WONDERLAND

For Gay Pride, 2016

I was fourteen when my dad came out on a cold winter day in January, 1979.

My father, mother, older brother, and I gathered in our decidedly 1970s living room with its unfortunate avocado-and-brown plaid couches while my parents announced, tearfully, that they were divorcing. The couches alone would have been reason enough to leave. I won’t even get into the wall-to-wall carpeting. Then my father dropped his bombshell: “I am a homosexual.” And just like that, my world was divided into a “before” and “after.”

I say my father came out, though, technically, it was only to us and it was with the fearful edict that we couldn’t tell anyone else that my father was gay. This portion of himself, of us, had to remain a secret for safety’s sake. My father worked in the church. He would lose his job if his orientation were known. Or worse could happen. The “worse could happen” wasn’t filled in for us, but we were old enough to extrapolate.

It was the first time I understood what being closeted meant, what it cost. It was also the first time I understood that to be LGBTQ meant also to feel fundamentally unsafe in the larger, hostile world.

Back then, as a young teenager in the pre-rainbow flag, “Modern Family” days, I didn’t really know what being gay was beyond some theoretical category that belonged to other people—people who were not my father. Now, I was looking for an education. The few (possibly, vaguely) LGBTQ characters I’d encountered in books often met horrible ends. It seemed there was no safety in fiction. For a nanosecond, there was a gay character on TV: Billy Crystal as “Soap’s” Jodie Dallas. But most of the series saw him falling in love with women or living an asexual life, so, yeah. Problematic, as they say. The message to me? A gay man isn’t safe enough for TV, and TV is no safe place for anyone LGBTQ.

A few months prior to my father’s coming out, the openly gay civil rights leader and city supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated in his San Francisco office. P.S. You’re not safe at work. My father had been dishonorably discharged from the army after serving in Korea because he was caught kissing a man. He was not safe from his own side in the military. As the editor of the Presbyterian newspaper for the Synod (governing body) of the Sun, my father wrote impassioned, often fiery editorials about social issues. He was not short of courage when it came to his opinions. But he could not be an openly gay man around his colleagues. People he worked with. People he loved and cared about who, presumably (and demonstrably), cared about him. People who worked within the church who also cared about civil rights and social justice. People who, if they’d known his status, would’ve fired him.

He had precedent for that fear. When he was the minister of Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, he’d confided in his pastoral counselor, and that man, in turn, ratted him out to the Session. My father was not safe with a man who claimed to be his safe place, though, fortunately, he was supported by the the lovely and loving people of that church. (Woodlawn, by coincidence, was started by a minister named Marshall Herff Applewhite, Sr., whose son, a closeted, tormented man named Herff Applewhite, Jr. went on to lead the suicide cult, Heaven’s Gate, to their Nike-clad deaths. In case you were wondering what a lifetime of self-loathing and feeling unsafe can do to a fragile, deeply conflicted person.) And how did my father come to that January morning confession to us all? He had been arrested by an undercover cop in Dallas in what we would now call entrapment. He got arrested for being gay. He got arrested for being.

No safety.

By the time I was in high school, my dad lived in Dallas with his boyfriend, John, in their condo—a word that seemed exciting and exotic to me—a place with a community pool, a VHS player, and two glorious ferns worthy of their own reality show. John owned some apartments in Oak Lawn, the heart of Gay Dallas, and often, the three of us would go walking around that neighborhood together. I learned so much it was like having new eyes every time. I learned about drag. I learned covert slang and wink-and-grin trash talk that made me feel training-wheels transgressive. I learned that the Turtle Creek Chorale was basically a gay men’s chorus in all but name. (Names—not safe.) One of my dad’s friends, a makeup artist at Neiman’s, taught me how to properly contour. Another of his lesbian friends and I discussed running track. At parties in their home, I saw LGBTQ couples hold hands and hug for the first time. I saw them gently touching partners’ backs and asking if he or she needed anything from the kitchen. I accidentally spied my father and John kissing. I understood my father to be human and sexual. Oak Lawn was the first place I remember as being a relatively “safe place” for my father, my stepfather, and, by extension, me. I came to know it as a place where truths were known and there was no performance to give. No cover needed. Once, we went to clean out one of John’s rental apartments that had been vacated. As we did the walk-through of the tiny space, I imagined myself moving in. I imagined living there in the small, beating heart of a place where it seemed okay to be fully yourself. Sitting in those Oak Lawn restaurants, my dad and I shared a joke based on an old “Shoe” cartoon. When a particularly handsome man walked past, one of us would raise an eyebrow, grin and say, “I’ll flip you for him,” and the other would answer, “No thanks. My back still hurts from the last time.”

To me, it was Wonderland. In Wonderland, we were looser. Happier. Freer.

I was a teen girl who often felt as if she were not enough. I feared judgment because I was already so self-critical. It didn’t always feel safe inside my own mind which was restless and full of yearning and dreams and aching vulnerabilities. I was a teenager in full. Many of the people my father knew, the people I met, had been rejected by families, communities, employers, hometowns, and religions. John had come out to his family, and his ex-wife had barred him from ever seeing their three daughters. She’d had no trouble legally cutting off his contact. I cannot imagine how painful it must have been for him to be Extra Dad to my brother and me, seeing in us, as he must have, what could not be with his own children. Finding no safe haven, the members of my father and stepfather’s community founded their own. And ironically, among men and women who had experienced such a lack of security, I felt loved and accepted. I felt safe.

It was a feeling I took with me when I moved to Austin years later. There, for a time, I lived with my best gay buds, Ed and Norbert. We threw elaborate parties and sang along to Grace Jones and quoted “Highlander” to each other. It was a more liberal environment than my hometown had been. I worked in an Austin café with an openly gay woman, Brenda. She and her girlfriend Elizabeth helped me move, hauling my vintage 1930s dresser with the giant, moon-shaped mirror onto the back of their pick-up not just once, but twice. We drank beer and smoked cigarettes on the tailgate of that same truck under Texas stars and traded jokes over large plastic tubs of shredded cheese in the café’s summer- sun bright kitchen. When I’d get dressed up for a night out, Bren would whistle appreciatively and call me “Baby Bonnie Raitt.” When she and Elizabeth broke up, Brenda cried on my shoulder. We were all young and figuring shit out. We gave each other safe passage to do so.

Still. There were touches of danger, even in Austin. When our landlord stopped by, Ed and I had to pretend that we were engaged, and Norbert made himself scarce. Lined up outside The Boathouse, Austin’s preeminent gay club, you learned to look past the occasional scowls and disapproving stares of the people passing by. There was sometimes a sense that you could be one drunken frat boy away from violence. But inside? Oh, shit, man. It was on. You could wear feathers and glitter, duct-taped clothing, skater kid regalia, preppy-to-the-hilt or B-52’s-worthy, vintage 1950’s housewife dresses (Hi.), your hair gelled into elaborate systems of self-expression. Twirling under those lights, with Tears for Fears or Flock of Seagulls blaring through the speakers, we were beyond: Beyond gender, beyond judgment. We were becoming. We simply were. It was home and we were safe within its walls.

And then AIDS hit, our safety snatched away, and I learned just how fragile that freedom was. People were dying from this terrifying epidemic, and instead of getting help, they were being attacked and blamed for it. Suddenly, if you were LGBTQ, it wasn’t even safe to get sick. The community created its own safe spaces—Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP, God’s Love We Deliver. It fought back: We will not let you kill us with your indifference or hate. When I was fourteen, I was told there was safety in silence. ACT UP’s motto, “Silence = Death,” became the new war cry. There’s safety in numbers. There’s safety in being loud and visible. In refusing to go away, in refusing to die quietly.

For my father, there was no safety from AIDS. He’d hidden his status from us for six years. Six. Years. For three months, my brother and I watched him waste away to a husk of himself. But there was “family”—a parade of new “aunts” and “uncles” coming in with open arms and hugs and “whatever you need.” The actual Gay Men’s Chorus of Fort Collins, Colorado—name out and proud—dedicated their December concert to my father. Sometime near the end of that Sunday evening concert, while fifty or so voices soared in defiance of a world that seemed hell bent on taking away their right ever to feel safe and good, my father died peacefully, his own soul taking flight.

He wanted his obituary to be a declaration. He wanted it known that he was a gay man who’d died of AIDS. A last political act. But other family members feared the repercussions of that announcement in the communities where they lived, where they might face prejudice, unlike me in New York City. In the end, one obituary carried the truth; the rest hid it.  Even in death, it wasn’t safe for my father to be himself.

This weekend is Gay Pride. Last year during Pride, the United States Supreme Court finally recognized marriage equality. This year, there are forty-nine people dead in a gay nightclub in Orlando, victims of a madman with an assault rifle and a seemingly endless supply of bullets and hate, some of it, possibly, internalized hate. They are victims of the same hostile world that kept my father’s life a secret. Meanwhile, there are political representatives who have voted against LGBTQ rights at every turn and every level (Bathrooms? Really?) now co-opting this tragedy so that they can use it to legislate further hate against yet another marginalized population. And I don’t for a moment believe that these same representatives won’t go back to trying to push the LGBTQ population into the deepest closets they can find the next time they get hysterical about who can pee where.

The Dead can’t fight back anymore. It’s up to us. You know what makes us safer? Being LOUD. Louder than the hate. So loud we drown the hate out. Being VISIBLE. We should celebrate the victories. Blow the parade whistles. Shout and sing. Hug and kiss. Dance in every club. But also this: Anger is appropriate. We should get and stay mad. Write your representatives. Make them accountable. Keep up to date on legislation in your state. And please, please, please VOTE. We can’t afford apathy now. No. Safety isn’t a guarantee for any one of us in this life. But it’s a daily fight for some, and it takes all of us to make a change not just in legislation but in the worn-out yet sadly tenacious notion of identity as threat. It takes all of us to make the world less threatening for every LGBTQ kid coming up and out. If you want to do something in honor of those forty-nine people, in honor of Pride, but you don’t know what to do, here are some places that will be happy to help you:

Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org/
The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/?gclid=CMLs0pyvw80CFclkhgodSiUEtw
GLAAD: http://www.glaad.org/
Transgender Equality Organization: http://www.transequality.org/

A couple of weeks before I got the call to go to my father’s bedside in Colorado, I spent Labor Day weekend at Wigstock, the delightfully uninhibited drag festival presided over by the legendary Lady Bunny that for more than a decade was a NYC mainstay. We were down at the Christopher Street piers: Ed; our Texas drag performer friend, Kyle; my husband, Barry, and I. The sun reflected off the Hudson like tiny disco balls. The piers were packed and hot. Onstage, the performers tore it up. My favorite, a vaguely Martha Graham-ish Flloyd, lip synched to Bjork’s “Hyperballad,” which none of us had heard yet, and it blew our minds. Lady Bunny told raunchy jokes. It was the loudest, biggest party I’d ever attended. Later, when we’d had too much sun, we retreated to The Duplex, a club in Sheridan Square that was a stone’s throw from the historic Stonewall Inn. The entire joint was hopping. Music blasted at nosebleed-level decibels. The policy was dance or leave, basically. So we danced. We danced till we sweated through our shirts, till our hair was sopping wet. People danced on tables, on chairs. They probably would’ve danced on the windowsills if they could have. We were nose-to-nose with strangers until there were no strangers left, just one great gyrating sea of smiling faces and red ribbons. We’d already learned how to say “fuck you” to the things that would steal away our happiness.

Yeah? You think your hate is a match for our love? THIS love? Fuck off. Hey, DJ: TURN. IT. UP!

This is our truth. This is our love. This is our Wonderland, our home. We will fight like hell to keep it whole. We will fight like hell to keep making it safe. Stay and dance or get the fuck out.

We ain’t going anywhere.

 

 

A MADNESS DIPPED IN GRIEF

 

The first time I shot a gun, I was nine years old.

We were visiting my grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia, and my grandfather, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, had taken my brother and me out to the backyard with a commanding view of the majestic Appalachians where he had set up some tin cans on a table. The gun in question was a rifle. I can’t tell you the make or model, only that its weight was heavy on my young shoulders. My brother had gotten to go first, of course. He was older and a boy. Not to be outdone, I begged for my chance. There was sibling pride at stake.

As I squinted and took aim, my heart rate picked up. My fight-or-flight was not discerning about empty tin cans versus prey. It knew only that this thing in my hands felt dangerous and alive. I pulled the trigger, missed my target, staggered back from the intense recoil, then promptly fell on my butt. I was embarrassed. I was exhilarated. I felt ten feet tall. My shoulder hurt for days.

I wanted to do it all again.

Two years later, on a January morning in Corpus Christi, Texas, as moving vans prepared to carry us two days north to our new home in Denton, Texas, my brother was shot in the head. He and a friend had been off shooting high-powered BB guns. The gun had accidentally discharged. The BB, shot from close range, had struck my brother in the temple; the BB had traveled through his bloodstream and lodged in his lung where it resides to this day. There was an ER visit, a week-long hospital stay, and years of medication. My brother was changed by that BB to the head. That is not a story for now. I will only say that the lasting damage from that gunshot has showed itself in various ways over the years.

I no longer had any desire to touch a gun.

Yesterday, as the news came in from Orlando, I sat in my kitchen working on end-of-year teacher appreciation cards. My hands—hands that once itched to hold a gun, hands that touched the bullet wound on my brother’s head—worked at gluing and pasting, stickering and creating. My hands kept busy, but as I listened to the news feed from the other room, my heart was numb. So much horror, all the time. That was a nightclub I might’ve danced in with my pals once upon a time. It’s Pride—many of my friends are out in the clubs now. But celebration has turned to sorrow and memorial.

Later, my son came downstairs. The TV was still on, the horrible story playing out again and again. Often, when he sees the news on, he will say, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” This time, he looked up, saw the scrolling body toll, then looked away. His whole life has been one in which mass shootings are the norm. He was five months old when Columbine happened. Now, on the eve of his own high school graduation comes Orlando, the worst mass shooting in American history. San Bernardino, California. Aurora, Colorado. Blacksburg, Virginia. Newtown, Connecticut. Fort Hood, Texas. Binghamton, New York. It’s a travelogue of grief and madness.

And still, there are the guns. So many guns. So many dead. And we cannot talk rationally about the irrationality of guns.

To borrow from Lionel Shriver, America: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE GUNS. Now. Yes, right now. Not after the next batch of funerals. Or the next. Or the ones that follow that one. What will it take for us to give up our insane idea that guns keep us safe? That every citizen has the right to keep his or her own personal arsenal? That our Founding-Father porn video of paranoid entitlement financed by the NRA is beyond reproach or a rethink? After Sandyhook, I thought, surely now, now with all of those beautiful children dead, oh god, the children—surely now we will stop this madness. But when even the butchering of first graders did not move the needle on the conversation, it seemed that a faction of America had given up and chosen as its new mascot Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Of the ten deadliest shootings in American history (and even typing that sentence feels like the set-up to a morbid, awful joke), eight of them have happened in the past decade. This is no coincidence.

It was 9/11 that fundamentally changed the DNA of our culture. My son was not quite three when that act of terrorism tore through the heart of the nation, a wound that, sadly, did not heal so much as harden, a thick, scabrous scar tissue that constricted the lifeblood flowing to our compassion, our expansiveness, our rejection of nihilism as a way of life. Our heart’s biggest working artery seemed to pump directly into our worst impulses: fear, paranoia, nativism, xenophobia—our collective Id.

As a New Yorker, I had seen the events of 9/11 all go down in real time. I had breathed in dust and waited anxiously with friends for the return of other friends. I had watched reams of paper fly from the burning World Trade Center and float down onto the East River and blanket Brooklyn’s streets like a misbegotten September snow. The next morning, my husband and I, like everyone, were glued to the TV, hoping that the day before had all been a terrible dream. The images of those towers crumbling into dragons of dust that roared through the canyon-like streets of Lower Manhattan flickered across the TV. “Mommy, turn it off. That scares me,” my son said. He was on the living room floor, playing with his trains.  “Yeah, honey,” I said, turning it off. “It scared all of us.”

Yes, it did. But for a few weeks, there had been, amidst the grief, a tremendous coming together. We were scared. But we were not beaten. There was a quiet strength on display. And then came the darkness. I could make an argument that so many things in our culture since then—from the rise of standardized testing to the kudzu-like expansion of vapid reality television of which the presumptive GOP nominee was a beneficiary; it made him a star, after all—have been an unconscious response to those attacks. We’ve been arming and numbing ourselves in a number of covert ways, it seems. We want the money-back guarantee. We want safety and security at all costs. And then we don’t want to talk about that cost. We don’t really want to acknowledge that ceaseless mass violence has become our new national identity and that guns are the seductive poster-boy bling of our bloody brand.

Yesterday, as the death toll continued to rise, as images of crying young men and women holding each other and sobbing mothers waiting for news outside of hospitals filled our screens, Donald Trump tweeted this: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

Appreciate. The. Congrats.

For the record, I do not find Mr. Trump amusing. I can’t even laugh at his hair anymore. I find his nonsensical, megalomaniacal ramblings and hate-drenched rhetoric stomach-turning and terrifying. He is our Nero without the actual emperor position—yet. He is Stephen King’s Randall Flagg come to life on his way to a The Stand-worthy Republican convention. And, like the NRA, who have ceased to be gun club and are fast becoming what I’d consider war criminals, he traffics in our death impulse. We’ve dipped our storehouses of bullets in our grief. We’ve loaded them into the chambers and given them countless spins in this continuing game of Russian Roulette. We keep the muzzle pointed to our temples, helpless, because no one will reach out and take away our gun.

In the week following the attacks of 9/11, we New Yorkers moved about our fragile, broken city, frightened but determined. We stopped to hug friends and strangers alike. We were united in a grief which had been fashioned not into a weapon but into the action of compassion: We donated blood. We baked for our local firehouses. We listened. We comforted. We took the subway and grocery shopped and walked our children to school and got on with the living because choosing life over death and hatred and despair was a defense far stronger than anything a gun could offer. It was the defiance of hope. That first week, as I walked, weeping, past the ubiquitous “Missing” flyers stuck to every building wall, every light pole, every mailbox, I saw a sticker on the side of a dumpster. It said, simply, “I will not be terrorized.”

And that’s what Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre and Second Amendment fetishists get wrong: They believe the only response to terrorism is to up the ante with more and more guns, until there is so much blood we can no longer see anything but carnage, and so carnage becomes our accepted landscape. America, America, from sea to bloody sea. They believe we must aim our guns toward a nebulous enemy while ignoring the ugly truth: We have trained them on ourselves.

 

 

 

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.