Green things sent their tendrils up through concrete and broke the ugliness of civilization down. When I was 9, we lived then on the wild banks of the Trinity River in Northern California, an incredibly lush place that won all of the battles in gardening. We knew that we merely held our imminent eradication back through constant weeding, rototilling, fencing, and mowing. The vines of blackberries, the bodies of oaks and madrones, star thistles and river drunk grasses, piles of leaves and needles could quickly obscure and devour our paths. Moss grew bright and sudden on trees and rocks and shallows and the loamy mess of the woods got into our fingernails and noses, swept us along, sucked us in, whipped our faces, scraped our knees. Deer ravaged the vegetable patch until my father put in an enormous fence with ever diminishing openings in the wire meant to keep out the smallest of creatures. The bottom rungs he buried beneath the surface. Once he borrowed a gun and waited up, only to wound a deer, which haunted him: she probably limped off to suffer for hours before dying somewhere in the darkness, he said. Once he planted rows of tiny marijuana plants and my mother and sister (protecting us from Camp, government sanctioned militants who we saw on the news standing before other peoples’ burning crops) secretly pulled them up and blamed a neighbor (protecting themselves from my father.) My mom joked about a story she would write: the title would be Roach Clips in my Demitasse, the word for the delicate cups and saucers on great grandmother’s hutch. Humor, subterfuge, and dissimulation kept the violence at bay.

Dinners involved talk of how the government was listening and lying and secretly selling drugs and weapons and hell bent on nuclear annihilation. Our relatives had been poisoned by DDT. The water was running out. We had fled the city and, when the Jonestown massacre was followed by the assassination of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, my mom said she thought we had left in the nick of time. When anything got lost, we would tease my father that it had been stolen by a “big black man with a machine gun,” which always made him stop raging and laugh. White people making light of white supremacist fears. Externalization was a high art in our home and I was often blamed, grabbed up cruelly by my father, ripped from my innocent play.

The apocalypse was out there.

My plan at the time had been to become a veterinarian so that I could live in a cave and have something to offer the animals I would know and love. I did not care much for human kind. My plan was to retreat from the world, from the fighting and the danger of my father, from the empty tummy and the dread and yearning of poverty. I would live off the land with friends, with foxes, rabbits, otters, deer.

I believe the refrain in my poem, went something like: the bombs blow up, but life goes on.

The threat of atomic war receded over the years and I put it in the large category of things over which I am powerless. I have savored a friend’s whimsy: I just assume the apocalypse already happened. She said. We are already living in the aftermath.

Coming of age in an apocalypse, it was fifth grade when I realized I might be gay. To the deep resounding of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” something tough and bright in one of the eighth-grade girls struck me. I would watch them practicing their “routine” over lunch breaks and whisper her name into my pillow and tell no one. Subterfuge, dissimulation, and humor I had learned well. All around me the messages. Bullies invoked dykes and fags and queers and homos. There were things we ought not talk about, things we didn’t need to know, hundreds of shameful things that tomboys could expect to one day out grow.

Now the entitlement and sensitivity of queer white youth provokes me as it would any survivalist: too soft, too dangerous to want. I gave up my plan of the cave, replaced it with a vision of being a doctor and leaving the country, going into other cultures, seeking relief from the gender apocalypse, from the culture wars, and seeking a tradition of social justice that I could neither find nor make here. Instead, I became a historian. I recount the history of white supremacy. I undress it, remove its layers of race, of sex, of class, of gender.

After the election of 2016, so many famous people died, David Bowie and Prince, Princess Leah, icons of an expectant age gave up. In the early 70s when I was 4, listening to “Free to Be You and Me” and playing New Games, where everyone wins, carried along in a giant cookie machine made of hippie dads and moms or lifting a giant earth ball above the ground of us, innocent in our high waters and tennies, the right had been slowly dismantling.

In this apocalypse, a young trans boy leaves the planet, another beautiful boy pictured on social media in hot pink make-up over closed eyelids with tiny hearts drawn at his brow, gilded with glitter. Glitter, glam, Major Tom, sung by a space station astronaut, drifts into space, peacefully, eulogy to the dead rocker. But here, it goes off like a bomb. I listened with jagged breath.

Another one bites the dust and another one’s gone and another one’s gone and another one’s gone.

I don’t fault myself for being ignorant at age nine of the complete and total devastation that one bomb would cause, not until I was seventeen, at a speech given by Helen Caldecott, wherein she described how nuclear winter would darken and starve my homeland for miles. I wept then, as she took us step by step through the process. We were meant to react to this threat positively, to commit ourselves to activism. At fairs where my father staffed booths, we thirsted over ice creams called “nuclear freezies.”

Of all of this, the thing I consciously held against my father was his response to my dream of the cave, of leaving him and all of humanity behind. “There is no point,” he said, “they are going to nuke the planet.”

Now, come the apocalypse, I still have a plan. Somehow, I will get back to the river house, where I will meet my mother and her husband. I count on my sister and her family showing up too. I know it is in us deep, in a matter-of-fact way, so we might not even open both eyes when we hear the distant booms. We’ll be on the road and I hope there will be enough gas to get across the desert.

Hyper-Vigilance and Reading

There is a gate across the rough road in the woods where I live where two world views compete.

Here, barbwire on rough-hewn posts stretches between two trees, which can be loosed from a wire loop so that a bike or a runner or a truck can pass through. A yellow sign says, “Please Close the Gate.”

But for some, a truck is not welcome. They have piled boulders and branches across the road in what I imagine to be a fit of frustration, a sweaty frenzy: moving rocks from where they have lived, displacing what lives there. I think of their motivation as a form of road rage, an effort to check that-over-which-we-are-powerless out of a desire for control in a fearsome climate. Though the futility of this makes me smile, I am empathetic.

As the road continues back towards our neighborhood, a couple of other natural gates, made by fallen trees, have been similarly narrowed. Once someone pounded a metal stake into the earth there. It bore an official looking sign forbidding cars beyond that point.

Meanwhile, the men in trucks transgress. They drive off road around such barriers. I think I am on an elk path, only to discover I am walking in the tracks of wheels. Recently, a bulldozer went through and moved the rock piles. The sign disappeared immediately. I imagine these off-road warriors resisting such arbitrary and despot government. Like libertarians.

There is a break in the social contract here. There is a return to violence. There is a contest of what I read as white peoples’ wills, a free-ranger vs. a liberal restraint. Both do harm as they attempt to win this battle, a battle that has waged in private, solitary grouches. Do their hearts drum as they drive up on the gate? As they walk around the corner, does adrenaline roar in their ears? Then—victory! Or just the hate, broken back open. Do their knees buckle from the rush? As they bend over, reach for rocks and wood like weapons.

This has gone on for at least four years. Recently, I started to snap photos of the barrier. I have meant to write about it.

I have thought I would write about boundaries between us. How we navigate and negotiate the terms of relationship. How we construct our separation. How we police the borders that cut through our simpatico. How sometimes I want to drive off road and wind amongst trees and risk the undercarriage of my four-wheel drive as I charge over rocks and the springs of my shocks buck and leap.

I have learned not to: our social contract is a more delicate ecosystem.

Yesterday, we were chatting about writing. I wrote something to you and sent it recklessly. I pushed the arrow and then said, out loud, as if from the wiser woods, “Oh, you are actually going to send that?”

“I have to be myself,” was my retort. “My intentions are good. It is ancient history.”

But sometimes digging up our past can cause you to go missing. So, I tried to power down my phone. I did not want the silence to hang over me. It was then that my elk path became truck tire tracks. I came to a kind of acceptance.

Then the Messenger ping! (These go through me now like a jolt. The nerves on me as fine-tuned as a horse or a rabbit or some other form of prey.) And you have gone on, ignoring me generously.

Alone in the woods, I cry with relief.

We are talking about a piece of your writing, now under revision.

Readers want us to be explicit. They want to understand everything before they come. They are wary of every sensation of the unknown. They are as sensitive as horses. They are as cagey as a mistreated dog. They are hypervigilant.

I suggest you resist someone’s suggestion–to be “so obvious.” I love your nerdiness. I trust your intelligence and your instincts. I have a theory that too much writing is “over work-shopped,” until everyone writes in the same voice. We would lose your subtlety. And the thrill of your purpose, the dawning of clarity. I say something like, beware of the arrogant editor who thinks she knows better than you do.

I almost edited you that way once. I did actually. I over-wrote your borders. I like everything so explicit. I pile rocks. I drive my truck wherever-the-fuck-I want and end up in torment, surviving your long absence. Until I learn better. Mind the fences.

On the first page of my journal, I have written: STAY OPEN, NO MATTER WHAT.

To you I say, “you are a poet and will satisfy any reader who lets you.”

The yellow sign reads, “Please close the gate.”

And yes, reader, yellow has a meaning. And this essay is full of signs.

 

 

 

 

 

“Go the Way Your Blood Beats”

I knew as I turned down the road toward the familiar view of golden wetlands in a spring evening that the immediacy of the sensation would fade. I ought to have written right then, I thought. I ought to take this out of my chest but I won’t.

(The tenses are all fucked up, I realize.)

Now I am in a coffee shop where pop songs from the eighties are playing just a little too loud. My friend in the midst of her stream across from me cracks me open in new ways. It is cliché to write so often about the heart, the muscle, the fist in me, the fist raised for her. (I will have to cut that corniness, I realize. I have to love the champion I am, I have to love myself, to love my capacity.)

I try not to use the word heart. I try to live according to my heart’s intelligence. Can the science of neurocardiology authorize this? The giant vagus nerve that I see as strong as my spine, flexes it’s will, overcomes me, the hundred sensations of my “heart” are sent along nerves, out to the tiniest endings.

In class on Thursday, a class on the history of emotions as a methodology for making sense of the AIDS crisis and social movement, I had broken out in goose bumps, my eyes burned and flooded, I swelled with (affect, the “nonconscious” physiological, yet also normative, socially trained response, the theory teaches us)—”with what?” I wondered in the moment. Was I proud of my students? I was surprised at their goodness at their ability to risk and the way that the language of readings-I-had-wept-over, moved, had moved them. Was I moved by these students too? Would a person who had not spent fifteen weeks learning this history with them see their brilliance? Is it me I am proud of?

A young white man, ambiguous in his orientation, but gentle-hearted, raised rich, (a bit of a hustler, I thought, until I had let him know he was not getting away with it and he rose to the occasion) played a bit of his podcast on African American men facing AIDS and at the end he quoted James Baldwin, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” as a benediction:

“Go forth, be of good cheer, never returning evil with evil, but always returning good” my minister parent had sent us away every Sunday, with his palm raised gently, as if to our foreheads. The sleeve of his robe falling down his hairy wrist. (It was him. It was his life. It was his desire to please me, where did it come from? We are so complicated in our million, brilliant childhood strategies, our laundry list of fourteen traits. Hell is sometimes where it comes from, the impoverishment of the secret dysfunction, don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t tell. So many in this class have broken down before me, in anxiety, with allergies, full of hopelessness. In history classes, we inventory the public dysfunction, systems of power and privilege. The gendered, sexualized, raced, classed intersection of white supremacy. Ignorance and power. Silence = Death. There is relief in such admissions.)

Wyatt’s podcast ends.

As a teacher, I choose to take off my glasses then, and wipe my eyes my voice trembling give them my parting words. Baldwin and Wyatt have done it for us though.

“Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation” (James Baldwin, Interview with Goldstein, 1984).

I think some may think it is “weird” to see me cry, I hope one day it gives them permission. I hope my pride goes into their blood and takes hold in their hearts, that they follow the intelligence of the vagus nerve, evolved to empathy.

The road turned along the golden field. The music beats now. My eyes, this enormous nerve. My friend. Who cares if no one likes my writing?

Easy Chair in a Pick-Up

Under a boat, age six.

The other day, driving into Flagstaff, I saw a worn out brown easy chair, riding solo in the back of a big old pick-up. I thought then of a summer road trip over forty years ago, with my dad and his best friend Steve Harvey: hours I spent in an easy chair, solo, under the shelter of a row boat, in the back of Steve’s pale yellow Chevy truck.

I try to recall the highway, wide and black in new cut mountains. The snow markers by the side of the road made me wonder at how deep the snow could get. I had to ask what they were for. Orange and white they must show depth, mark the way for a snow plow. They seemed ten feet high.

The only road I know like that is the CA 395, up from Bishop behind Mammoth, towards Nevada, still some of my favorite driving. In the back of the pick-up, age six, curled up in my kid’s body, before I even knew how to whistle. I must have daydreamed. I looked and looked at the land. My mind wandered and imagined. I felt free. I felt the men in the cab, safety in that: in their being there and not with me, at them behind the wheel. In the big yellow truck cutting clean and smooth, roaring, gears shifting, a lurch then. But I remember this as us streaking quiet around long wide turns, with the mountain-side  stripped bare above us.

I remember it rained briefly. The boat kept the wet off of me. One of the men looked back to see I was okay. What time of year was it? I assume it was a summer rain. I have to think they would not have put me in the back of a truck if it were too cold. Memory is funny like that.

There was freedom and empowerment in that slight neglect, a toughness came in me from that. My dad made me do things that seemed scary. He pushed me over the limits. I thought I couldn’t, but I could. He was right. I was always let to be wild. I was part dog. Forever, I would lean my cheek out of the window, let my hair whip back, like ears.

I cannot imagine trusting a six-year-old today to ride alone in the back of a truck. When I brought this up to a friend she said, I rode in the back of my dad’s truck too. In the seventies and eighties, kids always rode in the back of the truck. No one doubted we would stay in and hold on, perched on the wheel wells. I miss those days.

Later, after my parents divorced and my sister and I visited him in southern Humboldt, my dad had a series of hand me down cars. They  all had a smell to them, a funk. A homey, hippy, armpit smell. An oily, broken down seat foam smell. Some were pick-up trucks. Sometimes there was no room in the cab and we would come into town from the boonies with our long hair blown into a greasy tangle. As teenagers, my sister and I hated this: the small town girls made us feel rough and grungy. It was a finely nuanced hierarchy of poverty in those towns. The ranks were jealously guarded. Dirty kids were brutally teased. I knew to be clean and to have fresh breath. Gay already, this was a part of my armor: I would get up to shower and brush my teeth, even before basketball practice at 7 am. I still always chew gum. My body could not invade or call attention, could not offend. It was not safe to have a body or to express desire.

The decade of secrecy and unspoken, unrequited, disavowed loves, amazes me, the solitude of the child I was, that I knew not to say at age ten. When I was six, there were already beautiful intriguing girls. And secrets.

I tried for a long time to forget how wise I was in my childish and peaceful solitude.

When I saw that easy chair in the back of that pick-up driving into  Flagstaff, I was overcome with that rush of beautiful memory and with sorrow, at that long lost dad. I had a very childish thought then, like, “it’s not fair.”

How alcoholism takes a father from his child. What must be unforgivable and cannot be lived with, not conscious. That I cannot have him back. That my brown body, my hands, the manner in which I sometimes laugh, all of the things I know how to do. That I can fix. That I can follow deer trails. How I learned to build a fire. My wildness, my wolf pup dog self. So much that I love about me, that road trip.

I do have these.

 

Despair and Teaching About Act UP

What was lost.

Many of the readings for my course, Pride in the Time of HIV/AIDS map this out in some way. A whole, very recent history has been forgotten and misrepresented.

What was lost. Eleven students and I find–in Andrew Holleran’s essays in The Christopher Street Reader and Deborah Gould’s Moving Politics and Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind

What it meant to be queer. What disco was. That there was a successful direct action movement that changed the world. Safe sex, camp, rage. They were not all white, nor were they all male, nor elite. They said, Bury Me Furiously. They threw their lovers’ ashes on the White House lawn. They stopped traffic with funerals, real bodies in boxes. They held a Die-In, laid down in the central aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Cardinal’s decree against wearing condoms, while a man shouted repeatedly:

“Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us.”

They awoke one day in the late 80s (after Bowers V. Hardwick declared sodomy to be a worse crime than rape?) to the realization that there was no love for them, no matter how good a boy and girl you were: no appeals to hearts, no display of heroic virtue, no public grief, no candlelight vigil would make the government recognize their humanity.

They had nothing to lose. And in that despair, like the night of Stonewall, rage rose and righteousness.

Fury. Fury. Fury. And Despair Changed the World.

They had nothing to lose. And so they went forth with brave skin and brilliance, everyday people who deserved to live. As I read these books by the Plague’s witnesses and watch documentaries, I feel the historical continuities, evolution: my queer bones, gay as fuck heart, vagus nerve, mirror neurons play and wince, this instrument I am, made of the same stuff. This is why I teach: to show my students who their people really were. They do not know what “queer” means. Isn’t that sad? And I had forgotten that queer never hopes for the government to save them. It does not ask for approval.

My students seem stunned as I perform this derisive, arrogant, beauty, the pathos of my fury.

They had never heard of Act UP!

As for me, I am Googling the old disco that Holleran remembers dancing to, long after the hip crowd went home. The endless slow beats not made for roller skates–and I am brought on his words into the late night, into the realness, sweating (I shake the sweat from my short hair), in a trance, the magic of my body, my aspirations, my handsome, heroic despair.

I Google a Super 8 clip of two queens moaning out the lines like Bronx cats, lounging in lipstick, muscled and lithe and dark in tough wigs (in Mark Morrisroe’s “Hello From Bertha” by Tennessee Williams, once a long lost yearned for gem, then found. Lost and found).

I Google a short film by Jim Hubbard, “Elegy in the Streets” silent. These young mourners release white balloons. A queen on roller skates lifts her skirts to show hairy legs. A vine grows up the tenement building, black balloons and red, and despair building, an angel in negative print, on her knees and the film stays and stays staring.

Lost and found. It’s a mess. It’s hopeless. My perfectionism wakes me anxious…something is wrong. There is no one here. I read this with a spiritual book that tells me to awaken! Remember separation is a lie. We are all electromagnetic energy my friend tells me and, there in his office, my mind’s eye clicks into this fantasy, to holographic memory, the whole on the shattered fragment, how a room lights up when a certain person enters. What does it all mean?

I do not know. I stare. Nothing.

What does despair give you? If it gives you nothing to lose, no sanction, no friendship, no love to lose, it is just your life left and then hardly even that, not for long. I know it is nothing I have ever felt, not on the scale of my Act UP elders.

I know the cowardice of having too much to lose. But less and less.

I have worn brave skin. I was madly in love when I felt it. It was the first morning.

After the first night.

Writing and Unrequited Love

I started this blog on a friend’s suggestion: I wrote her too long. I wrote well? I should get a blog. I should blog about this novel I was writing, a retelling of the story of Dido, queen of Carthage.

I forget about Dido for months. But as a friend put it, she is always there, simmering slowly at the edge of my consciousness.

Then I remember: just now, watching a movie, one of those LGBTQ movies on Netflix, with the simple red wolf howling. (What was it called? “Princess Cyd.”)

In the movie, the aunt is a writer and Cyd, the girl coming of age, coming out, does not read books, but she comes to admire her aunt. So, she comes to appreciate books, as well as other girls, a “friend, friend” she makes. One of the things I like about these movies is that the lesbians who make them linger over the literary, on language.  Visually, they are sentimental and nostalgic. There is light on limbs on light down on soft skin on race. A character reads from a story by James Baldwin, at length. The aunt, Miranda, defends her pleasure in cake: eloquently.

Asked a question about the source of inspiration for her stories, Miranda answers–and my mind wanders.

The answer is unrequited love.

I met Dido in graduate school, in an ancient history, by Virgil. She strode through the city she built with love, courage, wisdom, like Diana, goddess of the hunt, a head taller than her subjects. (And this is how the lover emerges in a crowd, as if taller.

Or maybe you are sitting at a table and suddenly there she is with her red hair and colors never go back the same, the light won’t, the light puffs its wings all summer long, long after love is gone. Butterflies, bees, dandelions. Eyes are blue, the river reflects the sky, and I lay there on its back, on a rock, longing. Losing.)

The hero, Actaeon fell in love with her too. But he broke her heart when he left to fulfill his destiny (oh the founding of civilization, of course.) So, Dido went mad and burned her city to the ground and threw her body into the conflagration.

There was a pop song on the radio in the months after that made me think of Dido. I would turn the song up and my chest would swell and ache. She was one in a long line of unrequited loves.

Then, years later, driving west on the I40, I think of Dido. My partner is in the seat next to me and that is coming to an end. I think of Dido. I imagine us there. Young, long before Carthage, before Aeneas or fire and goddesses. I think of us wrestling and the sun on us, of our long bones, our lithe muscles sliding over each other, over and over and overpowering one another. Always the light. Panting wings, (butterflies, bees, hearts pounding, our breath coming strong, slicing across ear lobes, muffled in hair, smashed into the ground, gasping, the taste of blood; the edge that could be hate, made us giggle insanely) light down on her cheek, a drip of sweat that falls on my face.

I look up at Dido and I want to surrender. I want to relax, let her slip down my skin, fall into my chest and laugh, with pleasure.

But she does not know me; she is all in my mind. I seek her in words. I go to her body, imagine, remember, all the lovers I have known. I make her a child. I grow up with her. I am there for every tragedy. I am at her side for all our conquests. I know every scar. Hers is the perfect body. Because it is her body. And the light, the length, the whole history of us is so real, I am searching for the right words to tell you how it feels to be with her.

And that is where that story came from. Is it a novel? All I know is I can visit this other world, where she knows who I am, where she winks at me or smiles her half smile or opens her eyes so wide I see the whites of her eyes and the sea.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Emily Fridlund: “As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.” (“Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us,” in History of Wolves).

The feeling is that there are no grown-ups.

The feeling is that everybody is so caught up in themselves and their needs that they are acting irresponsible. They forget or cannot love. They lack empathy.

History of Wolves is a difficult book with a teenage character who is capable and loyal and yearning. There are big people, but no grown-ups in her life; just other children like her, fellow wolves, raised in transgression. She tries to find these other kids; she wonders about them, would pack up.

For much of the story she tries to teach a young one how to live in the woods there, how to spread and distribute your weight in order to crawl across thin ice. What to eat, what not to eat. Grasshoppers. Plants with milky juice.

But there is no saving this little wolf from the big people.

The whole book I want her to be loved. But none of the characters loves her. Her parents are not capable. The people she becomes loyal to are so caught up in their own stuff.  The wonderfulness and depth of this young person is seen only by the reader—and Linda is a frank person so in touch with her own violence that it makes it difficult to face her truths. But I relate to her. I want things for her that a parent might, like true love and a job that fulfills her heart’s desire. At the same time, I think I know that those ideals are not anything that can be secured, except in fleeting moments that pass and come again and pass. In places unexpected. In reading. In transformation through reading.

“I was focused, calm. I pointed to diagrams of pups in different displays of submission, and quoting from a book I said, ‘But the term alpha—evolved to describe captive animals—is still misleading. An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.’ Those words always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden. I thought of the black bitch at the Nature Center, fixed in her posture of doggy friendliness, and I recited that part of my speech over again, slowly this time, like it was an amendment to the Constitution” (Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves).

History of Wolves is set in the woods of northern Minnesota and in the context of sexual violence, which haunts those woods and the narrator’s fantasies.

And I am reading it in the context of my personal history with sexual violence, as well as in this historical moment, with its “Hollywood sex scandals” and #metoo testimonials.

It’s a moment that calls to me from the lynch mob.

I felt that once at a rally, when the crowd took off running after some neo Nazis. I felt the excitement. Righteousness licked up through me, like fire. I came to consciousness, running with the mob.

“Afterward, one of the judges poked his pencil in the air. ‘But—I have to intervene here. There’s something you haven’t explained very well. What do wolves have to do with human history?’ It was then that I saw Mr. Grierson by the door. He had his jacket in his arms like he’d just come in, and I watched as he caught the eye of the judge and shrugged. It was the subtlest shift of his shoulders, as if to say, What can you do with kids? What can you do with these teenage girls? I took a deep breath and glared at both of them. ‘Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them’” (Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves).

I felt that more than once driving to work. I taught today about Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 Supreme Court Ruling, which affirmed that “there is no such thing as a fundamental right to commit homosexual sodomy.” The majority opinion described it as “an offense of ‘deeper malignity’ than rape, an heinous act ‘the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature.'”

I heard it in the chants of Act UP activists in the documentary we watched. (Linda would understand my ambivalence, light and dark projections, a history of shame and pride shift across my skin.) They stood up to police on horseback. They threw the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn. They pointed. They shouted. They buried one another furiously, “The whole world is watching!

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!

“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”

It’s a moment that calls to me from the lynch mob. From Linda’s wolf knowledge, from mine.

“‘An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.’ Those words always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.”

 

 

Pamela Adlon and her Friend Louie Write Shows: Disentangling Better Things (Spoilers)

I am not the sort of person who remembers actors by name. I don’t really care who they are married to or what they do on down time or what their pajamas look like when they run to the store to get cough medicine for their kid. As a watcher of Netlfix and Amazon I enjoy the entertainment, occasionally feel swept up by the emotion of a scene, wonder where I might have seen a face or heard a voice before, and go to bed.

Rarely, I imagine a real and human connection with an actor. Uma Thurman’s response to Harvey Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow’s insta fist bump response, for instance, had me feeling like the three of us grew up together listening to Ani Difranco and walking arm-in-arm down the streets of Manhattan. As though I was there with them the day I actually did see them walking down the street arm-in-arm in Manhattan. Usually, though, great performers are instruments of great creativity to me. They can have their human times to themselves.

Comedians are somehow different. The genre of white comedians writing books and making shows based on real lives is the thing. I listen to audiobooks and watch episodes of them, curiously wondering if they are really as racist as they seem or if they are trying to make some sort of statement that is actually commentary on racism. Hoping that I can mind-bend their misogyny into satire. I think I can convince myself well even though there is always a little something sitting at the bottom of my stomach reminding me that I am probably wrong.

This brings us to Louis C.K. Suddenly skyrocketed to international fame by the horrendously idiotic letter of apology he wrote to the women he assaulted, and the lovely mock-up of the apology written by people who actually understand what he did. I read it all unsurprised, even and especially after watching every episode of his show which was all about him. Even after trying to explain away his toxically masculine, body shaming, racist, and generally unpleasant way of depicting the world. ‘Maybe,’ I would think, ‘he is really making a statement on how shitty men are to women about their bodies. Maybe he isn’t really fat shaming this talented and wonderful Sara Baker who is playing his date.’ And then I would let those ugly feelings wash away when struck by raw and gorgeous moments of single-parenthood like the last scene of season 1 when Louie, after having had a failed night trying to be cool at a club but not hearing anything with his old man ears, sits down in a New York diner with his sleepy daughters as the sun rises. Scenes that, in part, tell the story of single parenting and being a person at the same time. Gut wrenching beauty and sweat-making anxiety of loving that much. I expected this and more when I found that a character in his show was going to make her own show with him. A single mother with three children. Hilarious and sexy, and not an image of a typical suburban mom. Yes!

I loved the first season of Better Things. I loved Pamela Adlon’s character of Sam and the personalities of her children Max, Frankie, and Duke (played by Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward) and mother (played by Celia Imrie and yes I had to look all those names up). I loved the unexpected rawness of their relationships and the brave ability to place on screen distress of family relationships that most people consider to be private. I loved that the character of her mother was odd and intricate and, in one scene, busily did something strange half naked in the front yard. I swooned over the last scene of season 1 when the mama is trying to connect with her sex interest while also trying to coordinate a complicated morning getting her children to school. After the door shuts on the bustle of family needs, she collapses. Only early and already too tired to continue her sext volley. Instead taking a big breath and leaning back onto the stairs.

In between season 1 and season 2 of Better Things, journalists stopped ignoring the evidence that Louie C.K. assaulted women. Soon it was clear to me and everyone else that those uncomfortable items in his show were likely not at all statements or satire or sharp cultural commentary. They were actually him doing him. Most of us wondered about his daughters. Any of us who have seen Better Things wondered what he wrote and what Pamela wrote, and looked forward with trepidation, to the next show. And when it came, it was epic.

The season starts with Pamela’s character involved sexually with a man we haven’t seen before. Or maybe we have. It’s not clear because he is playing a man that is not memorable. She has unsatisfying sex with him in episode 2 after which he asks her if she enjoyed her time and later asks why she always wants to have sex before their date. She explains that she wants to “get it out of the way” so after the date she can just go home and go to bed. Ah the refreshing moment of real-life comedy for women who have ever dated men like this. The two then attend a party where someone mistakenly calls them a couple. She corrects them. He gets angry. Again, real life moment dating Mr. White Man. We’ve been there. Next though, something really wrong occurs. Sam goes out into the parking lot to leave and the man tells her that she has to find her own way home. She begins to yell at him, calling him out on his entitlement to emotional caregiving. Again, ringing true for anyone who has dated him. Only next, as her voice rises, she begins to call him “she.” “Oh my god. How many ways do I have to take care of this woman?…And…I sucked her dick,” Sam shouts. I watch in the same sort of disbelief I had when viewing Louie talk about women. There has got to be something in here that is supposed to be commentary on misogyny, right? I wonder if Louie actually wrote this part. Maybe Pamela just went along with it. Maybe it will come back around and it will make sense. Maybe she will figure out some funny and smart way to show that calling a man a woman in order to insult him, and using emotionality as a point of anger, are actually subtle forms of violence against women. But it passes and it never comes back. It sits there unpleasantly. An object out of place. I consider not watching any more of the season but my curiosity is strong.

As the season continues I am drawn back in to the beautiful characters and the vulnerability of the family. The child actors are complicated and lovable people and Sam’s dedication and frustration are endearing. Then, out of nowhere, comes the last episode of the season. Max, Sam’s eldest, is graduating from high school. There is a disappointment when her father doesn’t show up, a sweet connection between Sam’s grown up friends and her daughters, a prickly moment or two between Sam and her mother, and some homey scenes that could be anyone’s. Then comes the end. The heart-wrenching, gorgeous end that I can’t stop watching. The end that makes me cry every single time. Max comes downstairs the morning after her graduation and picks at breakfast while shyly asking why her mother hasn’t gotten her a graduation present. Sam points definitively outside and leads Max out to sit on a bench with a blindfold. Then she asks her to remove it. Sam, her two daughters (Duke and Frankie) and her mother are standing on a shiny stage where they perform Christine and the Queen’s lovely song. At the end, Max yells “fuck yeah” and claps and hollers and in that final moment Sam stops and nods with a self-satisfied sexy smile. Yes. This is it. Single motherhood wrapped up into an instant. She got it. She got what Eric Tucker, editor of Plainsongs says about good writing. Writing that, “eschews tired imagery and shopworn language yet still manages to shed light on universal human experiences.” And once again I’m there with her. I want to know her. I want her to know me. And Louie C.K. fades off into the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to Lose

Grieving my dog while white supremacists try to take Charlottesville, Virginia.

One dead, nineteen wounded as a car mows down anti-racist activists. I wrote my senior paper in high school on non-violence: in the film Gandhi, I had seen non-violent protestors standing before British soldiers on horses, willing to put their bodies on the line. And trampled.

My skin and bones feel ready. My dog has died and my heart aches. I am walking alone in the woods, able to cry only a little in these scattered showers. I feel like a stray dog.

I want to make the ache in my chest about anything else—things I can fix or analyze or pursue. I call people, post, message, asking where the movement is today.

Give money to bail people out, is one reply.

The absence of my dog, Hippolyta “Ipo” is a loss of purpose, of a regular set of service commitments that have helped me hold off anxiety in these newly dangerous times.

I had not realized. At first, guiltily, I felt freed of responsibility.

But it became necessary last year to have her come to work, where I teach history. Where I have been targeted by white supremacists. And received a volume of hate mail and even a death threat.

Ipo helped. Helping Ipo helped me.

I think of how hard it is for me to be comforted. I disqualify people for being too—something.

Aside from a rare few, Ipo only let me pet her. Then, as she aged, she disqualified them. Sometimes even I wasn’t allowed.

But in a thunderstorm, she came close by. In the end, I carried her frail body in my arms. On walks that went too long. To the beach in Trinidad, to say goodbye at the edge of the known world. It was time to let go of her brown eyes looking on me, of total love, of her jaunty walk.

As the sedative went into her body, she resisted sleep, worrying about me, with her left eye brow going up and up, still looking after me. I put my hand under her long soft chin and I rested my forehead on hers and I said, It’s ok. you can go. I can take care of this now. And she believed me.

I can still feel her and find her always in the corner of my eye. The house is not empty. What I did for her body and spirit, I can do for mine.

It’s ok to be wild and choosey, I tell myself.

I was reading a beautiful essay by Jeannette Winterson this morning, “The Night Sea Voyage.” She was going mad, then meeting her inner monster, conversing with this split in half child who muttered only mean, nonsensical things. We were never held she says to that monster, “nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said ‘us’, not ‘you’. She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences. We both sat down and cried. I said, ‘We will learn how to love.’”

I am studying the history of love and shame in the context of Gay Liberation. Of the young trans street hustlers of color who started rioting at the Stonewall in June of 1969, an observer in a recent film said something along the lines of, “these street kids have nothing left to lose.”

In this and other such films, we see scene after scene of police brutality and gay bashing. In juxtapostion, the riot seems just. It is cathartic. It is an act of self-love. Pride is the word we use for love.

A body is something to lose.

This makes me think of Coates: how he described American history in terms of the “plunder of black bodies.” He mentions women, speaks of the plunder of their bodies. Confesses to his own plunder of queer bodies. Is transformed by love of a queer woman from a queer family. It is Coates who made me think this…and James Baldwin.

Baldwin: “I know from my own experience that the macho men…They’ve created faggots in order to act out a sexual fantasy on the body of another man and not take responsibility for it.”

Throughout the interview, Baldwin expresses “impatience” with the term “gay,” saying “It answers a false argument, a false accusation…which is that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me …Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.”

I feel like a stray dog today.

I was Ipo’s person. My phone was full of pictures of her. She had a bed in both rooms and the car, came “with,” had plenty of good food, treats, and she was my “wolf pup”, “my cashew nut”, “munchkin”—magnificent and beloved for exactly who she was. I was so proud of her. I loved even the things that were hard: the wafts of hair.

I cannot recall what else was hard.

Her refusal to be petted, I called “excellent boundaries.”

Hippolyta

Just an absence…almost the same as when I don’t pay attention. When I didn’t
And a racing ache
Like fear
A big rock on my sternum
The burn. Heartburn
A ratcheting
A stick dragged across the bumpy asphalt
Something unsoothable
Toys she loved, all emptied of cotton
I said she made them skinny
To match her
For a long while she was removing herself
Sleeping in the other room
And so I feel how we both walked out
Out of the woods.
She took me this far
And now I take her everywhere.
It is just that
The time of our bodies is over.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

“I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap” (Deborah Levy, Hot Milk).

(I love how Levy writes in this breathless blurring without commas. She has produced theory and poetry and I am driven by narrative to understand something complicated about gender and desire. Reflecting on this, on icons of femininity, masculinity, and the symbols on bathroom doors, narrator Sofia wonders: “Are we all lurking in each other’s sign?” and realizes, “It wasn’t clarity I was after. I wanted things to be less clear.”)

In Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, Sofia falls in love with Ingrid Bauer—she is Ingrid’s monster, the monster of her desire.

Sopfia has this vision of Ingrid Bauer: “A woman is galloping on her horse across the burning sand of the playa. A tall Andalusian horse. His mane is flaming his hooves are thundering the sea is glittering. She is wearing blue velvet shorts and brown riding boots and she is holding a giant bow and arrow. Her upper arms are muscled, her long hair is braided, she is gripping the horse with her thighs. I can hear her breathing as the arrow flies through the air and enters my heart. I am wounded. I am wounded with desire and I am ready for the ordeal of love.”

Ingrid Bauer on her tall Andalusian also invokes an Amazon, appearing like one of those legendary women warriors whose society offered an alternative to heteropatriarchy. Some, too proud, preferring war, were virgins. Some mated with men, but (as symbolized by the golden bracelets worn by Wonder Woman) lived outside the bonds of marriage and sent the fathers of their daughters home. Or sent any sons conceived to live with their dads. At their most monstrous, Amazons murdered these sons instead. They were also said to have removed a breast to better wield a bow or spear.

But these accounts are surely lies, misrepresentations meant to undermine Amazons’ cruel challenge to tender male dominance.

I do think that our current political situation arises in part as a defense of that old social order: with white women cast as victims while while men champion and make perpetrators of the rest of us.

In Amazon love, you must be your own hero.  As Sofia concludes, “I am in love with Ingrid Bauer and she is in love with me. She is not a safe person to love, but I am prepared to take the risk.”

When I reflect on my own history, I often choose this as my moment of clarity: I was on a date with a boy I found beautiful, who occupied my teenage obsessions, for whom I haunted the stacks of the university library until I mustered the courage to invite him to my prom.

But when he insisted on opening the car door for me, I sat there needlessly and waited for him to run around,  hating the role that heterosexuality would call me to.

I don’t mind having the door held open for me. That is a kindness. It is a charming part of our gender bending banter.

But I object to the requirement that I forget how to open my own door, so that you can know your worth.

Find something else to save and defend with your gentle heart.

I can stand right beside you, also full of brave love.

I’m grinning.

(my teeth flash at you)