We Can Be Heroes


Yesterday morning, I woke in the pre-dawn with the song, “Heroes” inexplicably pinging through my head. All through my shampoo and conditioner, “Heroes.” Blow-dry: “Heroes.” My teenaged son called to me from the hallway. “Mom,” he said using a tone of voice that sounded urgent on the level of “Wolves have broken through the walls” to “What do you mean you didn’t wash my favorite hoodie?”

I stopped the blow-dryer. “What is it, honey?” I asked.
“Mom,” he said again. “Bowie died.”
It took a moment for it to register. It was that incomprehensible to me, like saying the sun had gone missing or there were no such things as hands anymore. When it finally registered, it registered as a punch. I ran to check the news feed, and there was the confirmation. And suddenly, Monday felt sideways and surreal. Wrong. And so very sad.

For as long as I could remember, Bowie had been a necessary part of my life. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Jareth the Goblin King. And those songs! They were songs that made it okay to be a freak, a weirdo, an outsider. Songs that seemed to recognize your loneliness, your yearning—the very unnameable searching of your soul. Underneath the experimentation, Bowie’s songs were achingly romantic. Songs in search of connection and, possibly, redemption but songs which seemed to accept that any answer would be ambiguous at best. Some of the songs snarled. Some howled. But all of them were vulnerable and true. They made it okay for us to be vulnerable and true, too. To feel that whatever strange creature lurked in the depths of you, it was okay to let it out to strut its hour upon the stage.

How could there be a world without a David Bowie in it?

I’m fourteen and listening to Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars through headphones in my cramped bedroom with the Sears butterfly bedspread and the wall full of preening peacock rock stars. Fourteen is a strange, lonely, and confusing place. I am suspended between worlds—woman/child, sex/fear, here/there, Wham-Bam-Thank You-Ma’am and Oh-No-Not-Me. Bowie gets it. Listening to “Space Oddity” is like jacking myself into a larger universe where a space alien love god rock star offers me a hand. “Welcome,” he says without speaking. “We’d better get you a proper hat.” I begin to fall in love with Bowie the changeling and his far-out magical kingdom. He is, if not a cure for loneliness, at least a validation that my inner turmoil, odd questions, and giddy, hopeful dreams are seen. I can feel them pulsing like a heartbeat through these hauntingly beautiful songs. And I know, there is Life on Mars.

It’s my best friend, Eleanor, who cements my Bowie love. She adores him, and we bond over our shared affection for Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Tim Curry. We spend our weekends dressing up and going to Rocky Horror {And she’s hooked to the silver screen}, even though we are underage by a mile. But listening to Bowie puts a swagger in our fledgling Rebel, Rebel steps. Makes us feel cool, though we are the farthest thing from cool there is. My hairdresser has cut my red-gold hair into an approximation of Bowie’s on the cover of Diamond Dogs, a haircut so awful on me that I wear a hat for three full months. In Eleanor’s room, where we reek of Love’s Baby Soft and Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, we spin records that seem to make it possible for us not to have to talk about our lives—her mother running off and abandoning her for a man she met in AA, my father, newly liberated and dancing with the men he’d wanted to love all along. The songs make everything okay, though. The songs see us. Love us. Even though the lyrics are fragmented and Dadaist, we get them in our guts where such understanding lives. We think Bowie is beautiful in a suit or a dress. We love the way his crazy, thrilling voice with its impossible range can be sexual and snarling one minute and yearning and soulful the next. Like it’s part earth, part space. Major Tom looking down on us from his unseen orbit. The Voice that Fell to Earth.

“Faaame, makes a man think things over,” we snarl into hairbrushes as we swipe her mother’s Avon lipstick, forgotten in a bathroom drawer, over mouths that hurt from holding so much back. Years later, we drive recklessly down country roads. We are joyful, feral things with the radio blasting. {“Turn and face the strange, Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!”} We stick our hands out car windows and let the wind bless our palms with hymns of freedom. We believe we can cup our unformed futures in our fists, squeeze them into shape, and toss them back out like youthful kisses. We are young. We believe they will be waiting for us at the next stop down the road. {Look at that sky, life’s begun/Nights are warm and the days are young.}

My brother and I are sitting in a cow pasture outside town. It’s cold. People who think it doesn’t get cold in Texas have never sat in a cow pasture on the plains of North Texas in January. My brother is home from college in Waco where he also works in a record store called Sgt. Pepper’s. He sends me all sorts of records—British imports, Stan Ridgeway, Brian Eno. Bowie. We’re parked across the road from a small airstrip. Occasionally, a toy-like aircraft wobbles down toward the bright white lights of the thin strip of runway. Behind me, an inquisitive cow pokes her wet nose through the fence. My brother and I smoke a joint and listen to music through his new Bose car speakers, which he has installed himself. “Ashes to Ashes” comes on, and my brother and I try to outdo each other with our best Bowie impersonations. {Ashes to ashes/funk to funky/we know Major Tom’s a junkie.} This is how we talk, my brother and I, in song lyrics. It is how we say, “I see you. Do you see me?” This is part of Bowie’s genius. He seems to say with a wink and a smile, “Yes, you can do this. You can be this. Whatever weird creature lives inside of you, let it out. I grant you permission.”

I don’t know what else my brother and I talk about—or don’t—on this night. We have our own Scary Monsters, each of us, and we’re not sharing. I only remember the music and the two of us watching the night sky blink with landing planes, and for a moment, we are close as close can be, bound together by strange, hopeful threads of lyric and melody spun by a magician Starman.

1983. New Orleans. I’m a raw, fragile thing. Nineteen years old with a face fucked-up by a car accident. If I’d felt slightly like a space alien before, I now feel solidly like a space alien freak. I’m a teenager walking the rain-slicked bricks of the French Quarter alone with a pocket full of Tarot-card luck. {Let’s Dance. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.} Bowie is everywhere. On MTV. Blasting out of tourist shops and Bourbon Street bars. Pulsing through speakers in the New Wave dance clubs where I want to stay on the floor till I’m sweaty and exhausted, till I might dance myself into someone who feels pretty. Someone tells me Bowie has a fake eye just like mine. No, I tell them. He just has a dilated pupil. Same difference, they say. {Oh Baby, just you shut your mouth.} But I like that Bowie and I share a weirdo eye. If he can make weirdo eye-ism cool, maybe there’s hope. Yeah. Maybe there’s hope.

A last memory. I see Bowie once in real life. It happens a few years ago, here in New York City. His daughter and my son attend the same middle school, and we parents have converged on an NYU concert hall for the kids’ spring concert. Afterward, as I wait in the lobby among streams of excited children while I search for my own, a strikingly beautiful couple comes around the corner. The inside of my head fights to make sense of it: There’s David Bowie and Iman. You are ten feet, nine feet, eight feet from David Bowie and Iman. It’s a bit like standing next to something too bright, a false intimacy created from all those years with all of those albums. I don’t want to stare, don’t want to be that person. We are all parents here. It’s sacred territory. And the truth is, I don’t know him. I only know the music. And really, what more do I need? So I turn my head, and they walk past, out into the gentle spring night of a New York that glows a little brighter for it. A city sprinkled with their stardust.

And then they are gone.

After I’d processed the news yesterday, I emailed Maureen Johnson, another Bowie mega-fan. “I feel like you’re the only other person I know who is as sad about this as I am,” I wrote. Within the hour, she had written back, “I’m weirdly not sad. It’s like he’s just so permanent that this is just something new he’s doing.”

It was perfectly Maureen and just plain perfect. Yes. Bowie the Artist will never go away as long as there are outsiders. Dreamers. Human yearning. Slightly lost teenage girls in bedrooms with headphones who rely on lyrics to speak for them. Last night, I sat with my husband, Barry, as our son, Josh, scrolled through his Facebook timeline reading tributes to Bowie from his rock camp friends. One, a diehard fan, had posted a profile pic of himself in full Aladdin Sane lightning bolt makeup. These teens, this whole new generation of Young Americans, feels just as connected to Bowie as I did. Well, ain’t that close to love?

We always have the music, and my God, what music: “Five Years.” “Sons of the Silent Age.” “Sound and Vision.” “Moonage Daydream.” “Silly Boy Blue.” “Heroes.” “The Man Who Sold the World.” All of it a visionary soundtrack of permission granted to dream big, to reach higher by digging deep down inside those unconscious, real places. Permission granted to be who you are and who you might yet become, forever and ever. Yes. You can do that. And that. And also that. We can be heroes.

David Bowie proved it.

* Monday evening, in a funk, I called my friends, pianist/singer-songwriter/musical director Bill Zeffiro, and recording engineer, Chip Fabrizi, two good friends with whom I often hang out and record music. I asked if maybe we could get together at PPI, Chip’s studio in Soho, just to sing a Bowie song. “Heroes” had been in my head all day, so that’s what we laid down. RIP, Mr. Jones. Thanks for the music. Here’s a little something back. *


The End of Innocence

Seven years ago, when my son was ten, he asked me to tell him the truth about Santa. It was a hard moment, and I was never quite sure if I’d done the right thing or not. That night seemed to capture all of my complicated feelings about Christmas, and I ended up writing this piece about it.

The Boy is A Man now, a high school senior long past caring about leaving carrots for reindeer and believing in magic. But I’m not sure I am.

Anyway, ’tis the season, and as I’m hauling out ornaments, I thought I’d pull this one out of the archives. 

(From December 4, 2008) 

I knew it would happen sometime. I told myself to prepare. After all, he’s ten now, I said as I hauled out the Christmas ornaments box. I told myself this, and yet, it still caught me off-guard.

Last night, as the boy and I were on the couch watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, he said, “Do you believe in Santa?”
My heart was way ahead of my brain and so it began to beat faster. “Yes. Well, I believe in the spirit of Santa,” I said, hedging.
“Me, too,” he said. And then, “But some of my friends told me there is no Santa. That it’s just your parents doing those things. K. caught his parents dressing up as Santa.”
“Mmmm. Well, what do you think?”
This has come up before, and each time, the boy worked it out in the rationalization dept. of his brain and said, “I don’t care what they say. I believe in Santa.”
But now he is ten. He sat straight up and looked me in the eyes. “Are you guys Santa? I’m asking.”
“You want to know about Santa?”
“Yes. I want you to tell me. I want to know.”
He wanted to know. Even though he didn’t want to know. And, coward that I am, I didn’t want to tell him.
“Yes,” I answered softly. “We are Santa.”
He blinked several times, a ploy to keep from crying, a ploy I understand well. “Okay,” he said.
“I’m sorry, buddy. I know you must be so disappointed and hurt.”
“No. I wanted to know. It’s okay.” He lay down with his head in my lap and pretended to watch TV. I saw him wipe away a tear. Two. I felt my heart splintering like thin ice, and then I was the one blinking at the ceiling.
“Oh, Boo,” I said.
He started to cry then, the way you cry when you find out something hard and true that you both want to know and don’t want to know at the same time. The way you cry when you discover that the world is a little less magical than you believed it to be.

When he was only a tiny nugget of boy, all pinkness and curls and vehement “no’s”, I debated about whether or not to go the Santa route. I wondered whether it was cruel to lie to your child, to set up expectations that you know will have to be dashed down the road. How can you establish trust when you lie about such a thing? My husband is Jewish and I left my own church years ago; I could have foregone Christmas altogether. And yet some part of me wanted to experience the magic again. So I did it, and I honestly don’t know if I made the right choice.

I have a complicated history with Christmas. I often say that it is my least favorite holiday. But I think that’s really a defense. I loved Christmas as a kid. My mother was all about Christmas. There were traditions: advent calendars, candlelight Christmas Eve services where my dad was the minister, Christmas carols sung around a piano, sugar cookies iced with colored frosting that tasted like a stick of sugared butter in your mouth, a taste so good it seemed only to exist at Christmastime. My mother and grandparents would wrap presents with coins or beads or some such so that when you shook the boxes, they would rattle and you would wonder what was inside. We made our own Christmas ornaments and hung them on the tree with little metal hooks. On Christmas Eve, I would peer out my window and stare at the sky, searching for signs of reindeer, fighting to stay awake because I just had to see for myself. And then, on Christmas morning, my parents would tell us to wait while they went downstairs and plugged in the Christmas lights. My older brother and I would nearly kill each other running down, and oh, the wonder of it. Rushing in to see what Santa had brought. (How did he get that puppet theatre in his sleigh? How big are those elves, anyway? Wow.) Pulling candy and trinkets out of a stocking. It was a marvel.

I was in sixth grade when my brother set me straight. “You’re such a moron. Don’t you know there is no Santa? It’s Mom and Dad. They buy the presents and put them out at night.”
“You’re lying.”
“I know where they hide them. When Mom goes grocery shopping, I’ll show you.”
Once my mom backed out of the driveway, he led me to the closet in my parents’ bathroom, grabbed a foot stool and reached up to the top shelf, pushing aside purses and crock pot boxes and other uninteresting adult paraphernalia to reveal the autoharp I’d asked Santa to bring me, plus a few other things from my list.
He smirked in triumph. “I told you.”
I felt a little sick. And on Christmas morning, when I saw those things under the tree, I didn’t have quite the same sense of joy. When my parents said, “Look what Santa brought,” I didn’t feel the same about them, either.

It’s never really the same after you find out the truth, is it? I can’t remember whether Christmas got less exciting after that because I stopped believing or if it was simply replaced by the other magical obsessions of adolescence—boys, cars, rock n roll, rebellion, freedom. By the time I was fourteen, my parents were divorced, my brother was leaving home, and I had discovered complicated family truths and thorny myths that made Santa seem like nothing. I grew up. I went away. My brother went away. My father died right before Christmas. Our family drifted apart. We no longer saw each other at Christmas or any other holiday, and I came to resent the Christmas season, to see it as a colossal pain in the neck and a reminder of loss.

And then came the boy. All those stirrings, those longings for closeness and traditions and that fragile belief in the magical that comes with a time limit, well, selfishly, I wanted it. Born a month before Christmas, he felt like a miracle—a gift I loved so much it was as if I had grown a second heart that beat only for him—and I believed in magic again. So I whispered the words in his ear, told him the tales, like a witch in a fairy tale, forgetting that the witch usually ends up ensnared in a cursed web of her own making.

Last night, once the truth was known, the questions came one after the other: “Do you fill the stockings? Do you eat the cookies and the carrots for the reindeer? Are you the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, too?”
Yes. Yes. Oh God, I’m sorry. Yes.
After he’d cried, and I’d used every bit of strength not to, and we’d talked, I told him the truest thing that I could, that I had debated whether or not I should have ever pretended there was a Santa Claus, that I wish I had been strong enough not to do it, but that, in the end, I couldn’t seem to let go of the tradition, but that maybe that had been cruel and I was sorry for it.
“No,” he said. “I liked it. Can we still do it?”
“If you’d like.”
A pause then. He squinted at me. It was a powerful, truth-ferreting-out squint.
“Are there any other lies you’ve told me?”
I swallowed hard. “None that I can think of just now.”
“I don’t like it when you lie to me. It makes me not trust you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be honest. And if it’s something I’m not ready to tell you yet, I’ll just say that.”
He nodded, thinking it over. “Okay.” Pause. “Well, I’ve told you some lies, too. Little ones.” He gave me an apologetic half-smile. “I mean, we’re just people. People do that.”

Yeah. Yeah, they do. Sometimes they do it to hurt. Sometimes to protect. And sometimes they do it because they want to stretch out the innocent enchantment of childhood, to pretend for a while that benevolent men in red suits leave presents as a token of goodwill, that fairies exist, that curses can be lifted and demons overcome, families cemented, hearts mended, that what you’ve lost can be brought back to you and reborn as new hope, new magic you pray will stick this time, even though you know it may not, and so you hold your child and your breath, make a wish and look to the sky for proof.


Holiday Letters We’d Like to See

Greetings, Everyone!

It’s holiday time in the McAllister-Johnson household and that means it’s time for our yearly catch-up letter. What an eventful year it was here at 2427 Whispering Streams Drive! We’ve got so many “likes” we could practically be a Facebook page!

Our Robbie, 16, mostly “likes” playing video games what with the whole ankle-bracelet monitor situation. He’s nearly finished all of his community service after this summer’s early experiments in arson, which were, according to his court-appointed, $175-an-hour shrink, an “expression of rage and hostility toward his oddly intrusive-yet-neglectful helicopter parents.” Thanks for that, Dr. Thomas. Merry Christmas to you, too.

Our Rachel, 14, gets plenty of “likes” on her YouTube channel, “Reasons I Hate My Family,” which has more than eight thousand subscribers. Many of those subscribers are our neighbors, so it’s a little annoying when I’m at the grocery store and Mary Peloski, the Amway lady from next door (I told you about her last year), smirks and says, “So, I hear you like your wine in the evenings?” Yes, Mary. I do. And if you had kids, you’d understand. Rachel also “likes” telling Mom how “freaking stupid you are—like you are literally making me want to join a convent so I don’t repeat your mistakes. Literally.” (Which, as a former Catholic, let me just say, good luck with that, sweetheart. Twelve years of parochial school makes Orange Is the New Black seem like the Hundred Acre Wood. Literally. I’m a survivor. I’ll just take your straightening iron; you won’t need it there.)

Our sensitive “Oops Baby,” Ruby, 9, “likes” to worry! Oh my goodness, the worries! She’s worried about school and cancer and heart-shaped buttons and the environment. In July, she accidentally stumbled upon one of Robbie’s many serial killer books (Why can’t this kid ever put his stuff away?). Now, she is convinced that we will all die at the hands of saw-wielding, nihilistic strangers in scarecrow hats who want to turn us all into skin lamps. We had to eat the cost of our circus tickets because: clowns. (And yes, Nosy Neighbor Mary, if you are even reading this, occasionally, Ruby’s worries lead me to the wine pantry. You listen to a 9-year-old whispering about The Man Who Takes our Livers While We Sleep for an hour straight and see if you don’t reach for some liquid sustenance.)

Good Old Dad/Husband Randy “likes” webcam services, though that pornography addiction is mostly in remission. Severe Carpal Tunnel will do that to a man. Since his “conscious uncoupling” last year from his corporate job with the good benefits, he’s gotten back to his punk-band roots and launched a start-up devoted to the making of rare, artisanal musical instruments. So if you know anybody who needs a $4,000 fruitwood hurdy-gurdy or a $5,000 lute with hand-tooled scenes from the Kama Sutra, let us know. For real—let us know. Insurance is expensive. And a fleet of therapists don’t pay for themselves.

Our beloved kitty, Mouser’s, “likes” are behind her now. This spring, we found her nestled deep in the crevice of the ancient pull-out sofa. At first, we thought it was one of those mummified things Robbie orders off the Internet from time to time, but, alas, no. You would not believe how fast a cat that big can decompose. Or how long it takes to get the smell out of your upholstery. We’d buy a new sofa but we’re still paying off Robbie’s lawyer. That kid better get into a decent college and study something like finance. Haha! Just kidding! We love our rascally little guy, and my Pinterest page—“Turning Robbie’s Room into My Dream Office”—should in no way be seen as anything other than whimsical fantasy.

Our intelligence-challenged dog, Mr. Wriggles, is still with us, though—ten years and going strong. He “likes” his new habit of dragging tampons out of the trash and scattering them all around the living room. Sometimes it looks like a menstrual party crime scene is what I’m saying here. The kids won’t bring their friends over anymore. Although that could be because of the lingering Mouser smell, even though we’ve bought enough scented candles to practically qualify as a Yankee Candle outlet. (Sometimes, I catch Robbie holding his hand over their flames, a strange light in his eyes. But there’s only so much worry I can take on.)

As for me, I “like” crafting. Yes, I’ve taken up knitting again! It’s such a joy to have something to do with my hands, especially when I’m feeling a little “amped.” I’ve made 48 sweaters, 8 pairs of gloves, 2 throws, and a scarf that never ends. Sometimes, in the early evening hours, I sit in the basement and scream into a paper bag as I ponder the godawful loneliness of the world, the terrible mistakes I’ve made as a human and a parent, and the breath-stealing knowledge that we all careen wildly toward a sucker-punch future whose only certainty is death, probably at the hands of an ax-wielding maniac dressed in a red rubber nose, if Ruby’s fears are well-founded. Then we all watch The Simpsons while following Reddit threads on our phones. It’s that commitment to family time that makes all the difference.

In the spirit of the season, we hope you will join us in supporting a rehabilitation habitat for reindeer rescued from various shopping mall North Pole Santa’s Village reenactments (Ruby’s idea). They have seen so much, you can tell. It’s there in the eyes. Except you shouldn’t look them in the eyes. It’s considered an act of aggression. And those fuckers are biters.

May your holidays be joyful and bright and filled with the love of family.

The McAllister-Johnsons: Randy, Roxanne, Robbie, Rachel, Ruby, Mr. Wriggles and Mouser (2001-2015).

An American Refrain

Like many people, I’ve been grappling with making sense of our current political landscape. What to say about the hate speech being spewed by the leading GOP candidate, the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee/anti-Muslim fervor he seems intent on whipping into an ugly frenzy—and the lack of strong rebuke from his fellow candidates? What to say about candidates for the office of President seriously entertaining the idea of barring people from entering our country because of their religion? Of turning their backs on refugees—many of them children—fleeing persecution?

It is deeply troubling that this is where we are. But it is also, sadly, where we have been so often. This is an old American refrain.

For the past several years, I’ve been deep in the research for the DIVINERS series. Often, I talk about the parallels between America of the 1920s and America today, things I have uncovered while digging into our past. Here’s the thing about research: It’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. One minute, you’re looking into the Patriot Act and it brings you to the Sedition Act of 1918 and finally to the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, which were a federal response to fears about anarchism, (a response rooted somewhat in fears about immigration), in which many innocent people, again, mostly immigrants, were targeted and deported.

If you look into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which sharply restricted Chinese immigration—an exclusion based on race and class—before banning Chinese immigration outright over the next twenty years, you then see how this one piece of terrible legislation snakes all the way up through the American Eugenics movement (a particularly nasty tide of American nativism disguised as pseudo-science that was a huge hit with a guy named Adolf Hitler decades later) and on to Virginia’s Racial “Integrity” Act of 1924 (quotes mine; I just can’t type that straight on), which prevented interracial marriage, a law not overturned until 1967 with Loving V. Virginia.

I write fiction, but I didn’t have to make any of this up. It’s all there in the history books, or not there, which is part of the problem—the SOMA-like amnesia of the American populace. Recently, Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia, in refusing to admit Syrian refugees to his state defended it as being similar to when “President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.” To be clear: the mayor of an American city talked about one of the ugliest episodes of American history, when Japanese-American citizens were placed in internment camps because of racism and political hysteria, as a good thing.

So when I hear people say, “Well, Trump’s just a buffoon. He’ll spin out eventually,” I feel a deep wave of fear wash over me. Because we have been here before, and the consequences were grave, the damage deep and lasting. Pay attention to what Trump is exposing about our nation: After his recent anti-Muslim statements, his poll numbers jumped eight points. With each outrageous comment, he is pulling up the soft, padded carpet of America and revealing its warped, rotting, termite-infested foundation. It was racism and fear-mongering in 1882 and 1892 and 1921 and 1942, etc.; it is racism and fear-mongering now.

The base of the Statue of Liberty is emblazoned with Emma Lazarus’ famous paean to America’s golden lamp lighting the way for the oppressed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” But the fine print of that message seems to read, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…except for you and you and you.”

So often lately, I wish that my father were still alive so that we could discuss all of this. I know he would be writing blistering op-eds and trying to figure out how to help this new wave of refugees. He died twenty years ago today. AIDS was listed as the cause of death, but make no mistake—it was discrimination that killed him, the hateful idea that AIDS was a gay disease well deserved by a marginalized group of citizens still being denied basic civil rights, and so the government could be slow to act. When the GOP deifies Ronald Reagan, I mostly remember that he did nothing about the AIDS crisis.

Just yesterday, Justice Antonin Scalia mused about ending Affirmative Action in a case before the court now, Fisher V. The University of Texas (my alma mater). To understand Affirmative Action is to understand that people of color have been disproportionately discriminated against in every aspect of American life since always. Affirmative Action, which has been around as long as I have, was an attempt to redress these centuries of discrimination. And, in fact, a report in the New York Times shows that in states where Affirmative Action has been banned, there has been a sharp decrease in the numbers of students of color enrolled in universities. But according to Scalia, “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well — as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well…One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them…”

Perhaps, like me, you need a moment to put your head back on your neck after it has exploded.

This is a racist statement from a justice on the highest court in our land. A man who earlier showed his contempt for marriage equality with a sneering dissent that likened the landmark decision to grant civil rights to American citizens as being as substantial as “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” I am reminded of another piece of recent research, another sneering Supreme Court Justice—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who, in deciding Buck V. Bell (1927), made the infamous statement, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Buck v. Bell granted states the right to surgically sterilize—against their consent—those American citizens they deemed “unfit.” Carrie Buck’s “crime”, by the way, was that she was considered “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” for having a child out of wedlock, like her mother. Carrie’s baby—baby!—was judged to be unfit as well, which gave rise to Justice Holmes’ statement. This was another piece of horrible legislation influenced by American eugenicists fanning anti-immigration fears of an “impure” gene pool.

Sometimes, Supreme Court justices aren’t so supreme is what I’m saying here.

We seem to be surprised by the right wing’s blatant bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, and hatred, and, in some corners, even entertained by Trump’s extreme fascism drag performance. The ugly truth is that America loves a bully. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Dick Cheney or Andrew Jackson, we love a swaggering cowboy spouting bad movie lines about mounting Biblical-styled crusades to crush our enemies real, imagined, and created. We make enemies of the poor, the asylum seekers, the immigrants trying to build a better life here, women, LGBT-rights advocates, and young African-American men buying Skittles or playing their car radios at a volume white America deems “too loud.” We allow politicians and radio pundits to turn real people—complicated and deserving of their humanity, people with bright futures and smiling high school graduation photos and families who love them—into easily demonized and dismissed cardboard cut-outs because it’s easier than fighting the amorphous enemy that is an amoral economic system run amok: Corporations who pollute the air and water, “downsize” at will, and skip out on taxes despite posting staggering profits. Actual villains created through deregulation and delusional greed, through the idea that we, too, can be millionaires or even billionaires like Trump, who, it must be said, came from money. We cling to our Horatio Alger self-made man stories like religious texts long out-of-date and out-of-touch when the truth is that it is the middle and working class who are the unsung heroes of American life. The teachers and firemen, the nurses and aides and managers, the bricklayers and steelworkers putting up the infrastructure of our lives, the parents getting their kids off to school before showing up to work long hours maybe even with a touch of a cold.

This commitment to fairness along with our diversity is our strength, has always been our strength. Not bombs. Not billionaire figureheads. Not closing our borders, our hearts, and our minds. America is not supposed to be a zero-sum game. A loss for one of us really is a loss for all of us. And the gains we make for others—in civil rights, in eradicating poverty, in educating ALL of our children, in building a safety net for those who need it most—really are gains for all.

There have been strides made in the past few years, of course. Marriage equality (Tough shit, Scalia) and We Need Diverse Books and Black Lives Matter and a new, more inclusive and intersectional wave of feminism all come to mind. These victories came courtesy of the people, by the people, for the people. It happened via Twitter and Facebook, through videos uploaded to the Internet for all to see so that it was harder for certain uncomfortable truths to be quite so easily dismissed. Turns out these are exactly the Droids we’re looking for. It happened through the linking of arms and marches in the streets, voices raised in a roar that could not be drowned out by Fox News anchors and pandering politicians eager to keep the lobby money rolling in.

It’s important that we do not stay silent and we do not ignore the lessons of history. For every history teacher out there trying to educate young people, thank you. For students at high schools like those in Jefferson County, Colorado, who held signs reading, “Teach us the truth” as they staged a walk-out rather than be condescended to with censored textbooks designed to promote “”patriotism and … the benefits of the free-enterprise system,” you are awesome. We, the people, must continue to educate ourselves so that we are not drawn in by Lonesome Rhodes-esque hate-rhetoric designed to stimulate the worst in us, instead of appeals to the strength that can be found in our collective compassion.

If you are a young person reading this: This is your future we’re talking about, from the real horrors of climate change to the consequences of war and intolerance and not understanding how interconnected all of this is. Read. Travel. Talk to people whose lives and beliefs are different from your own. Respect those differences. Develop diplomacy and accept compromise, which is not weakness but the way most things actually get done. Work toward fairness. Understand that you are a part of the world; the world is not only you. The greatest tribute you can pay to America and the ideals of fairness, equality, democracy is to make sure that system works for EVERYONE.

One of my strongest memories as an American is of July 20, 1969. I was five years old. The day had come up hot and clear in my south Texas neighborhood, a place that was home to citizens who had once been immigrants from Mexico, Poland, Germany, Ireland. My block was Tejano music and Grand Ole Opry. Republicans and Democrats. We were at war then, too, half a world away. Boys on my street served. And others protested the war. But for a few hours that evening, none of those differences mattered. Neighbors crowded around TV sets together. Food was served. It was a Sunday. My father had preached that morning at Woodlawn Presbyterian Church just as he always did. Tired, I crawled into his lap. He wrapped his arms around me. My mother and brother scooted in close. And we watched in awe as Neil Armstrong float-stepped onto the surface of the moon, an impossible journey made real. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said, and we all cheered as one.

And that is a lesson Mr. Trump and his supporters might do well to heed: Why should we crawl around in the mud and the muck when we are capable of reaching for the stars?


Dear Friends,
I’m thrilled to announce that today is the pub day for my sixth novel, WE ARE ALL STRANGERS HERE—a story about a dysfunctional southern family, addiction, pedophilia, cannibalism, and the last days of New Wave, interwoven with the lucid dreaming of Manuel, a Sandinista rebel facing execution in 1986. It’s difficult for me to be “sales-y,” but I’m immensely proud of the work, which took me five years to write, and I hope you’ll consider ordering a copy. Thanks so much.
:-) Emily

Dear Friends,
My publicist, Shana, tells me I should “take a more proactive role” in promoting the book. So, you can now follow me on Twitter @TheNovelNovelist. On Facebook: WeRAllStrange. Tumblr: Write2Live. Instagram: StrangerBook. (Warning: Lots of pictures of our cat dressed as Ian McKellen.) Working on getting a YouTube channel, which…anybody know anything about how to shoot, edit, and score videos? Call me! Also blogging for Huffpo, making lists for Buzzfeed, moderating at Reddit, GIF-ing at Giphy, and helming a new podcast, The Novel Life. Whew! Not sure when I’ll write the next book, but every little bit helps, they say.
Fingers crossed,

Dear Friends,
For those who were confused, yes, WE ARE ALL STRANGERS HERE is under my pseudonym, T. J. Barrow. My publisher thought a fresh start with a gender-neutral name was the way to get my underwhelming sales record back on track. Don’t want to have to resort to self-publishing. LOL!

Dear Friends,
I’m sorry for any offense my last email may have caused. I know many of you have self-published, which is totally a viable option. Mary, what you did to promote your adoption memoir, rolling naked in paint at Burning Man, selling it out of your trunk at Ren Faire while singing medieval doggerel? Well, that’s just heroic. I’ve downloaded your book as well as Dan’s poetry collection, SONGS OF MY PENIS & OTHER CELEBRATIONS; Tibi’s children’s book, WHY DO I HAVE A NAVEL? and Chris & Juniper’s spoken word collaboration, AWAKE. A WAKE. You are riding the wave of the future, friends, and I salute you. Mary, if you could see your way clear to taking down that flame war you started on my Facebook timeline, I’d appreciate it. My kids read that page. I’ve had to explain a lot.

Dear Friends,
Thanks to my new publicist, Tara (Shana left for a “quieter life” as a Navy Seal), I’ve got my first bookstore reading! This Saturday, 2:00 PM, I’ll be on a panel with local horticulturist, Sven Svensson (WHAT DO THE FLOWERS FEEL?), and former porn-set fluffier, Jeremy “Feather Touch” Dorado (STAYING UP). We’ll be reading and signing in the back of the store behind the story-time circle. Just follow the sound of the folk guitar and recorder. Trigger warning: clowns.
It’s Go-Time,

Dear Friends,
Thanks to both Charles and Lexie for coming to my reading. Lexie, again, I don’t set the retail price for the book. I know things are free on the Internet. Free doesn’t pay for a new transmission in the Toyota. Charles, I’m so glad you were able to find a copy of my third novel, FINGERS OF RAIN, at your church tag sale “for only a quarter.” Haha. Hard to believe I spent three goddamn years researching that thing on the Oregon Trail, pissing into a Coke bottle, and eating worms I dug out of the frozen earth. But really, just knowing the books find their way into that special reader’s hands and heart is what matters most. P.S. Anybody know anything about the side effects of Oxycontin? Asking for a friend.
Will also take Vicodin,

Dear Friends,
I’ll be doing a LiveStream Q & A this Monday morning at 10:00 a.m. I know it’s right smack in the middle of the workday, but it’s still great exposure according to my new, new publicist, Lana. (Tara had a breakdown? Something about lying in the fetal position under her desk surrounded by a stash of office Keurig cups.) Anyway, if you want to watch my Q&A later, just look under BARROW, T.J., and scroll through the first two hundred-forty videos till you get to mine. Hint: I am not the program about T.J. Barrow, the serial killer.
Comin’ at ya live,

Dear Friends,
I’m glad to hear you all enjoyed the serial killer video. I hear it’s been optioned for a movie. Asking again about painkillers. Who’s holding?
From a godless universe,

Dear Friends,
Good news! I’m going to be on “Maximum Novel!” with BookTube sensation, Mika XL. Don’t know if you’ve ever watched “Maximum Novel!” (links here and here) but it’s sort of a quasi-interview/Japanese game show format. I’ll be answering questions about my book’s themes of patriarchal corrosion, rampant consumerism, and the fraying of the American family while simultaneously being rotated on a wall-mounted wheel as guests pummel my body with a variety of (mostly) soft objects. Filling out the medical release form now.
Jesus Christ,

Dear Friends,
Thanks so much for your concern. The doctors think I’ll be back to normal in six weeks, and Mika XL’s lawyer sent the loveliest flowers. Bonus: Oxycontin.
This too shall pass,

Dear Friends,
News flash! I just found out I’ve got a corporate sponsorship opportunity? Colon Cleanse, Inc. is going to feature my book in their fall newsletter, which has a circulation of more than 10,000 dedicated readers. In exchange, I’ve agreed to let Colon Cleanse, Inc. simulcast my first colonoscopy in order to increase colon health awareness. Like my newest publicist, Mara, says: This is such a tremendous opportunity to remove a stigma and do some good for the world. It’s humbling to think that my little book could possibly save lives. #Grateful
Bottoms up,

Dear Friends,
Apparently, the colonoscopy found polyps? Anybody had these? Anyway, I’m supposed to follow a high-fiber diet and give up booze. Ha!
What the fuck,

Dear Friends,
WE ARE ALL STRANGERS HERE has been optioned for a TV show! It’ll mostly focus on Manuel, the Sandinista rebel, (now called “Manny” and played by one of those Dancing with the Stars people) and his band of vigilante superhero soldiers from the planet XTron who are actually rogue CIA astronauts sent to infiltrate the Communists and sabotage the Soviets. The studio is excited. Big merch opportunities. (Please see attached t-shirt design: “Time to Manny up.”) P.S. I have a new publicist. I don’t know her name.

Dear Friends,
For those of you who slammed my blog’s comments thread about the Manny Up shirts, re: “selling out,” “betraying all that is holy,” and “trading craft for whoredom”—here’s one for you: Ted lost his teaching job, and the ten-year-old needs braces because her teeth are so fucked up they literally can be seen from space. I am not kidding. Some asshole kids in her class Google mapped “Harper’s big-ass teeth,” screen capped it, and left it in her locker. The world is doomed and I don’t know why we bother creating art.

Dear Friends,
Full disclosure#: I aM drunk. Seriousley fuck8in drunk. Tomrrow: I will a!so be drunk. Friday: Still DRunk.
Oh…fuck it,

Dear Friends,
Don’t know if you saw the announcement in Variety, but serial killer T.J. Barrow just got a seven-figure, three-book deal, so I’m going to have to retire my nom de plume, which is fine, as the TV deal is off, my publisher has dropped the option for my next novel, and my agent ran off with my last publicist. Currently number eight on the wait list for a barista position at my local Starbucks. Out of Oxy.
Questioning all my life choices,

Dear Friends,
Great news! My publisher called back: Apparently, I’m an Internet sensation? The video of me falling off the wheel on Mika XL’s show went viral. Over two million views and climbing. They’ve asked me to write a book about it.
:-) Emily


I was sixteen and in love for the first time.

After months of heated groping, my high school boyfriend and I wanted to go all the way. If there was anything I was sure about at sixteen, it was that I had no desire to be a high school mom. That meant birth control. That meant the most effective birth control I could imagine, something so effective it seemed made of unicorn tears and elf magic, forged in the fires of Mordor, and brought to me on the back of an armored Griffin who also happened to know a lot about prophylactics. That meant the Holy Hand Grenade: The Pill.

But getting my teenaged hands on The Pill felt like a fantastical quest of Tolkien-like proportions: Where? How? With what magical aid?

Growing up in a small, conservative, Texas town, my options for sex education were limited. I sure as hell couldn’t go to my family doctor who’d been bandaging my boo-boos since I was ten. And while I had fairly liberal parents, my mother’s moral messaging about premarital sex had always been quite clear: You only have sex with your husband. Anything else is a sin. There was no way I could ask her about any of this. Plus, I’d had to quit my afterschool job due to track and cheerleading duties. I had no money. Even if I could find birth control, how could I possibly afford it?

There was only one place I could turn to for help: Planned Parenthood.

On a summer Saturday, I lied to my mother about going to the movies with my best friend and drove instead to Planned Parenthood, which was located, ironically, next to our town’s only Catholic church. I was nervous about being seen. Slut-shaming has been a thing since the dawn of time, and I feel reasonably sure that some of the first cave drawings were the equivalent of “Yo, Cro-Magnon Woman is Easy, Y’all!” beside a sketch of roaming buffalo and a large, squirting penis. This is what it is to walk around female—to feel always that your body is not quite your own. That it belongs to a system that alternately wants to desire and objectify it, to harm it, and to blame and shame it for being so desirable and objectified that it thus causes the state of wanting to harm, blame, and shame it. Lather, rinse, repeat. After driving around the block several times, I finally pulled into the lot, parked my car behind the cover of a dumpster, and went in.

Here’s what happened: A very nice lady welcomed me and explained that, in order to obtain birth control without parental consent, I would need a proper sex education course. This was not a drive-through; this was an five hours’ worth of classes. Nervously, I said “okay,” and signed the consent form.

That afternoon, I sat with a handful of other young women as we watched films about our bodies and how those bodies worked. I’m pretty sure we saw a film on birth, too, and I’m pretty sure I equated it to “Alien,” my only frame of reference then, and thought, “Oh, HELL’S no. Not up for that yet.” A nurse gave a seminar about reproduction, pregnancy, preventing pregnancy, STDs, and the various methods of birth control available to us, listing the pros and cons of each. I was given a full gynecological exam to make sure I was healthy, and I was informed of what this exam entailed and why. The nurse was gentle, informative, and reassuring. Then, I sat with another nurse who explained how my birth control pills worked, stressing the importance of taking them every day, letting me know that it would take a full month and another menstrual cycle before they were fully “operational.” There, in the privacy of her office, I could ask all sorts of questions without shame, questions about birth control, my body, and sex. Again, without shame or judgment, I could have those questions answered knowledgeably. I didn’t have to rely on sketchy second-hand information from a teen friend of a friend whose cousin’s older sister swore that if you douched with vinegar right after sex, you couldn’t get pregnant. (Spoiler alert: That’s bananas. Also, your lady parts will smell like an Olive Garden salad. Just sayin’.)

When I left, with five months’ worth of birth control pills in a brown bag, I was relieved and empowered. I felt like an adult—like a woman driving her own body for the first time. The choice was mine and mine alone. I was responsible for my choice and my body, and I liked that very much. I had gone in like a young Frodo and left like Gandalf. Boo-ya, bitches.

In the end, the choice I made was not to have sex. I wasn’t ready yet. And, in a way, those hours spent in the company of those wise women at Planned Parenthood helped me to understand that I wasn’t ready. I remain grateful for the invaluable information Planned Parenthood provided me as a young woman in need of answers about something as fundamental as her own body.

Today, and all days, I stand with Planned Parenthood. I stand FOR women’s health—for the health of ALL women, especially low-income and young women. I stand FOR women being able to be educated about their bodies, and their sexual and reproductive choices, in private, without fear of being shamed or traumatized or physically assaulted outside a clinic. But I especially stand for the idea of women owning their bodies. Of not being denied the choices that fall to men by default.

I stand with Planned Parenthood because, once upon a time when I needed it very much, they stood by me.