Gaslight

bergman

The 1944 film Gaslight tells the story of a young woman named Paula (played beautifully by Ingrid Bergman) who is deceived by her new husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) into believing she is crazy. His manipulation starts small. He tells her that she has these little flaws and then makes them true through sleight of hand. He says, “You know you are inclined to lose things, Paula.”

“I didn’t realize that,” she responds because she has not been known to lose things and then he gives her a broach and when she loses it she thinks, oh shit maybe I do lose things! Of course, she didn’t lose it. He hid it from her because he is an evil murderer, but Paula does not realize this and the cycle continually repeats itself until she questions everything she understands about her own mind.

Gregory wants control and keeping someone in a state of heightened nerves is a great way to leverage power. He also wants money. He murdered Paula’s aunt and then tricked Paula into moving back into the house where the murder happened—a home conveniently owned solely by Paula until they married—so that he can spend his nights rummaging around in the attic looking for the family jewels because he doesn’t have any. He eventually finds them sewn into a gown, and I found this scene amusing and willed him through the screen, Gregory, please put on the dress. Sadly, he doesn’t put on the dress but he does grab the jewels and rub them around in his greedy little hands.

Meanwhile, Paula is held captive in her own house, like the madwoman in the attic or the young wife with her yellow wallpaper or modern day moms stuck cleaning with a cartoon bald man. Gregory tells her she is not well enough to go out and then fabricates events that make her believe he is right. What is most interesting about Paula is that she is not weak. Perhaps that is why he must go to such deceptive measures. He cannot control her transparently.

In the end with the help of a tall, handsome inspector from Scotland Yard, Paula realizes that she is being tricked. Each night Gregory leaves the house and walks to the back alley into an abandoned flat and climbs through a skylight into the attic. I like that the story involves him scurrying like a rat. There is no dignity in greed. When he gets to the attic he turns on the lights, thus using some of the home’s gas and causing the lights in the main house to dim. Paula notes that shortly after he leaves the lights dim and shortly before he returns, they brighten. She knows this change is real and that factor serves as a lighthouse to her sanity.

“You know who’s up there.”

She knows. Because she is not actually crazy. He distorted her reality. He controlled information. He made statements and then through manipulation made them come true. It is how most card tricks are done (spoiler alert!) He also places her in a spiral of fear and as her insecurity about the reliability of her own mind increases she must rely on Gregory to act as her compass. This gives him even more opportunity to manipulate her environment.

I was interested in this film to get a better understanding of the term gaslighting to condemn what Trump is doing by continually denouncing the legitimacy of the media. He is attempting to distort reality by telling the American people that we cannot trust the information we are receiving. And perhaps it started small, the same way Gregory started by simply telling Paula that she was forgetful, and now it has grown into daily poorly written reports and tweets that suggest the information we receive is fake. It is a tactic used to try to unsettle the public trust and make us question what we should be believe.

Distorting someone’s perception of reality can be done by inserting a single, subtle word that invokes doubt, like “You look nice today,” which usually leaves me questioning what kind of trash heap I have looked like every other day. Or maybe something like, “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s entire slogan was a manipulation. He used two unstated assumptions. We don’t even have to get into this country’s history of oppression and discuss timelines of exactly which horrifying “again” he was aiming for, the point was that by accepting the slogan, followers had to swallow the ideas that America is not currently great and that there was a time in our history when things were better. Relying on assumptions is a bad magic trick.

Trump said the media can’t be trusted throughout his campaign because as any gaslighter knows, the seed must be planted early and often. In May of 2016 Trump told Sean Hannity that Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and current owner of The Washington Post was unfairly attacking him and using the prominent news source “as a toy” (interesting choice of words, is it all just a game?) Trump suggested that Bezos, who as owner must obviously have complete control of all reportage, did not want Trump in the White House because of his “huge anti-trust problem.”

Since his first day in office the constant lambasting of any news source that does not report the facts he wants to hear is an attempt to make the American people question what we know is real. All negative news is fake news! Coincidentally, that is what I tell anyone who has ever spoken to my ex-husband. Trump is like a controlling spouse, and unlike most controlling spouses who must go it alone Trump has a posse, like his Press Bitch, Sean Spicer, and his rotisserie chicken, Kellyanne Conway, who stand up to corroborate all his attempts at misdirection.

Trump uses Twitter as a means of supporting his own fabrications. Lies! It is as if he thinks that if he tweets it, then it must be true. Sadly, I am not sure Trump is as good at gaslighting as Gregory. He does not have the restraint. His constant tweeting of easily verifiable misrepresentations keeps the majority of the public’s sanity in check. And maybe it is his overuse of exclamation points, but I always picture his tweeting persona as a giant orange New Year’s baby with his thumbs pounding on the keys in tantrum.

Usually what a gaslighter wants is control. Trump wants fame, fortune, and to be right. His grand wizard Steve Bannon wants control and to be alt-right. Under Bannon’s leadership Brietbart News has become an active participant in glaslighting America through its outrageous commentary meant to fracture and leave Americans in a state of heightened fear. Breitbart uses media as instigation. By spinning stories in certain ways, the site enrages the public, for example a search of “black on black crime” on the Breitbart site retrieves five pages of articles with 20 stories on each page. That is 100 articles. The sensationalizing of these stories seeks to demonstrate that black citizens are inherently violent and therefore any disenfranchisement is due to their own behavior and not a product of systemic racial inequality. These stories serve as a tool of the oppressor and promote othering. Breitbart is bad fucking news and now we have let its leader scurry into the White House.

Breitbart has even politicized the Super Bowl, suggesting that the Patriots comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons was like election night all over again. There is an actual story that compares Brady and his football sorcery to Trump’s “win” on election night. They are both backed by evil slobs, so I can see that angle. Even the links to ads on Breitbart of other things “You Might Like” are charged, like the picture of Obama with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and the caption “Obama’s IQ will shock you!” which I felt compelled to click on but never found Obama’s IQ or Donald Trump’s, although I did learn that Hillary Clinton has the same estimated IQ as Kesha and both, of course, have higher IQs than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It is important to remember that before gaslighting became a verb it was not the dimming and brightening of the lights that incited the manipulation. In the original story, the lights are what help Paula keep reality in check. They are the clue that brings her back to her own sanity. Those of us who can clearly see what these puppeteers are trying to do to the American people, that they are attempting to keep people in a state of fear and to promote their own corrupt agendas through distortion and sleight of hand, must stand firmly as the lighthouse that can help this country and all her people come back to sanity.

Advertisements

Stand up. Fight Back.

img_6237

On a hazy January morning, we started to walk with the crowds towards the National Mall, not knowing the exact destination just simply moving with the current. The dome of the United States Capitol peeked out above a line of rectangular bureaucratic buildings. The faces of these buildings were stone and unadorned. They stood stoic and quiet, impenetrable. The crowd was still loose enough to allow gaps between the women and girls and dots of men who carried signs and upbeat voices.

We made it to a cross street, and I watched the people ahead of me as they made the turn, their eyes focused down the street, some lifted phones over their heads to take photos, others just stared, but they all kept moving. As we entered the wide expanse of the intersection, I saw what they saw. We were at the top of a hill staring down Independence Avenue. At the bottom the crowds were so dense and bright there was no indication of street or sidewalk, of where buildings stopped and the tiny dots of all those people and their declarations began.

We turned and walked down the hill, small conversations and observations with the people walking with us, there was laughter and shout outs looking for a member of our group not easily visible, “Where is she?”

“Oh, there she is.”

There were chants from the crowd, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do?” and the crowd responds, “Stand up! Fight back!”

“What do we do?”

“Stand up! Fight back!”

Above all the empowerment and solidarity there was also a cloud of everyone’s collective anxiety. Because we were not going to a festival. This was not fucking Bonnaroo. We were marching into a crowd larger than I had ever seen. We did not know how this day would unfold, where we would end up, how we would get home. We did not know if the crowds would be peaceful and generous. We did not know what force majeure awaited us. We also did not know if there was something insidious waiting in the future of the day. Nobody checked our clear backpacks. Nobody looked under my bulky jacket.

“When I say sisters, you say rise!”

“Rise!”

“Sisters!”

“Rise!”

We kept walking. My anxiety presents itself as jitters, stemming from the epicenter of my nerves and branching out. An overall sense that I might just simply pass out. I have had this experience before, when the stimulus overwhelms my capability to react. It is as if every vessel expands just a fraction and there is not enough room in my body for all my energy. My experience at this march was overwhelmingly positive and at times even fun, but I was nervous. I have two kids at home. As a mother, my life is not my own. I don’t have the luxury to be reckless. They are not my raison d’etre, but I belong to them. I breathe deep and keep walking.

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

I glance around and look for the familiar coats and jackets and pink hats of my marching crew. Everyone is wearing pink pussy hats, but I know which ones are mine. If I lose sight of my sisters, then I scan for our “Women’s Strike” signs. Black with white lettering. Unapologetic. The mood of the crowd is not somber. We talk and point out signs that make us proud or make us laugh.

Keep your god out of my bod.

Tiny hands, big asshole.

Everyone moves forward calmly but willfully. Officials in green vests stand in intersections and suggest we make turns, doing signs with their arms as if directing traffic, but instead of cars it is a mass of people—women, men, children, and strollers. Bumps into shoulders are quickly met with a call of “Sorry” and a response of “It’s ok” because we are women and we are taught to make no ripples. But on this day in January we form a tidal wave. By the hundreds of thousands, we put a dent in the center of the National Mall, making a mark on history. Our collective footprint like a space boot on the moon.

The women’s march was considered successful because of the incredible number of protesters in Washington D.C. and because of the solidarity shown around the country and even internationally. From what I could see the march was more than just white women. There was representation from women of color, maybe even more than I had expected, even though there still exists the valid concern of why white women are now finally marching out from behind our picket fences. Where the hell have we been?

This march was also peaceful. There were no arrests. No tear gas. No rubber bullets. There was barely even a police presence at all. I saw less than a dozen police, mostly standing against cinder block buildings, one knee propped up like a casual flamingo. The only interaction I had with the police was when I waved down a uniformed officer to get help for a woman who had tripped on a curb and landed on her face and suffered a cut above her right eyebrow. However, this protest was not successful because it was peaceful. Those two factors must remain mutually exclusive.

This protest was attended by women, men, and families just like me, who are kept just comfortable enough to be unwilling to storm the White House. We had the numbers, and maybe it is because a group of women would not usually destroy such a beautiful home. We had enough of a presence that we could have commandeered the White House, emptied it of all the precious antiques, and then burned it to the ground. But we didn’t. We wore our pink hats, told our bladders, “Not Today!” and took peaceful control of the National Mall. Then we left and went back to our spaces of comfort, hugged our children, and now many of us are continuing to organize in our local communities.

The march was important and successful. The night after the march, I was renewed and felt a sense of optimism about the people of this country and our precious democracy. However, the march was also benign. If we consider this march in relationship to the two Americas presented by Martin Luther King, Jr. then this march was attended by those living in the America where “People have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.” We the people of this America are unwilling to throw bricks because that could substantially disrupt our glass houses. We are accustomed to silent conformity.

Also, we have been so conditioned to the idea that rioting is non-productive and only further divides groups. How many times have I heard the phrase “those people” sprout and erupt around times of rioting and violent protest? We use rioting as a scapegoat for othering. King is celebrated by the white community and we get a day off from work to celebrate him because of his promotion of nonviolence. Ask any school kid in America and that adjective will be the one that is most closely associated with his legacy.  I am still waiting for my kids to come home from school with their detailed reports on Malcolm X.

Looking more closely at King’s “Other America” speech, he talks about the use of nonviolence as a more effective measure than rioting because “A riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt” and he continues to state that he cannot condemn riots without also condemning the conditions that promote them because “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King was arrested 30 times for protesting against segregation. Nonviolent is not the same as nondisruptive.

As a white woman who walked into this march maybe feeling the anxiety for the first time of a possible fear of police presence, I realize that I have no excuse for not standing up before now. Maybe I should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with all the marginalized voices throwing bricks into business windows. Even better, there is (as King taught us) a space between a protest with no arrests and an outright violent demonstration. We are going to have to be more disruptive to fight against a bully of this magnitude. We cannot just walk the streets and expect to be heard. My name is now likely on some type of list. A big black checkmark beside my H. And the thing is that I don’t even know if I have the courage to come out from behind the protection of my glass house. I am still questioning how much I am willing to sacrifice. As I sit here being heard, I am a parcel of hypocrisy.

My unwillingness to let go of my space of comfort is exactly what the Trump administration, headed by Grand Wizard Steve Bannon, is counting on. They are expecting that middle class white people will abandon the disenfranchised when it comes time for real protest, that the huge crowds of people will soon just be a few groups living in tents and playing hacky sack while the rest of us are at home watching CNN and tucking our children into warm beds. That is what Trump and his band of villains are using to place all their bets. Giant stacks of chips made from compressed pieces of our freedom and betting on apathy. Our gazes down as we have passed by our history of inequality and violence fueled by discrimination of anything that is not white, wealthy, and patriarchal are what got us here. Fear and division put extremism in the White House. We are going to have to use courage and solidarity to get us out. We have the numbers. We have the education. The awareness. Morality. Empathy. History. This administration thinks we are bluffing. We need to firmly demonstrate that we are serious about maintaining the rights of all the people and not just a select few.

When democracy is under attack, what do we do?

Stand up! Fight back!

Dark Water

I am a big fan of using the steam room at my gym. I like to sit quietly in the fog until I am dripping in sweat and then leave and replenish all those liquids with champagne. If the average person’s body is 70% water, mine is often just 70% bubbles. I am sure if I do enough research I can find an important study that suggests this is the secret to longevity. If nothing else, it will help prevent death by drowning, which will come in handy because most of the time when I am near the water, I am really drunk.

The water is one of many places that can be dangerous for women, like in the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. The main character, Clyde, a poor boy who is working (somewhat deviously) to move up in the social class ranks accidentally gets a farm girl pregnant. Unable to accept this fate as his life’s end-game, he decides to take young Roberta out in a canoe on an isolated lake so he can drown her. As they are paddling, Clyde internally wrestles with his decision and his intentions while Roberta sings songs and drags her fingers sweetly in the water. Then at one point she notices the look on his face, staring at her from the other end of the canoe; he probably looks as if he has just seen a ghost, and she starts to crawl towards him in a move of comfort, and then he hits her across the face with a camera, an “unintentional blow” so hard that she falls out. He stands to grasp for her as she is falling, and then the canoe tips. She gets hit in the head with the bow and since she cannot swim he is sort of like, well that was convenient.

Actually, she looks directly at him and cries “Help! Help!” and he just watches her head sink underwater with relief. He swims to shore and eventually gets caught and sentenced to death by a mostly rural and unsympathetic jury. One of the big questions from this novel is seeded in the title and begs the question about what is the uniquely American tragedy here? I am not sure exactly the answer, and I refuse to believe it is his execution, but I am willing to move towards pointing a finger at a cruel system that promotes cut-throat (or “unintentional blows” and condoned drownings) paths up the economic ladder. The tragedy most likely ends up as the systemic problem of an economy that suppresses social mobility and fosters greed.

However, what I took from this novel was that maybe I should be more careful about going out into open water with men. I have also read the book Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen where a husband pushes his wife off the balcony of a cruise ship. When she hits the water and lives, her thought is did that asshole just push me off a cruise ship? It is relatable, like when the man I was married to and had two children with bought me an iTunes gift card for my birthday. Did that really just happen?

Although I know to be cautious, like with most things in my life, I see the line that I should not cross and then I run down the dock in a bikini and jump on board! I once went on a second date with a man, whom I met on Tinder, to an isolated river where we kayaked up stream into the wilderness, far away from where people could hear me scream. I did not bring my cell phone because I didn’t want it to get wet and die—that would be absurd. It never occurred to me to be concerned until we were about an hour into our paddle, and I had a realization of panic. I stopped paddling and watched him moving forward in the dark water, leaving a momentary wake behind his kayak and then no trace as he glided forward. I scanned the banks and saw only trees. Nobody knows we are here.

But I survived. On the morning after our third date, I mentioned that although I enjoyed the kayaking, I did have a fleeting moment when I thought he might murder me.

“What would be my motive?” he asked.

A question that was both important to consider and disturbing. But he was right. I present no obstacle to his life. I pondered this because it is an important issue for women, often when domestic violence happens, it is because the victim poses some barrier between the aggressor and happiness or freedom. Like for Clyde, he just wanted to marry a wealthy girl and live happily ever after, but Roberta with her womb and her ovaries, got in the way of that dream. So she had to die.

Of course, sometimes violence is random, so he could have still murdered me while we were kayaking for no good reason, but that is not necessarily something I can guard against. I can’t live in fear of random acts of violence, then he interrupted my thoughts with a question, “What kind of wood doesn’t float?”

“What? I don’t know.”

“Natalie Wood.”

I laughed awkwardly. Then it got eerily quiet. I realized that I could probably try to avoid dates that put me in isolated areas with strange men, but also maybe men could put in a solid effort to not murder me. If something did happen, then it would likely be portrayed as me making a foolish decision. Even my children would be told that I met someone on Tinder and followed him into the woods, as if I was asking for it. The same way we justify that the girl in the horror movie who runs outside to check on the sawing noise coming from the woods deserves to die. What a dummy! While the murderer is seen as being on an unwavering trajectory to kill and unable to change or make alternative decisions. Sort of like Clyde, once they were in the canoe she was sentenced to die, and part of the interest of that section of the novel is watching Clyde wrestle with that supposedly unavoidable fact. Even though he could just as easily not drown her. Not hit her across the face with a camera. Not watch her sink underwater while she calls his name.

He could have changed the plan at any time. Even a man wandering around the woods with a chain saw could make better choices, but it is accepted that it is his manifest destiny to move across the dark forest or the misty harbor town killing everyone in his path. Slashing people up is just what he does. For the rest of us—the vulnerable characters—it is our job to stay out of his way.

Then I was drawn back into the bedroom, “Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You know two Natalie Wood jokes?”

I would like to say that this was the creepy thing that ended this brief relationship, but in all honesty, I was probably the one who made it weird. I won’t go into details, but I may have sent some drunk texts. This was during my brief but exciting skinny margarita phase, also known as January 2016.

I recently read the details about Wood’s death from the memoir by coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi. She drowned Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. He tells the events objectively, but it is difficult to read that report without feeling like there is blame placed on Wood for her actions—that she tried to get into her dingy at night without properly assessing the wind and not realizing the weight of her down jacket. She had been drinking. It is as if the take away is that she should have been more careful and because she wasn’t it is acceptable to make her death (and thus her life) into a punchline. When she died, she left behind two young daughters.

I have been taught to protect myself since I was a young girl. I should not walk alone, especially at night. I should lock the doors to my house and my car. Park under a street light. Don’t get into a stranger’s car. Don’t let a stranger into my house. These warnings are so intrinsic that defying them is viewed as in violation of common sense—she should have been more careful. But where are all the pamphlets teaching people not to be predators? Teaching about respecting women and their bodies? Teaching our boys not to rape our girls no matter what they are doing or wearing? Instead we are modeling predatory behavior as a perk of power. We have now even dressed it in a suit, sprayed it with fake tan, and given it the job of being leader of the free world.

I have heard that a man should never touch another man’s hat. The act of touching another man’s headwear is impetus to fight, but our girls should put on a sweater, get a longer skirt, or get a friend to walk them home. By doing so we are telling girls that they will remain the vulnerable characters. Men are not warned to avoid wearing hats. The warning is in the imperative: Don’t touch my hat! Lyle Lovett even wrote a song about it.

The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every three women has experienced violence by either an intimate sexual partner, or she has experienced sexual violence from a non-partner. 38% of murders of women are committed by a male sexual partner. Studies suggest that intimate partner violence can be reduced by improving women’s economic and social status. Otherwise they remain the vulnerable characters—they remain prey. We are choosing the ambulance in the valley instead of the fence on the cliff and just watching our girls fall. If we have different guidelines for boys and girls, especially about safety, then that signifies a problem. We can do better.

I want my daughter to be safe everywhere even if she makes mistakes. Even if she follows a boy into the wilderness. Because if she is like me, she probably will. It is intoxicating, like the bubbles that keep me afloat when all signs suggest that I should be drowning.

cropped-cropped-100_03291.jpg

 

 

The Elephant

As a writer, there are times when there is an elephant in the room so large it occupies my entire creative space, and I am left suffocating under its weight until I tackle the pressing subject and it disappears in a puff of smelly musk. I have essays in the hopper about drinking champagne and following strange men into the wilderness (not necessarily in that order) and about teaching college students against their will and how that compares to waterboarding, but I can’t publish those right now when my daily life is spent in a state of distress watching the news and hoping nobody at the gym saw me flipping birds at the little television on my treadmill.

On December 19, our electoral college system is going to elect a man as President of the United States who is morally (and at times financially) bankrupt. He reminds me of the most insecure and thus most dangerous guy in the fraternity. He is a bully. He is technically an asshole, and I can say this because I have read Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James, and Trump clearly fits the parameters. I picked up this book while browsing a bookstore in Portland for much more personal reasons, but it has also come in handy outside my dating life.

As a democrat, I have experienced tenures with candidates whom I did not choose or support. George W. Bush was President for a large chunk of my adult life. Luckily my kids were not born yet when Hurricane Katrina happened, so I did not have to explain to them that our president doesn’t care about black people. I was against most of his policies—his slashing of funding to the sciences and his use of religious ideology to inform policy decisions. I was against going into Iraq and the fact that he went in under false pretenses. There is most likely a connection to Bush, or at least his administration, and the rampant islamophobia that Trump has ignited. The spark was there. Trump has taken an underlying irrational fear and instead of invoking diplomacy, or even logic, he has traversed the country dumping cans of lighter fluid and tossing out torches. I certainly don’t want to paint Bush as benign, and in retrospect, thinking about Katrina and the carelessness of a wanton war, I probably should have been more vocally opposed to Bush, but this just feels different.

I was not ashamed of Bush as a human being. I remember watching the documentary Journeys with George by Alexandra Pelosi about her time on the campaign trail with Bush in 2002. The take away from that film was that he is genuinely likable, kind even. I did not vote for him, but if he wants to get together to paint some portraits and do some cocaine, then I am all for it. Maybe I put too much emphasis on how candidates act on busses, but while they are campaigning or promoting a cameo on Days of Our Lives (that is what Trump was doing on the Access Hollywood bus) this is often the only way we can see them backstage, away from the podium and talking directly to people.

Hillary Clinton probably spends her time on the bus in a cryogenic pod. Or maybe reading, preparing, and doing actual work. I have supported Hillary Clinton since Bill took office in 1993, and I have immense respect for Clinton as a person and for her work and legacy, but I don’t necessarily find her warm and approachable. I recently saw an interview with daughter Chelsea and she talked about spending time with her mother as a child. It was as if she had picked up a classic childhood book, maybe Curious George, and used that as a guide to understand what human children like to do for fun. She told a story about how she has so many memories of running around in the backyard flying kites with her mom. I don’t buy it. For starters, flying one kite is really fucking hard. Flying plural kites and running at the same time is a whole new level. She wasn’t home flying kites; she was at work (if this is confusing just imagine she is a dad). At that time her work as a lawyer and advocate was focused mainly on serving children and families probably because she knew that her daughter was going to be just fine.

But Hillary Clinton did not win. She did well with educated voters, doing even better than Obama in 48 of the 50 most educated counties in the U.S. However, Donald Trump and his SparkNotes of hate were easier to digest to many (although not nearly the majority) of voters. I accept that he will be our next President, and I hope that we can curb his most terrifying and harmful plans with resistance and pressure from the people. Recently, my son and I were discussing the meaning of “dystopia” in relation to a book he was reading. I gave my explanation of the term and he said, “Well then a dystopia can’t ever actually exist because once it does then it is normal.” We were at the dinner table, and I just stared at him, the salad stabbed onto my fork suspended over my plate. Yes, my ten-year-old son is correct. And my job—as someone with a voice—is to make sure that no matter what happens during the next four years, we never allow Donald Trump to become our new normal.

I disagree with all of Trump’s political and economic plans, at least as far as what I know from his truncated explanations. I am fearful about his foreign policy, and I have fundamental concerns about the vulnerability of basic human rights under his leadership. Immediately after the election there was some hope that maybe since we know so little about his actual plans, there was the possibility of being pleasantly surprised, but his recent appointment choices have killed that dream. His cabinet is like an assembly of villains. We thought we had effectively taken care of these people and now they are crawling out from under man holes and hate-fueled websites.

My sincere hope is that we will get through this presidency by working together, speaking out, and reminding our elected officials that they serve all Americans. We will get more democrats in seats at midterm, and we will vote Trump out in 2020, but until then even if he does something that is less harmful than expected, something beneficial to this country perhaps, there must always be a footnote.

Because he promotes xenophobia, islamophobia, racism, misogyny, bigotry, and greed. Because my kids have watched the way he speaks to people, and I can never glorify that behavior. Because just by listening to him on the news my kids already identify him as a bigot and a bully. Because one day they will know that this president was openly supported by organized white supremacist groups, including former grand wizard of the KKK, David Duke. Because my son can never be allowed to view that man as a role model. Because one day my daughter will grow up and hear the tapes of him talking about women. She will hear his voice—the voice that the adults elected to serve as her president—belittling women, criticizing their bodies, their intelligence, and their worth as equal human beings. She will hear him on that bus talking about going after women hard, kissing women against their will, grabbing women by the pussy, and she will know that I never allowed that behavior to be normalized for any reason whatsoever.

Because I will be here as an asterisk of alarm. Shouting. This is not normal.

IMG_1992

Anger Management: Armed with Only Words

At the end of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom and Huck find Jim, who has been captured and held as a runaway slave, and they both propose plans to set him free. Huck suggests they simply steal the key and take Jim under the cover of darkness to the stowed raft, “Would that plan work?” asks Huck.

“Why cert’nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it’s too blame simple; there ain’t nothing to it,” responds Tom.

Then Huck suggests they get Jim out through the man-sized opening in the wall of the shed, and Tom suggests that instead they dig him out, “It’ll take about a week!” Then as Huck and Tom are in the room with Jim, going in and out freely, Huck notices that Jim is only chained to the bed post, which can easily be lifted up so that he can be freed. Tom suggests that instead they should saw the leg of Jim’s bed off, “You got to invent all the difficulties.”

“I wish there was a moat to this cabin. If we get time, the night of the escape, we’ll dig one,” says Tom. They steal sheets off the line so that Jim can fashion a rope ladder to escape from his single story wooden structure. Tom also suggests that Jim grow a flower and water it with his own tears.

When I teach this novel, I try to get my students to see this ridiculous scene in comparison to the opposition to end slavery. Setting people free is not all that complicated. It can be done with an announcement or the lifting of the bed post. And if you are a slave, do the details of the holdup really matter? Whether it is national division, the economy, oppression, racism, or two boys who want to have an adventure, whatever the cause, you are stuck in chains while someone else’s agenda takes precedence over your life.

And of course, Jim was already free. He was set free in Miss Watson’s will, and Tom knew it the entire time. The irony of this brings on a whole new discussion about the legacy of slavery and the nuances of freedom.

Right now, our government is Tom Sawyering the shit out of gun control. Instead of taking immediate action and working towards legislation that saves lives—doing the obvious things, like banning assault rifles, advocating for stronger background checks, longer waiting periods, required training, renewal processes, all things that law-abiding citizens should have no issue with and would be no real threat to their freedom, we are tying together bed sheets and digging a hole with spoons.

I don’t know how to be a writer right now and not be political. I am angry, which makes humor writing difficult. I sit down to write, and I feel foolish, like I am the comic on the Titanic and still performing as the water is rushing into the room and my audience is drowning.

I have to talk about guns. Again. Because I am pretty sure I already did this back in August (see Zombie Apocalypse) when I tried to break down the semantics of the second amendment, but the second amendment is just a pawn being held captive, most likely at gunpoint, by a powerful lobbying group working to protect its profits and a population that lives in fear. America has a gun problem. But before we rehash this argument, the one where I metaphorically yell at the brick wall that is the NRA, I want to talk about something else.

When I was a teenager, I loved to drink and drive. And not just out of convenience because certainly it is simpler than waiting on a cab, or hopping in an Uber, or having a designated driver (aka one person in your group who is really boring or pregnant) but because I actually enjoyed it. Sometimes, I would drink while I drove because that is even more fun. I would chant, “You will have to pry my champagne flute and this steering wheel out of my cold, dead hand!”

But then law enforcement started to take drunk driving more seriously, mostly because of the successful grassroots effort by MADD, so I stopped. I wanted to protect my right, because the only thing that will help drunk people get safely home is a less drunk person who can drive them. However, I did not want to get arrested, and although I was rarely drunk enough to plow my car into a building full of innocent people, there were plenty of people that could be out on the streets and putting us all in danger. Also, a new culture emerged post-MADD that exposed drinking and driving as shameful because it was a selfish act that put innocent people’s lives in danger.

MADD was birthed out of tragedy. Candy Lightner’s thirteen-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1980, and she and close friend, Sue LeBrun-Green sought answers. They started at the DMV. Three years later, 129 anti-drunk driving laws had been passed. Their efforts focused on using testimonials. They put faces to the statistics and engaged emotional appeals—they made it personal. Before the 1980s, DUI bills were failing in congress, but in 1984 Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Bill, a measure specifically designed to discourage drunk driving, especially among young adults. According to MADD’s website, then Senator Elizabeth Dole recalls talking to the president, whose top advisors were telling him that this measure goes against his states’ rights stance, and he said, “Well, wait a minute, doesn’t this help save kids’ lives?”

Yes.

“Well then, I support it,” he said.

More than 32,000 Americans die by guns each year. Seven kids or teens are killed by guns EVERY DAY in the U.S. That is more than 2,500 kids per year (See EveryTownResearch)

Should I go on? I will because I would like to talk about regulations for residential swimming pools. Let’s look at the laws in say, Florida. According to Florida Statutes, if you have a swimming pool in your backyard, you are required by law to have a barrier that is a least four feet high, has no gaps or openings, and is at least 20 inches away from the pool. Your barrier must also have a self-latching locking gate or door that is only accessible from the inside. This is mainly to protect any random kids that could be wandering through the neighborhood, like maybe as they walk to the gas station to buy Skittles. I think the concept is that by locking the gate and thus denying access to the pool, then human lives might be saved. Basically, it is something that one household has to do on their own property to protect citizens they might not even know.

Of course, also according to Florida Statutes, if you have a loaded gun, you only have to lock it up if you “reasonably should know that a minor is likely to gain access to the firearm.” You have to keep your pool locked at all times because you never know, but guns only when you have a play date. And based on Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, probably the best thing to do if a person does get into your pool enclosure because you have a faulty lock or left a ladder leaned up against the fence is to go ahead and shoot them for trespassing.

I would also like to talk about a recent trip to Portland, where I was able to by legal weed, something that is illegal in Florida. In Florida, someone can buy an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons, but it is illegal to buy a dime bag. One great way to combat radicalism, might be to just get them stoned. If someone shows signs of hateful radicalization, then get him really baked, and he will never leave his house. He will just be on his couch binge watching episodes of Adventure Time. Alternatively, we could just do nothing and see what happens.

When I was leaving Portland, I decided to eat the chocolate pot I had legally purchased on the way to the airport. I also had a Powerade Zero bottle with me as I approached the TSA line because my mouth felt like I had just eaten 26 Saltines. I wanted to retain the right to keep my Powerade so that when I spoke to people, like the TSA, I did not sound like I was stoned, especially because I was. However, I had to give up the Powerade. I chugged it and then threw it in the trash, even though Powerades don’t kill people. People with Powerades don’t even kill people.

In my daily life, I do all sorts of things, as required by law, to protect the people around me. Even people I do not even know. Probably even bad guys. I stop at red lights, even if I am in a hurry. I have probably saved the lives of thousands of rapists and pedophiles in my life just by stopping at red lights and stop signs. I don’t even take glass to the beach, even though I am a responsible beer drinker who rarely breaks bottles and never litters. At least on purpose. Even still, I sacrifice my right to drink beer from a bottle and take canned beer just to protect the tender feet of all those beach goers: good guys, bad guys, kids, gay people, homophobes, Christians, Muslims, Trump supporters, probably thousands of people.

I have to give up certain things to exist as a citizen of this great country, for instance I never charge people for sex. And although prostitution is illegal, there are still prostitutes because the law can’t get rid of all the women who really want to have sex with strangers in the bathroom of a truck stop for a five-spot. Probably the only way to take down women who have sex for money is for all women to have sex for free. Prostitution could be stopped in its tracks if we all just got down on our knees.

When something is dangerous to others, we enact laws to make that activity illegal, even if we know it is going to be impossible to completely eradicate. We make it illegal anyway. And the hope is that then people won’t commit that crime as often, like murder for example. Because jail sucks. And murder is, for most citizens, completely illegal. But we continue to sell products, over the counter, that make murder incredibly easy. Anyone can accomplish murder with a gun, even toddlers. It would be like if we made it legal to buy cocaine. Without even getting a prescription! You can go to your local pawn shop, pick up a little baggie, take it home, put it on the counter or in a display case, but it would be illegal to put it up your nose.

The inability of our country to do anything to make it even slightly more difficult to buy even the most dangerous guns is not about freedom or individualism or even the second amendment. There is an article on the website ArmedWithReason that debunks the myth that an armed citizenry prevents tyranny. Through historical analysis the article argues, “Militias are typically the gateway to tyranny, not the safeguard against it.” And the real problem for us as Americans is that as a country, we cannot agree about anything. What issue will cause us to rise up together and form a militia? When the government continues to restrict access to women’s reproductive health? When the government continues to allow Christian ideology to inform our legislation? When the government continues to actively discriminate against minority groups? I am guessing we will not agree, so if it comes down to protecting ourselves from a suddenly tyrannical government, it will be from small, disconnected, radical groups. And that sounds oddly familiar.

The real issue is that the lack of policy change about gun laws is the case of a singular group having the financial power to make their agenda more important than human lives.  If the box cutter industry had more money and better lobbyists, we would probably still be able to take those on airplanes. People would fight for their constitutional right to break down cardboard in-flight. The NRA sells fear, and fear is a wildfire. Gun sales spike after mass shootings, after terrorist attacks, after threats about gun legislation. It is a capitalist wet dream. Maybe even a capitalist centipede. Feed the fear and the people will keep taking shit. AR-15s are flying off the shelves right now after the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. Gun manufacturers are toasting their 12-ounce cans of America to the fucking profits.

And our government has their limp dicks in their hands. But they aren’t protecting the majority of constituents. Majority of Americans believe we need stricter gun laws, and we are most united in our opinion about the importance of stronger background checks. And less than half of American households have guns, broken up regionally, 27% to 38% of American households own guns, although southern whites own proportionately more guns (47% of Southern white households own guns), but black households are only half as likely to own guns, so that decreases the South’s overall percentage of gun ownership. Majority of gun owners are white, male, and tend to vote republican (see PewResearchCenter). This is interesting for multiple reasons, for starters because when the NRA became the force that it is today back in the 1970s, under the leadership of Harlon Carter, a man who at age seventeen shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Mexican kid armed with only a knife, and then later served as head of the U.S. Border Patrol, they did so by transforming a group that was more dedicated to hunting and sportsmanship into a fear mongering powerhouse that promotes personal protection.

Against gangs, rioters, home invaders, car jackers, terrorists, government invasion, zombies, spouses, black teenagers, and I guess even school children, movie goers, and nightclub patrons.

In Charlton Heston’s famous “Cold Dead Hands” speech, he states that wielding a firearm is the way to “defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away.” When I watch this speech, where he uses the term freedom in almost every sentence, I question what force is threatening his freedom? To what bed post is he chained? The only thing I can think of is that the haves must protect what they already have. If the individuals who already have the most power are also the individuals who own the most guns, then who should really be the most afraid?

For the most part, the citizens that support the NRA are being used as weapons—they are fired up to speak out and spread the propaganda. They get to keep their guns, yes, and they get a false sense of security—because if they have to take the gun out of your cold dead hand, then did it really do the job it was supposed to do? But people cling to this symbol of their personal freedom and protection. They put it on a bumper sticker. Just try and take my guns, they say, as the drawing of a gun barrel points at me and my kids in our car waiting at the red light behind them. When a mass shooting happens, these same citizens post comments on social media about how there are lots of ways to kill people. Cain killed Abel with a rock, they say. You can kill someone with a baseball bat, they say. Great, then why do you care if someone takes your guns? Unless you own stock in a gun company (don’t get any ideas), you are losing just like the rest of us.

So why can’t we do for gun control what two dedicated women were able to do to combat drunk driving? The number of drunk driving deaths has declined by half since 1980. The citizen movement from Sandy Hook has used testimonials and pictures of first graders, so why are the photographs of these children not enough to get people to give up on a hobby and a false sense of security? What is it about guns?

Would banning assault rifles and passing stronger gun legislation save lives?

Yes.

Well shucks, Congress, then why don’t you support it?

img014

So the fucking Ghostbusters thing . . .

I heard about the new movie earlier this year when a male friend texted me, “They are making a new Ghostbusters with all women. I am not going to see it.”

My first thought was that I do not give a shit. Are we going to list all the movies that we aren’t going to see? Because I have more important things to do, like staring blankly at my computer screen and crying. This is also from a guy that has texted me, “Did you know the Atlanta airport is the busiest in the world?”

I just responded with an exasperated, “Yes.” And then a winky face, so I would not appear patronizing. I have recently cut this person from my life out of a conscious effort to burn down all the bridges that never should have been built.

I did not take his dislike of the casting selections seriously. He is not the barometer. But then more recently, I have noticed there is serious and actual backlash about the movie Ghostbusters being remade with an all female cast. People are speaking out. They are outraged! They are taking to Twitter to declare that this new movie has—somehow retroactively—ruined their childhoods. And then they try to mask their misogyny under the guise of being film connoisseurs by stating they are boycotting, not because of the female cast, but because it looks like it is just going to be a terrible movie (and also because there are all those damn women in it).

Then as women start to play self-defense, twitter lights up with backlash against the backlash because all these feminists have their panties in a proverbial wad. Feminists—and last I checked feminism simply means advocating for political, social, and economic equality for women—inevitably find ourselves forced into a circle jerk when it comes to defending our right to be treated equally. Someone says women should not be able to play the Ghostbusters, and then women speak out and then men act as if they have just caught us with our hands deep in the cookie jar, and they pin a big fat F to our chests. Women are just left watching men get off on their own misguided assumptions.

Obviously, anyone who criticizes the new movie because it is a crime against the original has never seen Ghostbusters II. This is the film where Sigourney Weaver’s baby carriage is possessed and speeding through the streets of Manhattan.

They cast a baby.

A review from June 1989 in the New York Daily News declares that the baby might be the only thing to save the film, and it might do better at the box office if they renamed it “Four Ghostbusters and a Baby.” Also, let’s be clear, the original Ghostbusters was not a cinematic masterpiece. It was funny because of the concept—the fact that they are Ghostbusters is the joke. It was a blockbuster, one of those summer hits that parents and kids can both enjoy, a movie that is absolutely geared towards sequels and remakes because it is not sacred. Ghostbusters is not art. It is a franchise.

I knew I had to write about the Ghostbusters because the argument originates from the idea that women aren’t funny. I would have loved to let that go. I have a busy life. I need to work on my book. I need to determine if I should, or should not, go back on Tinder. I also need to catch up on The Americans, but goddammit, I have to interject. And honestly, this is the portion of this essay that I have struggled with because there is no basis to the argument, no jutting rocks that I can grasp to pull myself up to confront a platform. Women are funny. Simple fact.

I once had an intensely stoned guy tell me that we were living in the belly of a whale. The correct response to this would have been, “Yeah man. Totally,” but instead I questioned it. I looked around at my surroundings, the pine trees and the manicured back yard of a house in the suburbs, and I argued with this person. I even tried to get him to hedge his statement to just a metaphor, “You mean we have been devoured by some enormous institution?” I asked.

“No, we are in the belly of an actual whale!”

“Where is all the plankton?” I asked.

When men state that women can’t be funny, I internally run through all the women I have laughed with personally, and then a reel of funny women from Lucille Ball to Gilda Radner to Amy Schumer plays in my mind, and I know that the statement comes from a place of insecurity and oblivion, and I should just say, “Yeah man. Totally.”

But then I keep scrolling through my Twitter feed. One thread is all people arguing that this new, all female version is going to reduce Ghostbusters to an Adam Sandler flick. One tweeter suggested with a chirpy scowl that Melissa McCarthy is just the new Adam Sandler, and if they mean a big name in comedy that can draw customers to the box office, then they are right. Although, McCarthy can deliver a line and execute physical comedy, so she is conceivably two steps ahead of Sandler. He is more easily compared to someone that is a cardboard replica of himself and uses a type of humor that is simplistic enough to appeal to the masses . . . here is a news flash, boys, Adam Sandler is just the new Dan Aykroyd.

What gives the original Ghostbusters any intelligent, legitimate humor is the casting of Bill Murray. His deadpan delivery makes even the most mundane lines comedic, “I like her because she sleeps above the covers, four feet above the covers.” But he is Bill Murray. There is a scene in Rushmore where Murray is in the elevator and lights another cigarette while he is already smoking a cigarette, and then as he exits he says, “I’m a little bit lonely these days.” It is so witty because it says so much more, like that sometimes there just aren’t enough cigarettes. That is comedic genius—the ability to make your audience laugh, not at you, but with you, and he brought that to Ghostbusters, and you may want to swallow your lunch, but women can also deliver legit comedy.

Kristen Wiig can do the thinking woman’s comedy thing. What Murray offers is a variation on the straight man. His reactions to the other characters are a big part of the humor, but he is also able to play these neurotic characters that are funny all on their own. Maybe (let’s just try this on, it will be okay, everything will be okay) Kristen Wiig is the new Bill Murray. Bridesmaids is damn funny, and it is Wiig’s comedic essence that fuels the film. The scene where she meets the Melissa McCarthy character at the bridal shower, and McCarthy tells her she fell off a cruise ship, and Wiig just says, “Oh Shit,” is enough to make me excited about the new Ghostbusters casting.

There is another argument echoing through the twitterverse that suggests Sony Pictures is engaging in some kind of affirmative action campaign by casting these women, as if they are doing women some kind of favor. The idea that Sony would make any decision based on a desire to advocate for equality among the sexes makes me giddy with pleasure, but it is by far the most moronic argument in this horse shit race.  Sony only cares about making money. These women are all big names who bring in dollar bills. And Sony doesn’t even have to pay them as much! Also they want to market to the audience that is going to buy the most tickets, and you know who is going to the movies and buying lots of tickets, dragging along entire neighborhoods of people who will all spill their Cokes on her sandaled feet? MOMS!

The fact that men give a shit about the roles in Ghostbusters being played by women has made me question—life for starters—but also what sacred male traditions are they protecting here? The entire premise of the movie is that the Ghostbusters are buffoons, but they are still able to be heroes, so maybe it is hard to swallow the idea that women could also be heroes on accident, just by existing and having bad ideas. Let’s also remember that the subplot of the movie is about a team of men dominating the Sigourney Weaver character, who starts out as a somewhat harsh and serious woman, then is possessed, turned into a female dog, they save her, and by the end of the movie she is much softer and in love with Bill Murray. This led me to the terrifying conclusion that perhaps Ghostbusters represents “Again”—the ambiguous, utopian time period when America was great. Let’s make America great AGAIN! Like back to 1984 (stop it) when men could be idiots, bring mass destruction onto a city because of their own carelessness, literally suck the life out of a woman, then save the day and get a hefty round of applause. Again!

And here is the thing that matters. If a group of women playing the fucking Ghostbusters causes a stir, even a slight ripple that gently laps at the edges of our cups of comfort, then women still have considerable ground to cover. In Virginia Woolf’s 1931 speech turned essay, “Professions for Women”, she states, “Even when the path is nominally open—when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant—there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way.”

I will let that linger. For just a moment.

These women were hired as actors to play ghostbusters in a summer blockbuster movie. They got the job. The path is open. And I am going to assume that by the end of the film, the ladies annihilate a shit ton of ghosts. The ghosts will be visible and thus able to be taken down with their powerful jet pack streams. But they are still battling phantoms, and as Woolf adds, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.” Anytime a woman takes on a task and is questioned about her ability to perform effectively because of her gender, the phantoms are circling. This conversation reveals them like dust in a beam of sunlight. Perhaps, if we work together—cross our streams—we can dismantle a few of these obstacles.

I don’t go to the movies often because I have better things to do, like working on my next hangover, but I will set aside time and fifty dollars to take my kids to see this movie. I want them to know that women can be used as pawns in the capitalist game just as well as men. And I want to teach them that men don’t have a monopoly on humor. Women are funny. They can play the lead. And they can destroy the fucking phantoms.

empire ghostbusters subs cover

 

Self Portrait as My Traitor

“The work of all women writers is jeopardized when individual female authors are taken to task for the content of their writing.” –bell hooks from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Two months before I filed for divorce, I published an essay titled Match.com (later published in The Funny Times in November 2013). In the essay, I consider Martha Stewart’s foray into online dating, and I suggest that her profile and her appearance on talk shows where she would actually meet with men who responded to her—men with gilded silver hair who looked like they were fresh off the golf course—was all just a publicity stunt for her new book. I noted that I was a married woman who was “not necessarily looking”, but I suggested that most likely neither was Martha. At this time, my marriage was in the process of being declared a federal disaster zone. Aerial footage would show our marital home as a pile of tiny splinters, cars turned upside down, trees pulled up to expose their enormous red clay packed roots. As a former inhabitant, all I could do was stare at the aftermath. I knew everything was gone. It was over. But I did not know where to start in an effort to move forward.

I approached the Match.com essay the way I approach most essays, with a problem. As I considered the issue through the mock profile, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed was for someone to accept me despite all my flaws. Much like Martha Stewart’s Match profile, my fake one was not about going on any real dates, it was a way for me to explore what it would take, realistically and comically (often bedmates), to fix that unhappiness.

My ex-husband “discovered” the essay during our divorce process and tried to use it against me. He wanted that essay to serve as evidence that I was cheating on him before I filed for divorce. He wanted my writing to be an exposé of my character. He also just didn’t get it, which is why he never had an interest in reading my work in the first place. I rarely shared my writing with him because he did not like that version of me. That version that is in my own words. That version where I am in control of how I am perceived. He wanted to see me in a certain way, and the honest accounts of my life and my perceptions stood in opposition to his version of how he wanted me to be.

It is also about control. Using my writing as a way to call my value systems into question is a way to revise me and to alter the meaning of my words. It is also an issue that adds bricks to the immense wall of gender bias. More recently, I have been taken to task by my employer for the essay I wrote called Some Bunny to Love. As a woman—as a mother—there are ways that I should act. Adrienne Rich describes how her poetry writing suffered after the birth of her first child because she was worried that if she appeared unhappy in her work, if there were “periods of null depression or active despairing” then she could be deemed some type of monster (I published an essay about this in September 2012). Of course, Rich had her children in the 1950s, but it seems we are still persecuting women for their honest commentary. bell hooks warns:

“Critics will exercise the power to publicly judge and morally condemn the subject of women’s writing when it transgresses the boundaries of conservative convention and mainstream decorum.”

Depending on where the female author resides, the boundaries of conservative convention can usually be stretched to blanket almost anything, especially if related to female sexuality—unless the works are capitalist blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey, then that is okay because it is about the economy, stupid. Oh wait, and about a man sexually dominating a woman.

There is an Afterword that Vladimir Nabokov added to the 1956 edition of Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that has always interested me. I find value in reading an author, especially one such as Nabakov, reflecting on his work in his own words—it is the Inside the Actor’s Studio of my field. Also, this afterword is where we get such moments of inspiration like his declaration that “reality” is “one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.” But what has attracted me the most from this short essay is his discussion about what inspired him to write Lolita. He simply provides this anecdote:

“As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I interpret this passage to mean that sometimes, if we look through another’s eyes, we may not like what we see. What we see could leave us haunted. This certainly applies to Humbert Humbert because this book—to me—is mostly about the contradictions, nuances, and shock of first person narration. This small revelation from Nabakov, tacked on at the end of one of the most morally disputed novels in the canon (because it does still make it in—resolutely inside the academic tower), can be applied to the work of female authors, especially those of us who are autobiographical. As I share my experience, it may stand in opposition to how I am expected to act. Think. Feel. When a reader peers out from my eyes, he may not like what he sees. It is like viewing a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Each artist has her own bars of the cage and when depicted honestly, it just might make people squirm.

I aim to write authentically about the myriad of experiences that constitute my life, most often my personal life (or lack thereof), my role as a remedial parent, and my career as a writer. A recurring theme for me is writing about what it is like to be a single woman with two kids in a small southern town, and how that can make it difficult for me to find love. I am also a romantic, which is a real cockblocker. I recently took an online quiz to determine which Shakespeare story best matches my love life. Of course I got Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

Although I love to employ humor, both in my writing and as a defense mechanism, the truth is that being alone is a major part of my life. Most nights after I put the kids to bed, I wish I had a hand to hold on the couch. In the house we have rented for the past two years, I have only had two men spend the night. One was a man I dated this past winter, and we spent time together here on a weekend when my kids were with their father. The other was a man I dated long distance for almost a year, and then he lived with us for four months. We created a happy but somewhat artificial semblance of a family life, based on a real and deeply rooted friendship, and I will never regret that time. My children laughed with him and through that experience I was able to see how generously they are able to love—without spite or jealousy or loss of feelings for their own father. They can love exponentially and that made me immensely proud.

As a woman—an educated, independent woman—I am not supposed to be sad because I am single. I cannot be the Julia Roberts character from Knotting Hill and say that I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her (I have learned this the hard way). I am supposed to just be amazing and live each day as if I can actually do this on my own and hope that the right person will show up when I am not looking, or when I am having a bad hair day (never going to happen). But I have never been good at doing what I am supposed to do. I am a rebel. And I will not be silenced. According to bell hooks, “Given the power of censorship and antifeminist backlash we should all be insisting that women writers continue to resist silencing.” My resistance comes in the only form I know: to just keep writing.

My craft is humor writing, and I have carved a decent niche in a difficult genre. Humor writing cannot be riddled with clichés. It has to be fresh. It must evoke recognition of shared experience but with a twist that reveals something more—perhaps something more sinister, more extreme, or even more pathetic. It has to grab people to arouse laughter. I employ a voice in my humor writing that is dangerously honest. She puts the elephant in the center of the room and decorates it with garlands of daisies and daggers. Through the process of creative expression, I am more able to accept my flaws and love myself just the way I am, which is all I have ever asked of those around me.

My ex-husband’s attempt to use the Match.com essay against me during the divorce was not the first or the last time I have been taken to task for the content of my writing. And I have no doubt that the last time will occur only after I stop writing all together. What I have to take away from this is that my writing must actually matter. People are paying attention. And there is something I am doing that is rattling the cage.

IMG_1992

bell hooks’ work is from her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work published by Holt and Company in 1999.

Adrienne Rich’s ideas about the intersection of writing and motherhood is from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” published in College English in 1972.

The excerpt From “On a Work Entitled Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is from “Lolita” on iBooks, Second Vintage International Edition published by Vintage Books. https://itun.es/us/FRlez.l

 

Pietà

It is that time of the school year when I pull into the parking lot and have to wipe my tears with a crumpled receipt from my purse because I ran out of tissues months ago. But we are not done. The finish line looms, and if I squint I can see my summer like a mirage in the distance. Maybe my post-semester oasis is a murky watering hole that I must share with a camel, or perhaps it is a spot next to a sparkling turquoise pool where I will tip my sunglasses down and stare up at a waiter in pressed white shorts to order a strawberry daiquiri. Whatever comes next, I know that right now I need to breathe deep and close my eyes and remember why I am still here. And get out of the car. And stop wearing mascara.

I wrote the following piece as a spoken word poem as part of a college-level English course and performed it alongside a group of students, who read their own inspired poems, in our school cafeteria.

*******************************

I never thought I would be a teacher, especially in a high school. But here I am. I walk in the building—the beat of my heels coming down the hall are like a drum roll. Then I step into class and start the show—a show that is attended by people who do not want to be here. They don’t throw tomatoes at me or march out in a calculated exodus, although that would at least show some effort, some slight turn away from apathy, but instead they look at their phones or whisper with each other while I stand before them and try to do my job.

But when I was in high school I did not want to be there either. I had better things to do, like smoking cigarettes in the parking lot or sitting in a booth across from my best friend at McDonalds eating French fries right out the bag and just talking, our words dancing back and forth across the table in a frenzy of laughter and Oh. My. Gods.

I skipped class, feeling the adrenaline as I made it past the gates at the end of the parking area, and then the rush of freedom as the high school—looming large at the top of the hill—faded in my rearview mirror. I remember being called to the office, the quiet of the halls amplifying the sound of my sneakers squeaking on the waxed floor. I turned the corner after entering the main office and saw my mother sitting in a chair across from the vice principal’s desk. Oh shit.

But then every once in awhile I forgot I hated to be in a classroom, I forgot about the cinder block walls. And the bells that told us when to move, like cattle from classroom to classroom. I had a humanities class and we looked at slides of artwork and architecture from a time when I pictured everyone wearing togas and eating giant turkey legs. Sometimes it drained the life from me, like when we had to learn about different types of columns. And the room was dark and perfect for sleeping. We didn’t have phones, so we had to find another way to show our disinterest, and to declare ourselves: Just not that into you. As someone who generally refuses to declare lines between generations, to call our antiquated ways superior, and as someone who has no interest in moving backwards and cannot seem to understand what hopes exists in Again, I take some pride in the fact that we were experts at apathy. We chose to be unconscious, faces on a hard desk, drool on the graphite marks from ancestral students leaving black shadows on our cheeks. No snap chat can compete with that level of indifference.

But then she talked about Michelangelo. He believed that his sculptures were already there. They were trapped in the marble and his job as the artist was to set them free. Then she showed the Pietà on the projector in the front of the classroom. Mary holding the limp body of Jesus, folds of fabric made from hard rock cascading down from her lap. The hair stood up on my arms. Jesus’s anklebone, the tendons in his legs, and that fabric all from a block of marble. He just got rid of the negative space.

And now I stand in front of a class of students five days a week and try to get them to lift their heads up and be amazed—to find their Pietà. I know that my job is to get rid of the negative space. Break down the walls they have been building since kindergarten, maybe even preschool, walls built with “I don’t want to be heres” and “When am I going to use thises?” All those years convincing them that school is not cool, hardening them and trapping them inside.

My chisel comes in the form of treating them like adults and letting them write about what they know, even if it is another story about dirt bikes or about the first time in the cab of his truck, and I write “TMI! TMI! TMI!” in the margins, but I know that while they were writing about that moment, they forgot they were doing an assignment. They forgot this was a have to. They forgot about commas and coordinating conjunctions and grade point averages.

And my chisel comes in the form of moving the desks around and making them get out of their seats. And giving them candy. And making them work with someone that they would not even say hello to in the hall, but in ten years when they see that same person in the grocery store standing in front of a wall of bagged lettuces, they will hug. My chisel comes in the form of making them believe that they can do this because writing is a skill and what one man can do, they can do even better.

My chisel comes in the form of letting down my own façade and letting them see my flaws. Letting them know that being 18 is actually much harder than being 40. That I know they are at a point when decisions about their future form a cloud above them that casts a shadow a mile wide. And that it gets better. That any mistake they can even imagine making, I have probably made it, and I am still here because I just keep showing up. My chisel comes in the form of teaching them that it is better to be rejected than to have regrets.

My chisel comes in the form of knowing that they are in there behind that stone wall, behind the faces turned down and looking at their game of Clash of Clans, and that sometimes if it is the right day and the right activity they will appear to me in the marble, faces lit by light bulbs above their heads, and they are present and beautiful like works of art.

IMG_1992

 

The Austin Chronicles

When I was twenty-three I packed all of my things into an Isuzu Rodeo and moved to Austin. My boyfriend at the time helped me pack. I did not know anyone out there, and I had never even been to Austin, but I needed a change. I found an apartment online and put down a deposit. At the last minute my mother decided to ride with me, which made me feel slightly less independent, like a petulant child who wants to run away to prove a point, but her mother insists on helping her load the car and then riding in the passenger seat.

We got to town at night, and as we drove in on Highway 290 and crested a hill, the city appeared like a lite-bright display sprawled across a black canvas. I spent the first few days getting settled. My apartment was in a central location near a mall and a home for the blind. I bought a bed at a Sam’s Club and blew up an inflatable chair for my living room. I put my mom on a Greyhound back to Florida and then meandered through Dillard’s department store on the way home from the station and was promptly hired to work in the bathing suit department. Maybe it was because I was from Florida. The job mainly sucked. Bathing suits are not meant to be on hangers.

I made some good friends working there, including one girl who would later become my roommate. I also worked with a bright girl from Egypt, who I made laugh, and a serious woman from Ethiopia, who I made nervous. Looking back, I should have taken the job more seriously when I was on a shift with that woman. She had people to support. I just used the paycheck to cover my bar tabs.

I was helpful to the customers to a point. One day a lady asked me if we had a size 8 in a particular suit and without moving from my spot at the cash register, I said that we did not have an 8. I have an excellent memory, which can sometimes get me in trouble. It is not a quality men are often looking for, as if what they want most is someone who makes them laugh, gives great blow jobs, and remembers every word they have ever told her. I worked in that swimsuit department at least five days a week, racking the same bathing suits. I knew every size and style we had.

“You didn’t even look,” she said.

“We don’t have an 8,” I repeated without looking up.

“You need to go look,” she repeated authoritatively.

I just stood there. “I am not going to do that,” I said. Inside I was shaking a little, but not from nervousness, from the thrill of what I thought was a win.

Eventually, I got a job as a file clerk in a law firm and then a position as a legal secretary for a little man who specialized in tax law. He had a group of clients who got in some trouble for embezzling money, and they were most likely going to jail. I delivered some documents to their office, where their equipment had been seized, and tables and chairs were in disarray. Loose cords were coming out from walls and surge protector strips and connected to nothing. Untapped power.

I hated the job. He was a person of exactness, numbers and legalities, and I was a person of rebellion, short skirts and two-hour lunches. I also had an attitude, and I did not pretend to like him or that I wanted to be there. My actions confused him; as a middle-aged, successful tax attorney he did not know how to handle my belligerence. Then one day he told me that I needed to take the back-up disks home with me each night because that would protect all of his files in case of a force majeure. I told him—laughing—that if the building burned down or was wiped away by a giant twister, then I would not be coming back. He fired me and put us both out of our misery.

Before moving to Austin, I was working for a law firm in Tallahassee and failing out of college. I was also in a Frankenstein-esque relationship that was consistently reborn as a more sinister version of itself each time we broke up and then somehow found ourselves having sex again on his couch. It seemed like my life in that space was unsalvageable and had become a dangerous and self-destructive piecemeal version of what it should be, and the best solution was to just give up and move to Texas.

I don’t regret the experience, but it was mostly, more than any other emotion, lonely. This city had so much to offer, and I tried not to let being alone keep me from doing things, like seeing shows or dining out, but sometimes it did—sometimes the town held untapped power because I lacked the crowd to experience it. I saw Lyle Lovett play with his large band at The Backyard, and I purchased my single seat in the middle of a long row. I bought a beer in a giant plastic cup and then made my way scooting sideways to my seat as people curled up their legs in succession like dominoes. Maybe nobody noticed, but I remember being somewhat self-conscious because what twenty-four-year-old woman goes to a show like that alone unless she is a reporter or a suicide bomber?

But the show was spectacular. The large band under the stars. I went back and saw Robert Earl Keen, but at least it was general admission, which made it easier to blend. I went to see Patty Griffin at a bar downtown, where she sang on stage with just an acoustic guitar, and I stood on the side stairs, as if I had just wandered through the crowd and landed there mesmerized. I went to a show after work one night at Antone’s with the alcoholic secretary from my office and went home with a guy who was going through a divorce. I see that now as foreshadowing.

His name was Rocky—maybe I do agree with Lee Gutkind that I cannot make this stuff up. He was the perfect metaphor for recently divorced/not really divorced guys everywhere. He adored me for about 48 hours. He took me out to a fancy dinner, and then we came back to my apartment, had sex, and I never heard from him again.

After my forced retirement from legal secretary work, I landed a good job, especially for a girl with no college degree and minimal work ethic, working for an insurance company in the human resources department. Then the company was bought by Allstate and dissolved. I was laid off, and I took it as a sign. A force majeure. I packed up all my stuff, and just like with any trip, the items never fit back into the suitcase the way they did on the way out there. I went home with more baggage.

When I got back to Tallahassee, I somehow talked my way into the creative writing program at Florida State. Yes, I had failed out of multiple schools and my GPA was well below average for acceptance as a transfer student, but I sit here before you and tell you my story, and I am not leaving until I am heard.

During the spring semester, I wrote a short story for a fiction workshop about a girl in her early twenties, living in Austin, working as a file clerk in a law firm. She was lonely and desperate, and the main qualities she looked for in a friend were a heartbeat and a shared enthusiasm for happy hour. She befriends a strange set of characters, including the alcoholic secretary from her office and a blind guy who was constantly starting bar fights while his Pit Bull guide dog sat on a barstool drinking directly out of a pint glass.

My fiction class hated it. During our workshop they commented that it seemed “Sad,” and I don’t think they meant in the sympathetic way, but more in the way that sad becomes a synonym for loser. They also had difficulty finding any significance to the story. One student, after a long explanation about why the story didn’t work, concluded, “I mean, who cares?”

I sat quietly, pretending to make notes on my draft. I knew the real reason the story didn’t work was because I was trying to pass off my nonfiction work in a fiction class. As if it never really happened. There is more that separates nonfiction from fiction than just facts. Taking ownership of events becomes the thread that holds the story together, and without that connection it is just a pile of words that you can sift through, letting the letters fall through your fingers into a pile of ash. The significance to the story was the twenty-eight-year-old undergraduate student sitting across the classroom nervously clicking her pen.

bench shot

We’re a Club in the Woods

I have partnered with wild animals and rocking musicians, Bears and Lions from Gainesville, Florida to tell the story of their journey from caged circus animals to leaders of the biggest club in the woods, where animals can live wild and free. Because who better to write a book for kids than me?

This video is their official submission to NPR’s tiny desk concert series. They are larger than life animals playing behind a tiny desk in a big field. Whoa! Was that a horse? Of course.

The following is an excerpt from the future bestseller and not-just-for-kids book, We’re a Club in the Woods. This chapter is about Jeremiah, the little old mule from West Virginia. He is one of many friends that Bear and Lion help along their way armed with only their magical suitcases full of cash and pancakes and the promise of living wild and free. You and me! The narrator is an alert little hummingbird who flutters around Bear and Lion, watching and taking note of their journeys and sometimes getting into the stash of maple syrup.

Jeremiah

I just went on and took the blame. Ain’t nobody gonna believe a little old mule from West Virginia. There wasn’t gonna be a jury of my peers. So I just up and left. The fire wasn’t even out yet. The wind blew that lantern and the whole place shot up in flames. The men up on the platform with their clean white collar shirts needed a scapegoat.

Instead they got ‘em a little old mule from West Virginia. I just had to be gone and out of sight. I didn’t look back. Nope. Not one time. The past is the past. I’m not stubborn. I just know what’s right. But I still carry the weight of this cart. Reminds me of where I come from. Lugging coal from the morning to the evening.

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog walked until night with sore paws and tender hooves. They devoured stacks of pancakes. They talked. They questioned. Someone barked. Someone said, “Hee-haw.”

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog stopped.

“Hee-haw.”

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog spun around. Standing on the path—just a little south—was a little old mule. Covered with soot. Cart strapped to his back. Stick of hay hanging out his mouth.

“Hey Bear,” said Lion.

“Hey Lion,” said Bear.

“Do you see that little old mule?” asked Lion.

“I think that is a horse,” said Bear.

“You must have on your bear goggles,” said Lion.

Bear looked again and there was a little old mule. Sure enough. Covered with soot. Cart strapped to his back. Stick of hay hanging out his mouth.

“Always got room for a few friends,” said Jeremiah the mule.

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog climbed into the cart. Bear gave Jeremiah a quadruple stack covered in molasses. Paws at rest. Hooves hanging off the back. Hooves going clickety-clack.

Animals out of their cages. Breaking the norm. Rolling on out.

 

hummingbird-153408_1280

 

If you want to read more, stay tuned! I will keep you updated about when you can bury your snout in a freshly printed copy. And look out for wild animals with guitars on their backs coming to a town near you. The smell of pancakes will be your first clue.