Are those your knees in my ass or are you just glad to see me?

A funny thing happened on the ride home from Manhattan yesterday. I got weirdly sexually harassed by a man and his overzealous knees. And I almost didn’t notice.

It was afternoon rush hour. I was overjoyed to have found a seat on the R train, also called the “Rarely” by New Yorkers due to its doddering pace and infrequency of service.

For those who don’t live in NYC, a brief but necessary primer about train configuration: The R is an older train, outfitted with a row of three, hideously orange seats against one side which sits perpendicular to an equally hideously orange two-seat row jammed against the window. This 3-2 configuration looks, coincidentally, like a lower-case letter “r.”

Okay. Now that you have the visual.

I was seated at the end of a three-seater, my right side to a dude seated who occupied the inside seat of a the two-seater, closest to the window. The real estate inside the train is tight. Your idea of personal space becomes very elastic when you live in a city of eight million people. Like I have ridden rush hour subways with strangers and felt afterwards that I’ve just experienced a 30-minute date.

That’s all prologue. So. Train starts up. I’m very into my playlist and the sweet, sweet digital cocaine that is my Solitaire game. I become aware at some point that Dude-to-My-Right’s knees are poking into the side of my ass. They weren’t before. Like, there had definitely been breathing space between us. But, look, I read a lot of superhero shit, and I know mutations can happen in an instant. It was possible he’d been bitten by a rare, height-inducing spider hiding in the window frame just waiting for its chance to begin the great spider overthrow of our species of which we’ve heard tell in legend, the one that will leave us all freakishly tall and unable to ride our puny trains anymore. So I shift my weight to the left and make room. Baby got back, but that back was 100% on the seat, not occupying no-man’s legroom in between us. Just so we’re clear.

I go back to listening to my music and working hard to beat my personal best of 92 moves. This is serious business. I am concentrating hard. I like it when the cards fall down in pretty rainbows of validation when I win. But, strangely, dude’s knees are back. Still, I’m only vaguely aware of this, because I am doing my thing, like fully formed humans with interior lives who just want to ride the train in peace and who are not looking for dudes to mess with them tend to do. I can only suppose that at some point, Mr. Jokes McKnees-A-Lot becomes frustrated with my lack of response/attention. And that’s when he amps up his game. I am now no longer able to escape the fact that he is vigorously rubbing his knees against the side of my ass, down my thigh, back up again, over and over, pushing a little harder each time. He is getting quite a workout. The side of my ass is getting quite a workout. Seriously, I got a spa massage not too long ago that was not this thorough. His knees are GOING TO TOWN on me. It is a rub festival.

Now, like many ladies who have lived life and experienced the things, like constant cultural denial of experience, the Obi-Wan Kenobi-ing of what our brains/eyes/ears tell us is going on, I slip into I Probably Got This Wrong mode. My mind wanders the aisle of Rationalizations R Us, taking shit off the shelves and dropping it into my Now Don’t Be Silly cart:

  • He can’t get comfortable in that small seat. There’s nowhere for his legs to fit. Except for deeply and aggressively embedded in the side of my ass. Repeatedly.
  • Hold on–what if he’s a massage therapist in training? Yes, yes, a non-conformist, Clint Eastwood-squinting-worthy anti-hero massage therapist no longer content to service his clients in the typical way. No! He’s all about the knees. It’s the start of a rubdown revolution. His shop will be called, “Healing Knee(d)s” or maybe “Let’s Knee-d It Out.”
  • He’s a new breed of jazz percussionist: the knee-marimba player, and the side of my ass and thigh, his femur-tastic voyage. I AM PART OF AN ART PROJECT. MY ASS IS THE FUTURE!
  • He really was bitten by a height-inducing spider. In a minute, his legs will shoot across to the other side of the train as he becomes our new arachnid-human overlord. Man. I really wish I’d had a chance to see Neko Case live before I became alien spider food.

Those eager knees go into overdrive. They hit eleven and set their sights on twelve. All I can think, as the skin of my thigh is abraded through my jeans is, “Goddamn, son, REALLY?”

And that’s when I know: Dude is not a new breed of massage therapist or an avant-garde knee-marimba player. He’s just a perv. Doing his pervy, uninvited thing. I abandon my shopping cart of rationalization right there in the aisle.

It made me think of this one time when I was taking my son, who was still a toddler, on Metro North to Westchester to visit a friend. After a brief, social pleasantries-with-strangers conversation, the guy in the seat opposite me also started in with a persistent leg seduction that I could not escape no matter how much I tried to move my extremities away. (Apparently, when I am harassed, it weirdly involves leg-to-leg contact. Like they all saw Harvey Keitel in “The Piano” too many times and decided they would be pretentiously arty in their uninvited lady-on-the-train rubbing. Is this a thing?) This is not to be confused with the time I turned a corner into the subway stairwell and was confronted by Masturbation Man which led to this awesome exchange with a cop:

COP: What did he look like? ME: To be honest, I didn’t see his face.

Anyway. Back on the R train, I have finally caught my snap about what’s going on with Knee-D’Oh (Who is not the chosen one…). But what he is doing is so awkward and bizarre and, well, absurd, that I do the only thing that comes to mind: I start laughing. Uncontrollably. I am just a giggling fiend. Those persistent knees suddenly freeze right in place. The rubbing and the contact ceases just as we hit my stop.

I exit the train, still laughing.

The whole walk home, I replay the exchange in my head with the requisite, “Wait…did that really happen? Was that what I think it was?” refrain. These are familiar questions. They’re the same ones I asked myself after my high school chemistry teacher got me alone in his back room and badgered me about my (non-existent) sex life and asked me if I’d ever had oral sex. It’s the same song I sang when another teacher told me my talent show dancing was “Very sexy; it turned on all the boys–it even turned me on. Would you like to choreograph something for me?” Or when an older man at the community theater rubbed his hand up the inside of my thigh while I was seated next to him, a signature move used on quite a few of the theater troupe’s teen girls. The same refrain when that swim coach at U.T. told me to hit the showers for my bronchitis then came into the shower and told me to take down my bathing suit top, etc. etc. “Wait, was that what I think it was?” is on the LP of Not-So-Greatest Ladies’ Hits, basically.

I thought about all the things I might’ve said to Knee Jerk if I’d been riding longer:

“Wait, you missed a spot. Lower, no, higher, a little to the left…”
“Hey, if I turn around can you get the other side? This right side’s played out, dude.”
“My turn to work on YOU! Okay if I use my nails?”
“Selfie time! Would you rather be tagged as Sir Fuckwit Asshat or UnwelcomeLadyPredator?”
“HEY, EVERYBODY! THIS GUY’S GIVING FREE ASS MASSAGES WITH HIS KNEES–WHO’S NEXT?”

But I had shit to do. So I moved on with my evening.

And though I’m sure it’s purely coincidental, I was up till 1:00 a.m. reading BITCH PLANET.

A Letter from Muffy Higginbottom

A LETTER FROM MUFFY HIGGINBOTTOM,
PRESIDENT OF DELTA SIGMA TAU,
ON THE OCCASION OF INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

Dear Sisters,

OMG, it’s finally International Women’s Day, y’all! Holla! I know we’ve all been prepping for this day for, like, FOREVER. (I’m looking at you, LaKeisha—that Mary Shelley cosplay is tight. I seriously did not know that you could embroider “Kicked Byron’s Ass” on a corset. Learning!) It’s kind of like the Olympics of Women only nobody gets a Wheaties box. Here at Delta Sigma Tau, we’d like to represent the American chapter of this special day.

So. First of all, thanks to Ashley, Ashley T., Ashleigh, Ashlee, and Tiff for the amazeballs house decorations. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg toilet tissue cover is so on point. This morning, when I was changing my tampon, I got a little misty just knowing that the most badass of the Supremes was watching over my taint and its repro rights with just the right expression of, “Don’t you even think of touching my Coke can, Clarence Thomas.” Serious Snaps, Decorating Team! Hashtag: Impressed.

Okay. I know we are all super stoked for tonight’s party. But first, let’s just DST-handle some housekeeping matters for this super-special day:

  • Delta Sigma Tau Witches for Equality—how’s that spell coming along? The one that turns the current American presidential candidates into ladies for a week? Holla if you can’t wait to watch Marco Rubio pregnant or Donald Trump passing a construction site in four-inch heels or Ted Cruz as an economically disadvantaged mother of three driving around for hundreds of miles trying to locate just one open Planned Parenthood clinic so she can find out if that weird pain down below is only a UTI or something worse, like cervical cancer, while Ben Carson keeps stopping the car at Exxon stations to pray to his dashboard Jesus in hopes of tithing the lady-hurt away. LOLZ! Anyway. Let me know if I need to make a stop for more candles, my sisters. Keep up the great work!
  • Delta Sigma Tau Goes to Hollywood! I know we’re all in the Bummer Tank™ about the dismal representation of women in the dazzling world of movie making. And look, I totally, to-tal-ly get why it would be easy to imagine space alien Westerns, comic book heroes & villains shaped like house plants or BDSM Hannibal Lecter cosplayers come to life, dream landscapes and animated cities that morph into other equally inventive landscapes on a dime, people being sucked into video games to battle the forces of evil, and the entire Tolkien catalog but not be able to fathom a world in which women play something other than hookers, moms, understanding wives and girlfriends, and strippers. And, like, it also totally makes sense that in the 87 years the Oscars have been around, only one woman has won a statuette for Best Director. I mean, blink and before we know it, another 87 years will FLY by, and it’ll be time for a lady to grab the gold once more! #Optimism. But just in case we want it to go a little quicker, please see our “Holly-Ain’t-Just-Wood Team”—Esther, Haruka, Jennifer and Jennifer—who are arranging a full-scale invasion of the Cinema Boys’ School via film school applications, mentorships, and solidarity. Our invasion doesn’t have lasers or asteroid monsters, but we can totally, totally imagine it. Complimentary film school baseball caps downstairs.
  • I’ve heard some grumbling about today’s Google logo: #OneDayIWill. Ladies, ladies, ladies. Come on, now. Nothing inspires like an ill-defined, quasi-Hallmark card-meets-Up With People video about a pie-in-the-sky future date when we’ll be recognized as humans who take up half the planet—especially when that video features ladies being all inspirational-dancey while shaky illustrations of what might be one day flicker and taunt above their heads just out of reach. Let’s not be haters, mmmkay? And as I understand it, the original logo—Pam Grier as a gun-toting Foxy Brown under the hashtag: #WhereAreMyFuckingEqualRightsBitch?—was still in development.
  • I seriously canNOT get over how cute our new Delta Sigma Tau Tasers are! The bedazzling must have taken hours! Snaps for our talented Taser Team—Abayomi, Maria, Esfir, and Oksana. For those who didn’t attend the “Ezekiel 25:17 Seminar,” here’s the drill: When someone talks over you or explains what you do back to you as if you aren’t currently double majoring in Economics and Poli Sci or plays “Blurred Lines” on a date, you know what to do. #Squadgoals.
  • Um, Beyoncé. Thank you, Lady Jesus. That is all.
  • Our “Slut—Say, What?” Squad has been CRAZY hard at work. I swear, Bonita, J.R., and Huifang—you never sleep! Granted, it’s a little like playing Sexual Agency Whack-A-Mole, trying to take on The. Ways. that we’re shamed just for walking around in these particular meat sacks, but y’all have the energy of 12 Red Bulls! Anyhoo. You can pick up your “My Lady Business Is None of Yours” tee-shirts on the dining room table beside the Janet Mock-Rachel Maddow-Malala Yousafzai-Nicki Minaj centerpiece for tonight’s party. (Thanks, Ryan! You have achieved greatness with a glue gun.) Oh, and Sarah, fer sure take one of those tees to your judgy mom. Telling you that “Nice girls don’t show cleavage or they’re just asking for it” is super retro-hater. It’s 2016, Mrs. Lewis. Seriously, WTF?
  • Moving on. Glossaries! I know there’s some “wiggley-room” about what certain words or phrases mean when they’re applied to women and this has everybody all confused. Well, we at Delta Sigma Tau are nothing if not helpful. Right, Sisters? Can I get some snaps a-going? With the photocopying help of the awesome David at Kinko’s—What up, David? You rock!—we’ve put together a “No. Actually, Here’s What That Really Means; We Are Not Shitting You” glossary which we aim to put in doctor’s offices, schools, newsrooms, media centers, film studios, even hotel rooms in place of that pesky document that often gets misinterpreted to our disadvantage. Sample NAHWTRMWANSY glossary entries include: “Bossy/Aggressive/Bitchy” = “Stay in your lane or we’ll shame you some more.” “Angry woman” = “Has both brain and mouth” “This is for your protection” = “Oppression.” “It’s just common sense” = “Oppression.” “I don’t think you understand” = “Oppression. Also: asshole.” “Calm down” = “Shit. She might be winning this argument.” “Are you on the rag?” = “Here is my friend, Mr. Taser.”

Now, I’ve heard some grumbling about how today is “only one day out of, like, 365,” and “While the nod is nice, maybe we could trade in a celebratory but relatively empty Twitter hashtag for, like, real progress: reproductive rights protections, passage of equal rights legislation, closing the pay gap, better childcare and family leave policies, stronger litigation against gender-based violence, reducing gender-based poverty and homelessness, ending female genital mutilation, more and diverse representation in politics/government/film/music/sports/business/Fortune 500 top management/the world, period.”

Okay. I hear you. But I think you’re forgetting that International Women’s Day comes just once a year, y’all! It’s like Christmas–but without any merchandising might or economic power! Like, you guys, this will all be forgotten by tomorrow, and we’ll be back to square one again. So let’s break out those dance moves and party, mmmkay? (Just remember that no matter how you dance, even if there are little illustrated squiggles of lady astronauts and soccer players above your heads, somebody will post a comment somewhere saying that you gave them a boner and you should be ashamed. Mrs. Lewis, I’m still looking at you.)

Oh, and it should go without saying, my sisters: You better fucking vote like your lives depend on it. Because they do.

Clear eyes, full hearts, tasers on stun, can’t lose.

See you at the kegger. I’ll be the one in the push-up bra and Sleater-Kinney jacket. Later, y’all!

Your President (maybe for real one day),
Muffy❤

IN SUPPORT OF ELLEN OH

I’ve been largely off social media lately. It’s not unusual for me to go underground for periods of time to deal with work and/or life stuff. But as I was underground this week, I missed Ellen Oh’s very important post on diversity, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and about white authors writing POC.

I’m reposting Ellen’s blog here so you can read it if you haven’t already: http://elloellenoh.tumblr.com/post/139448275729/dear-white-writers

It’s a great post, thoughtful and thought-provoking as are all of Ellen’s posts. But there were some who felt angry and slighted by Ellen’s words, who took offense and interpreted her words as saying that white authors cannot and/or should not write diverse characters. Some attacked her. Some sent vile hate mail. To this, I would say, please reread Ellen’s post as well as the reprint of Jacqueline Woodson’s important speech from 1998 (Yes—1998) that Ellen cites. Read their words carefully and live with them for a few days. Also, do not send hate mail. That shit’s not okay. Period. It takes an extraordinary amount of strength to stand your ground in the face of such hostility, but Ellen does.

I’m not speaking for anyone but myself here. So my interpretation of Ellen’s words is as follows: She’s not saying that white writers can’t write characters of color, but she is asking us as white writers to take responsibility, to ask ourselves very honestly why we are writing those particular characters and then to do the work necessary to make those characters real people rather than diversity placards. Because truth: It is infinitely harder for the creative work of POC to be heard/seen/recognized in the marketplace, and white writers get swag bags of advantages and passes they aren’t even aware of. Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay and Lee Daniels have to jump through a whole lot more hoops to get their movies made than white filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino do when covering the same material. A white filmmaker writing about black lives has an easier time of securing funding for his film than actual black writer-directors writing about the same material. Just…take a moment with that. So if, as white writers, we are taking up one of the coveted, few spots at the publishing table for books about POC and A) we’re not POC and B) we do it wrong? Well, that’s doubly galling—and gutting.

This is why We Need Diverse Books isn’t “Diverse Books Would Be Swell When You Can Get Around to It.” No. It’s Need for a reason. We Need Diverse Books told by diverse voices. If you haven’t done so already, please watch this powerful TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about “The Danger of the Single Story.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg This is about access and representation, two avenues that have often been denied writers of color. (I am exclusively focusing on writers of color for this post, though I am not denying that other voices have been marginalized as well.)

As you probably know at this point, Lee & Low’s Diversity in Publishing report came out a few weeks ago. The numbers were sobering: Publishing is overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, cis, female (interesting), and straight. (Wait, what? Really?) Here’s the link to the report: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/ It highlights in cold, hard facts the challenges at hand and how much needs to change to make publishing more representative of the actual world. And, of course, when you have such an overwhelming cultural hegemony, the default is toward that cultural hegemony. It’s a giant blind spot of a system. Before there can be real and lasting change to that system, there has to be dead-honest dialogue about uncomfortable truths.

This is what Ellen is trying to bring about: hard, honest, uncomfortable conversation. Again: No one’s saying that as writers we can’t write about whatever we feel deep inside and go wherever our imaginations take us. That’s our job. But it’s also our job to do it right. And, I would argue, that as story tellers, i.e., truth tellers, it’s important for us to acknowledge that the world in which we operate advantages us and prioritizes our stories and voices over those of POC.

I’m going to beg your patience with a personal story. When I was a child, my father was the minister of Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was the late 1960/early 1970s, another time of change, another election cycle, another war being fought half a world away. “And so it goes.” During my childhood, we boycotted grapes in support of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement and we boycotted Nestle when the company aggressively marketed their baby formula over breast milk to mothers in underdeveloped countries resulting in many infant deaths. My mother explained that we wouldn’t be having grapes or Nestlé’s chocolate chips because we were supporting people who were brave enough to make a stand, and it was going to take all of us, united, to bring about lasting change. I was trying to understand, but I was a kid, and my argument boiled down to “But chocolate chip cookies and grapes taste good!” My mother’s argument was, basically: “Yes. Still.”

“Still.” Acknowledgement.

Our church was representative of the changes happening in the world. It was diverse, eclectic, sometimes contentious. One of the wealthier parishioners was an elderly white woman named Miss Julia. As such, she was used to walking through life with a fair amount of entitlement and deference. She was also the old guard staunchly holding on to her bigoted beliefs. (To be clear: There were plenty of awesome old ladies in our church—fierce wearers of hats and dispensers of love and “You better straighten up and fly right” justice.) During a Bible study session, Miss Julia told a story in which she repeatedly used the N-word. My father interrupted her and gently explained that the word was as offensive and hurtful as she might find a four-letter word to be. Miss Julia was unbowed. She continued her story, doubling down on the word, because, in her mind, she “didn’t mean it like that.” To her, the word wasn’t a problem, therefore, how could it be considered hurtful by anyone else? In her mind, she had a right to use that word and, after all, no one had called her on it before. But again, my father stopped her. “I’m going to have to ask you again not to use that word, Miss Julia.” The air was charged. Miss Julia seemed to feel that my father was trying to control her, to deny her. She glared at him. “So this old {N-word}…” she said, to which my father shot back, “No shit?” That probably wasn’t the pastorly response one expected in 1968 in Texas, but you know what? Miss Julia never used that word in church again.

The point of these stories, and thank you for indulging me, is that A) as white people, we take for granted that we have largesse in our story telling, largesse not granted to writers of color. And because we “don’t mean it like that,” we think that’s enough, even if somebody else points out, “Hey, that hurts.” And B) My mom was right: It takes all of us to make change happen. If we don’t acknowledge the problem and support the change, we risk being the obstructionist force to change.

I am consciously using “we” here and not “you.” It’s very easy to slip into wily semantic defenses. It would be easy to separate myself from the problem instead of doing the hard work of looking inside and asking, “How am I a part of the problem? How can I change?” I’m asking myself that a lot. And I don’t want to give myself a hall pass.

Often when I read the comments section of an article about better representation across all mediums, what comes through is this vague, almost schoolyard notion of forced loss, of theft, even. The mistaken idea that when marginalized people demand their full humanity—whether that is civil rights or gender parity or the use of the pronoun that corresponds to their identity or writers of color wanting to tell THEIR stories in THEIR voices and have those stories be every bit as recognized as the stories white writers get to tell simply because we are white—it’s somehow internalized by many in the dominant culture as “Hold on! You’re taking away my right to X, Y, Z!” Playing into that knee-jerk feeling of loss is a tactic being exploited by the front-runner candidate for the GOP right now; it’s lowest common denominator stuff—and, unfortunately, it’s working. This zero sum game argument is also not true. I could get into a philosophical argument about how absolutely nothing in this life belongs to or is guaranteed us. But I will say that there are two things that are ours and ours alone and we have absolute control over them: Our humanity and our consciousness. We can choose to think and feel and reason. We can use these exceptional powers to explore and examine our motivations and actions—“The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates would say. We can use them to connect to and empathize with others. And in connecting to and empathizing with others, we are brought face-to-face with unavoidable issues of social justice. To see is to know; to know is to change.

You know what helps with that? Books. Books written by myriad voices about experiences lived from the inside out so that when we read those stories, we can walk in another person’s shoes. Books help us push against the walls of ourselves and expand. And so, again, if those myriad voices can’t get in to tell those stories, if no one gets to hear them, we go back to the bubble of the blind spot. To the Matrix.

This is, again, why voices like Ellen’s are so important; they keep us from avoiding the tough stuff and defaulting to the bubble.

In these conversations, Ellen and Daniel José Older and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (among many other voices) are talking about nothing less than complete Thought Revolution. About the Neo-like overhaul of the way we see and move in the world. About dismantling a bad system that spews noxious fumes and only works for about one-third of the population and replacing it with a new, more inclusive, sleek egalitarian one that works for the whole damn building. They’re talking the active shaping of the hopeful future. In the immortal words of Funkadelic, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” (Can you get to that?)

Sometimes, I am uncertain about the best way to be an ally in this work. My feeling has been that I didn’t want to take up space at a podium, virtual or literal, that should be occupied by a POC. If anything, I have seen my role as being there on the assist, not the slam-dunk. To stand in solidarity with my friends and hand over a bottle of water if they’re thirsty so that they can keep right on talking. Sometimes, though, it’s important to be vocal, and this is one of those times.

Mostly, though, what I’m doing is reading and listening to people who make me think, question, and change. Taking a cue from the awesome Shannon Hale who tweeted about this as well, I’m also happy to list some of those paradigm-shifting people: Daniel José Older, Alyssa Wong, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sunil Patel, Debbie Reese, Mike Jung, Jenn Baker, Mikki Kendall, NasB, Roxanne Gay, Alexander Chee, Kaye M., Malinda Lo, Jay Smooth, and Bree Newsome, to name but a few.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Toni Morrison speak at Beth Elohim congregation here in Brooklyn. I’m not sure I can do justice to the feeling of sitting in that beautiful synagogue hearing one of our greatest living novelists speak about story and the craft of writing and of the importance of telling it true, but I can say that her presence filled that space and then some. The last question of the evening was this: “What have you learned from your female characters?” Ms. Morrison took a breath and replied, “Sovereignty.” Again, I cannot do justice to the slow taffy pull of that word delivered with the gravitas of 84 years of living in a world whose very machinery is set up to be a Decepticon-like roadblock to your humanity, but try to feel that word inside you ringing like a bell: Sovereignty.

To me, this is what Ellen Oh is saying, what Jacqueline Woodson is saying: To be denied your voice, your story, is to be denied your sovereignty. And right now, the system is set up to deny writers of color their sovereignty while granting us as white writers that sovereignty over fictional lives that we have borrowed and have not always earned. And so we must do the work.

I would argue that “doing the work” in our stories goes hand-in-hand with “living the work” in our lives—diversity not as something we’re scurrying to add to our books like a new ingredient or trend, but diversity as a reflection of the integrated lives we are leading day-in, day-out. This is about being better writers and better humans. It’s up to us to change, and change is hard. Since children, we’ve internalized change, even good and necessary change, with fear: “I want to grab the next rung on the ladder. But this is the rung I know, the one I’ve grown accustomed to. I’m too scared to let go.” And yet, we all know deep down that we must let go of that old rung if we’re going to grab for the new one. And you know what? That new rung is better. It’s stronger and sturdier. It doesn’t drop a good portion of the population into the crevasse below. And it leads up.

I’ve pretty much played out my ladder metaphor here, so I’ll move on.

Some might point out, “Well, of course you’re saying nice things about Ellen. She just said nice things about your work.” Yes, she did, and I’m honored. But here’s the thing: I have fucked up before. I have gotten it very wrong. And when I did, people I respect and trust as well as complete strangers who cared came up and told me how and why I had gotten it wrong. Some were angry and hurt and told me so. Did I feel ashamed and embarrassed and like an ignorant racist asshole? Absolutely. But to stay in those feelings or to seek reassurance for those uncomfortable feelings from the people I had offended is not to move on and up. It’s to live in denial. And so I had to do whatever I needed to do to let go of that faulty rung so I could reach up, so I could learn and grow and do better work—be better. Those friends and strangers set me on a path with a lantern, but they expected me to use that lantern to light my own way. To educate myself. And I’m trying. Every day, I’m taking that opportunity to listen, to read, to think, to learn, to change on the inside—and then, most importantly, to support meaningful change on the outside.

My interpretation of what was said to me then and of what is being said now by Ellen and so many others is this: “I respect you enough to know that you want to get this right and I believe that you can. I see you as a grown-ass woman capable of change and not a fragile house plant that keeps looking to me for more water when you’re already outside in the rain and I have got more important things to do.”

I’m really, really interested in being a grown-ass woman. And not just for the shoes.

Awe-inspiring change is happening. It. Is. Happening. And it’s happening because of the courageous, amazing refusal of POC to let the conversation be nodded at politely and patted on the head and placated with a slim lollipop of representation with the idea that the whole “diversity trend” will eventually go away and everything will slide back into business as usual. Because that’s what it takes to make real change: hardcore vigilance. It also takes a shit-ton of support.

“Still.”

I am grateful for the continued courage, work, and words of Ellen Oh. I support her. I want to make sure she’s got a water bottle at the podium and that her mic is at exactly the right height.

And then I’m stepping back to listen to what she has to say.

We Can Be Heroes

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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?

GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM
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.

TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE
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.}

DRIVE-IN SATURDAY
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.

WHO CAN I BE NOW?
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.

SPEED OF LIFE
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.

WE CAN BE HEROES
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.

Fondly,
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?