Friday, November 20, 2020


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?

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Year We Lost Our Breath


During the worst days of the September wildfires, as I struggled to take my mind off the low-level perma-headache, I read an article in the New York Times, about how a group of scientists might have found life on Venus. The evidence—a chemical marker for anaerobic microbes—wasn’t exactly made for Hollywood. Just the filigree of a possibility, invisible to the naked eye. But something in me was desperate to hold onto those slim odds. 

The article was accompanied by a painting of the Venusian landscape. But that felt like a hallucination left over from the nineteenth century, and I craved something more objective. A search led to surface-level photographs taken by a Soviet lander a few decades back. In them, everything, even the sky, seemed to be made of radioactive leather. 

I nodded. That was the sepia glow I was now seeing outside the window I couldn’t open. 

In that same outside, the birds, who had disappeared when the smoke first slunk in, were back, but not to fly, or even to sing. They hopped around the yard, looking confused—little dinosaur descendants. Modern-day Venus is a descendant too, but its dinosaur was its gentler self—maybe covered in oceans, and maybe earth-like in other ways, before some unknown event turned it into an acid-cloaked waste. 

It boggles the mind: how much damage can one planet take? As a kid, I was fascinated by the pop-culture spectacle of exploding worlds—Alderaan in Star Wars, or Superman’s Krypton. A stupendous burst of light and sparks, like a fireworks display. I doubt our destruction of Earth, assuming it continues, will be that flashy—and I doubt Venus’s toxic transformation happened that way either. Even dying, a planet keeps doing its thing in space—it just gets confused, like one of those birds in the yard.

No one should have to raise kids on a dying planet. In Portland, the summer was stressful enough before the poisonous air. Quarantine-crazed, we’d spent as many evenings as we could in the backyard, occasionally catching a more distant view of Venus. One of the brightest things in the sky, it was easy to mistake for a star, guiding the way. But toward what?

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Memphis Memory

Twenty-five summers ago, my friend Jodie and I drove my overstuffed Cutlass Ciera from New Jersey to California. I was relocating to Los Angeles for grad school. She was along for the ride. I’m not sure I could have done it without her, but our friendship almost didn’t survive that trip. America can have that effect on people, I guess.

By car, it’s possible to get from coast to coast in four days—but we took two weeks, lingering in my favorite music cities throughout the South. On a hot night in Memphis, we sat on the Ciera’s hood outside Sun Records, trying to soak in the magic of Howlin’ Wolf and Jackie Brenston, and others
long gone. The next day, it rained, and we went to the Lorraine Motel, where, in 1968, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Recently converted into the National Civil Rights Museum, that building, with its marquee and decor preserved, seemed to silently loop that infamous moment. 

Of course, history in general seems to loop, whether we put it in a museum or not. The rain got heavier as Jodie and I left Tennessee and entered Mississippi. But scenes of Memphis kept playing in my mind. I cued up a Public Enemy mixtape. “Elvis was a hero to most,” Chuck D. rapped, backed by the rhythm of the windshield wipers, “but he never meant shit to me.” I nodded. I loved Elvis’s early records, but never got why other white people called him “king.” We’d toured Graceland a few days earlier. We’d seen the TV with the bullet hole. We’d seen the stone wall, covered in pointless graffiti. A mad king, maybe, driven there by the privilege of skin.

Down I-55, and then toward the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, I thought about other kings. Martin Luther, yes, but also Rodney, beaten nearly to death on camera a few years earlier, in the city I would soon call home. That almost accidental recording is sometimes heralded as the start of a new citizen journalism. But hatred adapts. How many Rodney King-type videos (and worse) have there been so far this year? This month?

The night before MLK’s murder at the Lorraine, he gave a transcendent speech. He spoke of a mountaintop, and a promised land, and how “I might not get there with you.” I suspect he knew the Buddhist story of the three men, dying of thirst in the desert—the one where they find a wall, and the first two climb, and see an oasis on the other side, and jump over, saving themselves. The third man, the bodhisattva, remains behind. He’s still thirsty, of course. But he’s more concerned that strangers, as lost and parched as he, might come along someday, and need help getting to the oasis hidden behind the wall.

In 2020, such selfless compassion feels increasingly elusive. What kind of promised land is premised on centuries of suffering? Maybe history doesn’t have to loop. If you’re lucky enough to be at the foot of the wall, who are you going to help over it?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Jingle Dress Dance

When I worked at Willowbrook Arts Camp a few summers back, the Native American Arts specialists—Harold and his daughter Harmony—would always treat the kids to a performance of the Jingle Dress Dance. We all gathered under the main tent to watch and listen. Harold struck a big drum, and it rang deep as he sang. Harmony danced in a skipping motion, her dress layered in metal cones that shook like sleigh bells—incongruous and beautiful in the July heat.
Apparently, the Jingle Dress Dance originated around the time of the 1918 influenza pandemic. A man from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe had a recurring dream of four women dancing in differently colored dresses, covered in “little metal pieces.” He told his wife, and the dresses were made, and the dance learned—and a young girl who’d been struck ill rose from her fever to dance along. A healing ritual was born from tobacco-can lids, radically repurposed to make the first jingle cones. 
A virus is invisible, and silent. So we look and listen more carefully. Walking through my neighborhood, my ears tune to every footfall. I sense the slightest break in my peripheral vision—if you’re walking, too, I might feel your presence before we’re even on the same street. Everything is fainter, but there is still sound and movement. Music is vibrating air, and dance its engine. Its waves travel to touch us, even when we can’t touch each other. And for now, that has to be enough. The beating drum. The ringing metal. The remembered connection through space, tangible in its intangibility, as we all move through this together.

[image c/o Smithsonian]