Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Elizabeth



One of the videos documenting last Wednesday’s violence shows a mace-saturated woman named Elizabeth, upset that someone stopped her and her associates from “storming the Capitol,” because “it’s a revolution.”

Those of us who weren’t there sift through these fragments of visual evidence, like the scattered pieces of some shitty, tedious jigsaw puzzle. There are a million details to get our heads around. I see this video, and maybe my thoughts are like yours. I don’t know Elizabeth. I’m sure she has people, and a past. I doubt she would have gotten away with a mere macing if she’d been Black. I doubt she has studied any actual revolutions, or history at all. I doubt she sees herself for what she’s become: cannon fodder in a monumental delusion. I’m certain her presence in that mob was predictable.

 

She’s wearing a scarf imprinted with a piano keyboard design. Why does that dumb detail jump out at me? In the eighties, in high school, a dear friend of mine owned a scarf like that. It seemed harmlessly tacky back then—goofy band-geek garb that made adolescence more bearable. Now, I see that scarf on Elizabeth, and I want to scream. Talk about the banality of evil.

 

There’s a scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown, in 1955, is astonished to learn that Ronald Reagan will be president in 1985. (“Then who’s vice president?” he asks sarcastically. “Jerry Lewis?”) Knowing where Reagan’s revolution led, the joke isn’t funny anymore. Even a failed insurrection causes lasting damage. I’m sure Elizabeth has people, and a past. Her presence in that mob was predictable. It was all predictable. I turn away from the video, but I still want to scream.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Silent Night


This year, for the first time in twelve years, I won’t be playing the organ for Faithful Savior Lutheran Church’s holiday services—just as I haven’t been there for any services since the pandemic hit.

An agnostic from my twenties, I initially took the Faithful Savior gig in a professional capacity. But I grew to love it, too. Though I never became a believer, at times, the music, the people, and the moment all lined up just right, and I’d feel, if not the pull of faith, then something like Wordsworth’s “intimation of immortality”—a strong impression that I was part of something larger than myself. The Christmas Eve candlelight services, which always concluded with the hymn “Silent Night,” particularly tended that way.

That hymn turned out to be more resistant to cliché than I expected. Playing it for the Lutherans, I’d think not of Bing Crosby, but of World War I—the “war to end all wars” that didn’t—and its 1914 Christmas truce, when, after months of pointless, bloody stalemate, the shooting briefly stopped, and along the western front, soldiers of both sides ventured into No Man’s Land, exchanging cigarettes, chocolate, and unexpected small kindnesses. Many songs were sung during those thirty-six hours, but the high point may have been the “Silent Night” performed by German officer Walter Kirchhoff, who had been a tenor with the Berlin Opera.

A hundred years later, when I listened to the voices of the elderly congregants striving to fill the dark, glimmering church sanctuary, I’d wonder how Kirchhoff had sounded, standing under the cold December moonlight, in the thick mud, amid the stink of rotting corpses. The truce hadn’t lasted, of course. But I’d try, in my own “Silent Night,” to summon its spirit of hope in the face of hopelessness, toward the transmutation of grief.

I’m trying to summon that spirit again this year, even if we can’t have the music. And even in my unbelief, I pray that you find it too. Happy Holidays, friends.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Gratitude

 

While responding to accusations that she’s a tyrant lying about the dangers of COVID, Renae Moch, public health director in North Dakota, asked a pertinent question: “Why would I want to do that?”
This, to me, is the strangest thing about the resistance to common sense that is now making a bad situation much worse. It’s stranger than the argument about freedom, which lacks the self-awareness to notice its own compliance, evident in the belief that a retweeted meme counts as independent thought. It’s stranger than the argument about not living in fear—with its deep anxiety about masks, vaccines, and governments. And it’s stranger than the argument about inefficacy, which somehow concludes that because recommended measures are not guaranteed to eliminate spread completely, they can’t greatly mitigate it.
In fiction, I obsess about characters’ motivations. Maybe that’s why Ms. Moch’s question jumped out at me. If public health officials, hospital spokespeople, and (most of all) nurses and doctors are trying to put one over on the rest of us, the obvious question is: why? What’s their motivation? What are they getting out of it?
I’ll tell you what they’re not getting out it. Sleep. Comfort. Safety. Respect. Empathy. Peace. Decency. Gratitude.
It being the season for the latter, I know where I’m directing mine this year.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Remembrance


Life is so easy when you don’t have to make room for the experiences of other people. Theory of mind and the rhetoric of empathy can seduce us into thinking we fully understand what’s going on in each other’s heads. As a parent, I’ve seen the millions of ways—incremental, usually innocent, often problematic ways—we impose identity on children, before they’re even born, and before they can think and speak for themselves.

I wish we could sit more with the uncertainty at the beginning of each life. To value each person for who they might become rather than how they are categorized by a pregnancy ultrasound, or a cultural expectation. After all, we are all always becoming—even if that’s only to become more of what other people thought we were to begin with.


Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Let’s make those losses matter, and make the losses stop.


(Image from Peter Boag’s Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, a highly recommended account of gender nonconformity in the American West.)

Monday, November 02, 2020

Jan's Sign




My neighbor Jan has been updating this sign every day for the past 250+ days. (I only know the figure because, on the other side, he’s also been tallying the number of days in quarantine.)

 

Mostly, I’ve appreciated this countdown. Whenever the shitstorm got too big to see, it was good to have a small, undeniable number to focus on—if only for a moment, during my morning walk with the dog. “November 3 is election day” turned out to be one of the few real-world truths that couldn’t be corrupted by delusion, woo-woo, or conspiracy-mongering.

 

It’s surreal, though, after four years of hell (maybe five, since COVID-time ages you twice as fast) to finally be here, on the eve of whatever’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m guardedly optimistic, in a don’t-hold-me-to-it kind of way. The data is certainly more encouraging than it was in 2016. And while the man in the White House and his crew may be good at being bad, they’re not superhuman—their luck will eventually run out. Still, facts are not feelings, and I’m more anxious about the torrent of emotion that’s coming. 

 

This past weekend, I was surprised to awaken from the kind of deep sleep I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid. The morning light glowed burnt-orange and red—colors that had come late to the trees in our part of town. I let myself sink into bed for a while, immersed in what I now suspect was something like the “oceanic feeling” that Romain Rolland once spoke of—exhausted but energized, and with no sense of separation from the world. But I couldn’t tell if my heart was healing, or steeling itself.

 

So many people have lost so much in such a short period of time. We have so much work to do, and to un-do. But I’ve been thinking of MLK’s famous phrase, and reminding myself that, even if the moral universe is less of an arc than a zig-zag, he was absolutely right—it moves toward justice. Let’s move it that way tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Cemetery Boys (review)


As my middle-grade manuscript continues to wander through what is turning out to be a longer-than-expected submission process, I’ve tried to stay on top of my reading, grateful that it has included Aiden Thomas’s fun, powerful YA novel, Cemetery Boys.

There are so many things to recommend this book. Strong, clear writing. Carefully paced plotting, and its corollary—tension built with fine-grained control. And the genre—“paranormal romance,” or a love story folded into a ghost story—makes it perfect for Halloween. (Though I’m down for a good ghost story any time of year.)


Of course, one also has to recognize what this novel does for queer trans Latinx visibility. The protagonist, Yadriel, has all three of these identities. Even in 2020 (or especially in 2020), the publishing industry continues to suffer from a lack of diversity—a fact that most of us within it know, but do too little to address. Cemetery Boys is an inspiring example of how that industry could be—a bit of good news during this otherwise bad-news year.


It would be good-enough news to feature a type of character that readers don’t usually get to see, but Thomas goes further by cultivating meaningful connection with that character, regardless of where the reader is coming from. I suppose I’m a great argument for the book’s success in that regard. I do love paranormal fiction, but I don’t read a lot of YA, and even less romance. More to the point, I’m white, heterosexual, cisgendered, and male. And yet in Yadriel, I easily recognized struggles I’d felt in my own youth—especially in terms of figuring myself out and then wanting to be accepted for that. 


In other words, the experience of adolescence depicted in Cemetery Boys is both unique in its details, and tending toward something shared. That's no mean writerly feat. There’s a moment right before the novel’s climax, where Yadriel and Julian (his love interest, who also happens to be a ghost) race a stolen Corvette Stingray to a beach along the Pacific Coast Highway, reggaeton blaring through open windows, to crash a party thrown by the popular kids. I couldn’t help but think of the last-night-on-earth abandon near the end of Rebel Without a Cause, that 1950s white suburban teen-angst archetype with the hidden history. James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo—playing characters raucously, transiently living out their own domestic fantasy in an abandoned Los Angeles mansion, both different and not so different from Thomas’s Yadriel and Julian. 


Yet even as Cemetery Boys reminds us of feelings we’ve all contained at some point, it contains something new and compelling. As Rebel’s mansion—a haunted house of sorts—and countless teen slasher films have made clear, there’s a natural narrative symbiosis between adolescence and horror. That tradition doesn’t prepare you for the masterstroke of placing a trans teenager in a ghost story, in which the relationship between body and soul (or spirit, or consciousness, or identity) is already foregrounded, and also somehow not determinative. Indeed, the novel’s focus on ghostly bodies kept bringing me back to a simple, infuriating contradiction that causes so much grief for all of us, but perhaps especially for trans kids. We live in a culture that encourages us to become who, in the deepest, least tangible parts of our being, we know we are. And then, all too often, that culture does everything in its power to stop us.


Anyway, five stars for this book.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Lost Souls of America





I guffawed when I saw this ad. It’s from Berlin, but even if you don’t speak German, you can probably tell who the middle finger is aimed at. So punk! I doubt the campaign will be effective—most studies suggest that shaming doesn’t change minds or behavior—but who cares? Sometimes you just need an excuse to vent.
 
Shaming might not change minds or behavior, but here in America, it feels like shame is all we’ve got. I avoid conversation with conspiracists—as Lauren Kerby put it, you can’t “bring facts to a feelings fight.” Still, you can protect the facts, holding them in your palm like a hurt bird. And then fight for them with your ballot—when mine came in the mail last week, my whole body trembled with a fury to cast it.
 
“We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Pence said during the VP debate, defending the administration’s pandemic negligence. I guffawed at that, too. So you mean freedom is free after all? I’m a patient man, but my patience for willful ignorance is as low as it’s ever been. As the days get shorter, and All Saint’s Eve approaches, I imagine the lost souls of America sitting with themselves, facing a mirror—no Twitter, no chatter, eyes open. Even attempting introspection, how many would only continue to see a middle finger thrusting back at them, out of the endless darkness?