Saturday 10 June
Day 2 Home

Filed under Reviews

Iceland is small. It’s a little bigger than Indiana, if that helps, filled only with the population of Pittsburgh. It feels big as you drive around it because of how much it resembles the U.S. West, especially as envisioned in Road Runner cartoons (except with bumpy lavarock fields instead of dust and dirt), but there are so few places in all that space to stop and look around. It’s like the opposite of a mall.

But like a mall, it’s easy to run into people. Sure: I was there for a conference, and so there were a number of folks doing the same things I did, seeing the same sights. But without any pre-planning, I ran into two of these people at a geyser and a waterfall. Even odder, I ran into an old gradschool friend who I knew was going to be in Iceland at some point this summer (though not for this conference) at the same waterfall. We hit the waterfall on Sunday. I also saw there the guy from our Friday walking tour of Reyjkavik who said he wanted a hot dog. On Monday we drove to the Snaefellsnes peninsula—a long, thin finger of land filled with mountains and waterfalls and tipped, at the sea, with a glacier—and we stopped on the way up at a museum on the settlement of Iceland (not recommended). In front of us in line were a middle-aged balding man and who I hoped was his daughter. They, I felt, were proceeding too slowly, and so I told Neal to hold back and let them proceed a bit so we didn’t keep bumping into them.

Tuesday, I saw them walking out of a cave.

Tourism is booming in Iceland, and we could tell by how in-development everything was. Our hotel was mostly finished, but there was still construction noise one day and the back patio and basement spa were closed. Both the base office for our glacier tour and the ship we cruised the ocean on to watch birds and eat live scallops were equipped with full kitchens, but at this point were only serving coffee and pre-packaged snacks. The ship sat dozens, but our group was just ten people.

If Iceland were someone’s webpage it’d be topped with Under Construction gifs. “It’s the place, I hear,” texted a friend of mine last week, and he’s right. Outside of my conference friends I know six people who’ve gone in the last year or are going within the next. It’s cheap to get to. You can fly there direct from Boston, California, DC, NY, Miami, Chicago, and even Pittsburgh, where a roundtrip ticket flying out this week will cost you just $560.

That’s not counting seat selection or bags. Or water or snacks. Or your hotel room. Or food and water in Iceland, where nary a water fountain is to be found in this country that prides itself on its unimpeachable drinking water. It’s a smart tourism model: make it dirt cheap to get to and then charge an arm and a leg for everything you possibly can once they’re there. We never ate out in Iceland after having done so much of it so well in London and Paris, but footlong subs at Subway cost us $15 each.

But this isn’t anything new. Tómas, our walking tour guide, born in Chicago but raised his whole life in Reykjavik, told us that, growing up, his family would eat out maybe twice a year. It was always too expensive. Everything imported. Locals, he said, eat at Subway, or Domino’s, if they aren’t cooking at home. No one eats shark, or puffin, the “local delicacies” advertised at restaurants. Their numbers are dwindling, puffins, owing to climate change and unsustainable hunting. Add foodie tourists to the mix, and they could be gone pretty soon.

I’d never been before to a place where most people had never been before. Everyone’s been to London and Paris. Everyone’s been to Denver. The effect of being in Iceland was like being on some frontier. I felt very lucky. Even at the Blue Lagoon, which maybe you’ve heard of, which is filled with the wastewater of a nearby geothermal power plant built in 1976, making it about a natural as a corn maze, I felt like Neal and I had discovered something private and magical.

Is this the draw of outdoorsy vacationing? Usually we’re in cities paying extra for the audiotour. It takes a lot out of you. Or me, at least. Day two of being home and I’m on antibiotics and a bland diet to combat the six days of severe GI distress I’ve been fist-clenching my way through. Neal, though, is fine. Blame me, not Iceland.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-06-10  ::  dave

Thursday 1 June
Day 10 in Europe, Day 1 in Reykjavik

Filed under Reviews

We landed at 11:45pm and the sun was setting, and by the time we got through security with our bags, got driven to the rental car company’s Garage Hut on The Plain that reminded Neal of any number of workman buildings he’d spent time in in South Dakota, and drove our Hyundai i30 the 40 minutes to Reyjavik, it was well past first light and on the way to sunrise. At night here, it doesn’t get dark. Dusk happens at midnight and ends at 3am. To the west, the sky all night is a line of orange beaming in through every window.

The temptation not to sleep, because the sun is still up, is strong. I haven’t gone to bed at dusk since I was maybe 7. We saw as we got into town whole families walking the sidewalks around 1am. It felt like being in Scarfolk.

I felt a flickish, itchy thing in the back of my throat the moment we got to Gatwick and now, 24 hours after landing, I’m sipping a ginger tea that Neal made for me from our room’s electric kettle and chasing it with Guaifenesin I’m sipping straight from the bottle ($15). The small rocks glass I’d hoped to sip Duty Free Jameson from is slowly filling with what the Icelandic pharmacist called “slime”. Whole oysters of it. I think I’m past the worst, but my mood for conferencing about the intricacies of writing nonfiction—which is what I’m here to do—is very low. When I speak, I sound like the squeak your butt makes on the bottom of the tub.

In Reyjkavik, the disorientation of daylight is countered by the comfort of knowing that not only does everyone speak English, but nearly every sign at stores and in public buildings is written in it. It’s an imperialist privilege to be able to speak your native language at people who know it only through working hard at it late(r) in life. (A shame we pay the world’s favors back by telling them we’re going to continue destroying their climates.) It’s, I got told over beers with my gradschool friend Daryl, who flew out here from the distant Eastern end of the island amid a weekslong bike trip he’s just about midway through, the case throughout Iceland. Everyone speaks English. Many of them—the night hotel desk-attendant/bartender, the guy who worked at the outdoor-gear shop we stopped in, last night’s gas station attendant—are native English speakers working here for unknown reasons.

What would bring a person to Iceland on their own? Quite possibly the same things that take people to San Francisco. Meals here average around $40 a person, and AirBnB is an increasing nightmare in a city with a housing shortage. But everywhere you turn, suddenly there’s a sea or the ocean and beyond it tall mountains dusted with green patches and slips of white snow. The skies have been so far full of clouds, and outside the city there are no trees, and so while it feels like life on The Great Plains I’ve found the skies here to be more gorgeous. The rugged terrain helps, the hills and swells that frame the clouds in shapes other than a perfect overhead dome.

Today, Neal drove me in the i30, which is a stick-shift, to register for the conference, and on the way we were both pleased to see that Reykjavik has a company that drives you around the city in a big double-decker bus and tells you through prerecorded audio what what you’re looking at is. We may do it tomorrow. I have a lot of people I want to see and spend time with, and I hope these people want to see and spend time with me, but during the introductory wine reception it felt strange seeing these U.S. faces in this faraway country I thought I’d never get a chance to see, and I kept wondering if they felt the same. Are we all with our business getting in the way of each other’s waking dream of this place?

Make writers travel and they all become travel writers, and nothing dumps on a travel writer’s sense of specialness more than another writer travelwriting within eyeshot. I know I’m both here with the conference and I’m here with Neal. Tonight, I’m here with Neal.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2017-06-01  ::  dave

Tuesday 30 May
Day 7 in Europe, Day 4 in the UK

Filed under Reviews

We were walking back to the audiotour counter at the Tate Modern, having just seen the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibit I’d been lured to by the very pretty closeup of the ass and balls I’d seen online somewhere, and but where I stayed for the shots of water (at right) and other fine pictures, and in walking through the Busy On A Bank Holiday museum, I’d been thinking about walking in London, and how after this many days I’d been confused about where to put my body in a hall. These people drive on the gauche side of the road, and I’ve read enough about cognition to see how we might then understand such people as operating their brains differently than we do. Where do they see throughways undergoing? How can I best position myself in that vision?

It was, I soon saw, London and walking through it, like moving through an 8-bit video game—one of those where at the edge of the screen a person or monster appears still and unmoving, waiting for the instant you pass some coded pixel to vector you-ward at such a pace that you’re guaranteed helpful or hurtful bumping-into unless you jump or dodge left. I’d watched in stations both here and in Paris men with phones stand perfectly still until their moving would result in his and my perfect collision. And then I watched them step perfectly toward me.

I was thinking about this, this video game idea, for the first time. It hit me in the Tate Modern. And then suddenly a woman was vectoring at me, as though my new idea had willed her to. She was older than me by a decade, and she wore a fluorescent yellow vest and a walkie-talkie at her beltline.

“Are you okay?” she said to me.

“Say again?” I heard our pub waitress ask an athletic, well-shortsed young dad that morning, as he requested something specific about the table he needed for his wife and baby and (my guess) mother-in-law. I thought, what an interesting way to express that one hasn’t heard one. So different from “What’s that?” or “How’s that?” or “What’d you say?” or “Sorry?” In Alabama, every native I mumbled at too rapidly would say, “Do what?” as though they’d assumed, even just by my talking, that I’d given them an order.

What I’m saying is that much of the delight of being in other places in the world and hearing the people there talk is that there are, even in our own language, so many ways to express the same idea, and if you like, as I do, to think about connotations and nuance in language, it sets the mind reeling to what a simple reflexive expression might indicate about the speaker’s head and her heart.

Her Are You Okay? sounded like what I’d expect to hear from a kind bystander had I just been blapped in the forehead by an errant kickball or called a faggot by a man in a MAGA hat. Are you okay? I was in the middle of thinking about strangers as videogame figures when she said it. I stopped walking toward the audiotour counter. I looked at her. It took just an instant to see that her face projected not concern for my well being—no widened eyes, no raised brows, no open mouth—but something collected and friendly. I, she said with her face, Am Trying To Be Helpful.

I must have had a look on me, midthinking about other people, of being utterly lost and tired and afraid.

“Oh yeah no I’m good thanks,” I said, and then I pointed to the audiotour counter I was headed to. “Just need to return these.” I held up my and Neal’s audiotour consoles, which the Tate had adorned with limegreen lanyards so they’d hung conveniently around my neck.

“Yes,” she said and the turned and pointed behind her. “Straight ahead and to your left.”

I was looking directly at the Audiotours sign as she said it. At the counter, the Italian woman who’d given us our A/V devices was on the phone. I struggled unknotting Neal’s and my two devices from off my neck, and she, amid her conversation in Italian, said ‘Sokay and so I handed them over entwisted.

Minutes after the well-shortsed and fat-packaged young dad solicited a Say Again?, Mel B, the onetime Spice Girl, the one who went by “Scary Spice”, walked into the same pub in a ballcap with two female companions. I looked over at her and she looked over at me looking at her. (I’d had to be told it was Mel B.)

Clearly, the joys of traveling are visual. We want to see new things. In travelling abroad, we feel new things. Foremost among them, for me, have been an anxiety about language—in Paris, where it felt like with every desire I had came a worry about whether I’d be able to express it—and an unease about space. This is a way to understand the difference between travel and tourism: the latter functions to remove these and other feelings from the former. We tour so that we might see without new feelings, or at least new negative ones.

That said, I love touring. I love sitting at the top of a double-decker bus and being told what I’m looking at as my head hangs back and my jaw sags open. Touring has its own kind of movements—controlled but erratic—and a bevy of languages you select at the start of your audiotour. It’s not for everyone. In London, at the Queen Mother Gates stop, a young straight couple got on board and sat just behind us. They looked like they’d just failed to make the cut for the cast of The Jersey Shore. “Is this where the underground city is?” the man asked our guide at our first red light. “I saw a documentary about it.”

Our guide did his best to try to inform him about something that didn’t exist. “Where are we headed now?” the man asked, moments later. Shouted this across the top of the bus. Then he fell silent, and soon I turned around and snapped a picture.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-05-30  ::  dave

Thursday 4 May
My Walk-In Global Entry Experience at SFO

Filed under Obvious Things

[This is going to be a useless and boring post for anyone not looking to nab a convenient Global Entry interview at the San Francisco International Airport. (Or not my mom.) But because the information on how to navigate these waters is (from official govt. sites) hidden or (from Yelp and other such places) wrong and misleading, I thought I’d do a public service here. You’ve been warned. Click away.]

On April 11, 2017, I got the notification that I was approved for Global Entry, and was invited to schedule an interview to complete my application. I logged onto the official system and the soonest appointment was in November. (I’m flying abroad in late May.) This is because Republicans have defunded the government, and we should all feel nationally disgusted.

Neal found online that SFO accepted walk-ins, meaning you didn’t have to wait until your official appointment. Here are some notions from the general wisdom online (all of these are false/no longer true, btw):

  • The SFO Global Entry office only takes 6 walk-ins a day.
  • Walk-ins are only accepted first-thing in the morning; or, similarly, to be accepted as a walk-in, you have to be there before the office opens (at 7am).
  • To ensure being seen, you should show up before 5am.


Here’s what happened with us, today, Thursday May 4, 2017:

  1. Reading Yelp reviews of this, we decided to show up just before noon.
  2. We parked, as folks suggested, in the G garage, but the G garage wasn’t initially visible. First you have to follow signs for International Terminal, then once you are heading there go to International Hourly Parking, and THEN you’ll see a sign for the A and G garage. You for sure want G (to the left).
  3. We arrived at the Global Entry office (follow the clear signs) right at noon. There were maybe 20 people sitting and standing around. We were discouraged, having thought from online reading that we’d get seen within minutes.
  4. Within ten minutes, an officer came out of the locked office with clipboards. He first asked if anyone had an appointment. A number of people did. They got checked in, and were thus at the top of the list.
  5. Neal said we were walk-ins and asked if there was a signup sheet. The officer handed it over and Neal put our names in, along with the Program Membership numbers that were written on our Global Entry approval letters. (Print this out or screenshot it on your phone if you can’t print.)
  6. We were in the middle of the second page of walk-in signups. There were 10 names ahead of us in line.
  7. How It Goes I: Every 10 minutes, an officer comes out. They ask first “Anyone have an appointment?” If they have an appointment that day, they will get invited inside first. It doesn’t matter when their appointment is. If their appointment is 3 hours away, they will be ushered in. Always.
  8. How It Goes II: If no one around has an appointment, they will announce the next name on the walk-in list. So: If you don’t get your name on the walk-in list you will never be seen.
  9. Just before 1pm, an officer announced that they were taking no more names on the walk-in list until the 3pm shift started. How many total names were there on the list at that point? I don’t know. My guess if that 5 or 6 more walk-in folks showed up after us.
  10. By 1:15/1:20 it was clear that all the appointment folks had all been seen. More and more folks from the walk-in list were being called. Also: many of those walk-in folks who’d shown up hours ago had given up and left.
  11. Neal got called right before 1:30. I got called around 1:45, having to wait for a number of 1:30 appointment folks to show up and get seen. One guy had a 3:30 appointment, but still got to leap ahead of us all. So: If you have an appointment SHOW UP THAT DAY WHENEVER YOU’D LIKE and you’ll get ushered warmly inside.
  12. We were back at the garage at 2pm. It cost $20 total to park, paid via our Fastrak.

Where our federal government is so visibly awful is when it comes to transportation. This is not a failure of Government as a concept, it is a function of post-80s life in the United States (i.e., the only life I’ve ever known). It’s unconscionable that we were told we had to wait six months to complete our application—our application not to be accosted in customs—when the truth of the matter is we just had to show up on any random afternoon and be seen in good time. But that’s the world we’ve chosen to live in.

To say nothing of how much money it cost to get a passport ($135) or to enroll in Global Entry ($100). To say nothing of how much time it cost to get these: 2 hours to prepare req’d materials and visit a post office to apply for a passport; 3+ hours to apply for and get interviewed for Global Entry. All this aside from the cost of traveling abroad. Leaving the country is now a privilege for the wealthy, which is another shame we should all nationally feel. The United States—in the name of, what…? national security?—makes it extraordinarily difficult to leave the country and see how life is lived elsewhere.

Like a cult does.

4 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2017-05-04  ::  dave

Friday 21 April
The Shit-Drenched Rose Move

Filed under teaching

There’s this thing that happens a lot in writing workshops I’ve noticed after a decade or so of teaching them. For those outside MFAland: in a writing workshop, everyone but the writer of the manuscript talks about that MS at hand, discussing their reading experience and suggesting things for revision.

Now: suggestions can be useless. “You might have a scene where your protagonist goes to Frankfurt. It might be neat to see them in a European airplane hub, since they keep talking about customs and beer….” But some are useful: “The narrator speaking in this essay seems unhappy with her upbringing, but I can’t understand why. We might get some flashbacks of seminal moments from her childhood, portraits of her parents, etc.”

One true thing about workshops is that some writers will take certain suggestions to help a MS as some kind of personal affront. Like an argument against the kind of writing they feel driven to champion. What happens in this instance is that such a writer says this: I don’t think this piece needs some long-winded memory about how her mom was mean to her, or some belabored history of her mother’s upbringing. It’s not about her!

This sort of thing drives me crazy. It drives me up a fucking wall.

Imagine, if you will, a wedding that folks are planning. Probably they’re related, or will soon be. They are standing in the banquet hall where the reception will be held, trying to figure out some ways to make it not look hopelessly generic. The sister of the groom points to two empty corners. What if we get some sprays of roses to put there? Maybe on pedestals? That might look nice….

The sister of the other groom looks at those corners and frowns. I don’t want these wilted, weeks-old roses drenched in birdshit at the reception! I mean: who wants to look at that?

What we hope to teach CW students is to access and then be led by the force of their imaginations. At home, that imagination is tasked to make new things we haven’t seen before. In the classroom, that imagination is tasked with envisioning a better MS than what they have before them. Some folks, when you suggest a thing, can only imagine its worst incarnation. Or maybe it’s this: they hate the suggestion so much they reductio it ad its most absurdem, and suddenly the talk becomes less about the possibilities for the work at hand and more about What Writing Is and Should Do.

Once a workshop becomes an argument about What Writing Is and Should Do (as opposed to How This Piece At Hand Might Better Achieve Its Aims), that workshop has been voided by its hubris. You’d be right to stand up and walk out of the room.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-04-21  ::  dave

Tuesday 18 April
“Your Life’s Going to Get a Lot Harder”

Filed under queers

I came out to my parents just months after I came out to myself, and on the whole it went as well as I could expect. We hugged at the end of the conversation, etc. One of the few things my dad said to me was that he was worried that my life was going to get a lot harder now.

(This despite the fact that I was a PhD student in a humanities department, which is like one rung below Bathhouse Custodian on the ladder of Easy, Accepting Places For Gay Folks.)

I’ve heard variations on the phrase in the coming-out stories of many friends and students. And I wanted to write a little PSA about the idea, because it’s got some very tricky problems.

I imagine the idea comes from love. Your child has just presented themselves as different in a fundamental way, as identifying differently not just from you, the straight person who raised them, but from the majority of the culture you had up to now numbered your kid among. It is easier to be part of the majority than it is to be part of the minority, because the majority has all kinds of perks built-in to the culture (the culture they got to build) that make things easier for them. The lack of a tradition of beating and sometimes killing men and women for holding hands in public, say. We decided as a culture not to do that, so straight people have a fundamentally easier time in many places being who they are.

I am now worried that the world is going to hurt you, physically or otherwise. This is not a good thing for a newly gay kid to hear at this very scary and vulnerable moment. First, they have for sure thought this a million times. It has in fact been a chief obstacle keeping them in the closet as long as they have been. That your kid is coming out to you now means that they have overcome this obstacle, or have found a way to fight it, or have refused to let it beat them. Your worry, though real, is an untimely reminder of what they already know and feel.

Also, it’s wrong. Life does not become more difficult for the newly out, it becomes easier. Nine million times easier. Take my word for it: the burden of the closet is painful, heavy. Sickening in an ill-making way. I probably shouldn’t speak for whole swaths of people here, but I can say that lying to myself and others about who I wanted to sleep with so that people would accept me was so much harder than being honest with everyone and handling whatever grief I might get for it.

An out person is a person made stronger by self-acceptance and self-knowing. That strength makes up so much of what they’ll need to handle whatever life throws at them now.

So reconsider your worry. It is real and comes from a good place, but it sends a message that we’ve made some sort of mistake here, or some poor choice with bad consequences, when the opposite is always, always true.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2017-04-18  ::  dave

Monday 27 March
Plot and Suspense in The Brand New Catastrophe

Filed under Books + NF + Reviews

It’s a debut memoir by Mike Scalise (full disclosure: a friend who is right now as I type this on a plane to San Francisco to come read at USF as part of our Emerging Writers’ Festival) that tells the story of his illness and diagnosis. Illness: brain tumor on his pituitary gland. Diagnosis: acromegaly. (André the Giant had it, most famously.) Then the tumor ruptures, destroying his pituitary gland’s hormone-producing functions (illness). Diagnosis: hypopituitarism. None of this is a spoiler alert, because all of this happens and is explained in the book’s prologue, before Chapter 1 even begins.

How, I thought, was Mike going to make the rest of this interesting?

It’s an immediate and smart signal that this book isn’t a usual illness memoir, where symptoms either are mysteries, or they form the texture of the character’s central struggle until diagnosis and treatment enter in as a kind of climax/revelation.[1] Mike’s character isn’t in serious danger during the book. I mean, the ruptured tumor could’ve killed him, he nearly drowns in the bottom of a pool, and he passes out during a wedding. But the dramatic tension is more complicated (and thus interesting) than “Will he survive?” It’s: To what extent should he identify as an acromegalic? As a man with hypopituitarism? Or: How can he sustain the life he wants to when his body can’t physically generate the hormones he needs to do so?[2]

Also, to what extent is his illness realer or stranger or more serious or worrisome than his mother’s, who over the course of the memoir has maybe three different heart surgeries? What I loved the most about BNC is how it (or Mike, or Mike’s character) wants to both identify as A Sick Person and be critical about that idea, and the self-absorption of it. Two-thirds of the way into the book comes a chapter titled “Game”, where Mike pauses in the developing action to talk about the times he would see other people in New York with enlarged hands or jawlines, sunken temples. The signs of a fellow acromegalic? Shouldn’t he, his wife would ask, say something to them? What if they didn’t know they had a brain tumor?

“What do I say?” … [W]hat if by strange chance they had been diagnosed already, I told her, and here I was, some guy, approaching them in public, around people with eyes, not just telling them what they’ve already known and have been taking pills or getting shots to combat, but worse: confirming for that person … that, above all, they looked diagnosable. I understood too much about that complicated fear to confirm it for anyone else.

That’s what I told Loren, and it sounded noble, chip-shouldered, and respectful leaving my lips. I thought so when I said it, like I’d won something. The Insight Awards. But what I didn’t say, probably because I couldn’t say it to myself yet, was, plus: If I told all those people, I wouldn’t get to have the condition all to myself.

It’s maybe the scariest or most anxious moment in the book. The triumph at the end of the memoir is Mike’s vanquishing not just illness’s effects on his body but also, if you will, on his spirit. This makes it a much more difficult story to tell, because such a narrative’s landscape is chiefly internal, where all good memoirs’ landscapes lie.

Also: it’s funny. And: it’s set much of the time in Pittsburgh, where we could use more books set, please.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Am I straw-manning here? I’m thinking of Lauren Slater’s Lying, and a number of addiction memoirs (e.g., Dry, Lit), which are illness memoirs of a sort, since they tend to subscribe to the idea of addiction as a treatable disease.
  2. If, when you read the word hormones, you think chiefly about changes in teen bodies, then Brand New Catastrophe is the book for you. There’s some real drama and excitement in the endocrine system that Mike captures just enough of to interest a nerd like me without bogging the book down in too much non-narrative data.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-03-27  ::  dave

Tuesday 7 March
On the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give”

Filed under Endorsements + music

This thing was inspired by March Fadness, where Megan Campbell and Ander Monson rank 64 one-hit wonders of the 1990s in bracket form and let them square off against each other. You can join in the voting, if you’d like. A song I happen to love somewhat irrationally is up against an indomitable favorite, and with it running through my head all day I came up with some thoughts on why I had to vote for it.

The greats are often tiresome. There’s a certain sterility to them that comes from realizing you were born too late to take part in any interesting conversations to be had about the topic at hand. The Mona Lisa. Anything of Mozart’s. Even the Beatles: whatever joy I felt listening to those greats felt reduced solely by nature of the late 90s air I was breathing.

So often I find myself with a joke to add to a conversation but not the means or the timing to add it when it counts, and so I chew on it and wait and modify it as the time passes and the conversation morphs, say, from brains to minds. To like “You Get What You Give” is to be that person, spitting out a joke well after anyone’s eager to hear it. To hear “You Get What You Give” is to feel the way you do when the joke first hits you, when everything in your world is potential and you feel so good for being smart and ready.

There is no way in 2017 that I can convince you that the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” is anything but a pop music footnote. I don’t, simply, have the talent to impart in you the joy I feel every time it plays on a jukebox. What happens in my heart on the opening countoff—the one, the two, the one two three four—can’t be put into useful words, and if I believe in the essay as a form I shouldn’t sleep until I found a way to do it. Instead, I can point to what my body does when the chorus happens. The two, the three-and and the four-and. The compounded syncopation of Gregg Alexander’s vocals is a secret cord tied tight to the root of me. I’m always pulled up dancing like a puppet.

“I’m sick of meaning, I just want to hold you.” This is a line from a newer song that’ll never be a wonder, but it comes to mind now, thinking about what I want to do, which is play “You Get What You Give” for a room of people and raise all of them out of their seats. Some songs are usefully dumb. When I feel bullied by my brain, pop songs are a braver friend, standing up to that monster so that I might feel like other people.

Escapism might be God’s way of righting ourselves. I want to be dumbed by some songs. I put on the New Radicals, and look at the way my teeth bite my lip! Look at what work my hips can accomplish!

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-03-07  ::  dave

Tuesday 28 February
How I Came to Change My Mind about Trans People

Filed under queers

This is a post inspired in part by Frank Bruni’s “Two Consonants Walk Into a Bar” from Sunday’s NY Times, which itself cites John Aravosis’s “How did the T get in LGBT?” which I’ll refer to below.

In 2007, I was freshly out and Congress was considering whether to add gender identity to the list of categories protected under the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. I was against it. Mostly, if I recall, because I read and was convinced by Aravosis’s argument: what do we gay and bisexual people have in common with trans people, when our identity is formed by sexual orientation and theirs is formed by gender? These are different, but for some reason we’ve been lumped into the same dumb acronym together. Trans people, I felt, were hopping onto our fight, and if they wanted the same rights we were about to get, they needed to fight their own fight for them.

These were ideas I carried around for nearly a decade. We weren’t comrades, us gays and them trans folk. All we had in common was that we weren’t cis-straight people.

The other night, we had friends over to watch the Oscars, and a strange thing happened. It’s not the strange thing everyone’s talking about, the strange thing at the end where the wrong movie was named Best Picture. The one I’m talking about happened about halfway through.[1] Host Jimmy Kimmel had a bit where he led unsuspecting tourists through the room (they thought they were going to tour a studio or something). Everyone had a phone out. Celebs were kind of enough to take selfies. Kimmel made Aniston give her sunglasses away. Etc. He asked one woman her name, and she said “Yulree. It rhymes with ‘jewelry’.” Kimmel scoffed at this, and when he met her husband Patrick, he said, “That’s a name.”

El, my friend who just came out as trans last month,[2] was livid at how blatantly Kimmel shamed Yulree for her difference. Our friend, Andy, objected that it had less to do with her ethnicity and more to do with having a strange name, as his white sister does. Furthermore, he felt that overall the left had to calm down these days with the “political correctness.” It led, usefully, to an argument.

My contribution: “political correctness” is itself a conservative idea. We leftists ought to call it what it really is: egalitarianism. Or courtesy. Sympathy. Egalitarianism, though, is too hard a word to soundbyte. “Political correctness” as a term takes one good thing and turns it into what are for a large number of people on Both Sides Of The Aisle two bad things: politics and correcting others.

When we see the act of granting others equal treatment as “being politically correct” we turn empathy into a kind of test to fail. (This is why “check your privilege” is such a lousy clarion call, turning egalitarianism into a shaming competition.) Complaining about “political correctness” means complaining about giving people equal treatment in our discourse. It means we ought not call people what they ask to be called but what we choose to call them. And once you decide not to grant people equal treatment in our discourse, it’s easy not to grant them equal treatment in the workplace or the courtroom.

“Political correctness” favors having an opinion over having an imagination, and how I came to change my mind about trans people was that I stopped having an opinion and started having an imagination.

It happened, in all places, at a writers’ conference. I met a trans person for the first time. In fact, I met two. I had admittedly probing, personal, othering questions they were patient in answering. But the big shift in my thinking happened while sharing a cigarette with my friend, Clutch, after one of the keynote speeches. The conference overall had been short on new ideas. A lot of old dead writers trotted out as models. Clutch blamed this on the utter whiteness of the panelists and attendees and speakers. “Wait a second,” I said. “It’s not like the only new ideas are about race or gender.” That wasn’t their point, they said. Their point was that diversity isn’t just a feelgood move of including people for its own sake. Diversity is what’s needed for the airing and dissemination of new ideas. When everyone in the room looks the same and comes from the same background, you end up with a lot of reminiscing and endorsing old ideas that have worked only for the people in the room.

Trans people, I saw, weren’t different from me so much as different like me. It took me much longer than it should have, but that was the night the LGBT(QIAA) acronym looked small for the first time. Suddenly, I wanted more of us in the room together.

One debate happening right now is over letting more people into bathrooms together. The president doesn’t want trans people in bathrooms with cis people. I try to imagine where this idea comes from, this fear, or maybe it’s just a concern. It’s easy to see it as coming from transphobia, because we’ve been given no evidence to the contrary. It comes from a fear of change, I imagine. A fear of lost ways. What is a bathroom but a place where for so long men and women have retreated from each other? Maybe retreating from one another is the old way we ought to lose, and all bathrooms should become like the egalitarian shared one on Ally McBeal. There are few things more egalitarian than the human body we all live with; maybe when men hear the sounds of women shitting they might realize they deserve equal pay.

Pissing wherever you want to is a freedom.[3] And people with freedoms others don’t have are historically grumpy about sharing. If you have uneasiness about a trans person sitting in the stall next to yours, that’s understandable, because new things make many of us uneasy. But imagine being a trans person. Use your imagination. If that itself is difficult, then talk to a trans person. Ask them what they need and why. Whatever opinion you’re holding onto will change, and I promise you’ll be better for it.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. You’ll find a great summary and commentary on the weirdness of this bit here. In short: despite everyone’s phone, the bit was a Vonnegutian nightmare, turning us middle-class people into zoo animals some untouchable alien elite got to gawk at. Or, here:

    Hollywood has never prided itself on being in touch with the working class, even when the movies were sometimes about poverty. Hollywood was always supposed to be a thing people wanted. The money, the fame, the power: The Oscars are where we got to see the people from the movies, playing characters based on themselves. We’re supposed to want to be them, or have sex with them. So when a smart writer like John Robb tweets that the ceremony was an “amazing example of ultra-orthodox cultural neoliberalism” that was “pure jet fuel for #trumpism?” I think he’s saying that to the millions of people who voted against the pop-cultural elite alliances they saw in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Oscars aren’t aspirational. They’re an insult.

  2. El, for what it’s worth, is not only the first trans member of the San Francisco Symphony, but the first trans person to ever play for a major orchestra in the world.
  3. I’m thinking here of Taraji P. Henson’s character hoofing it across the NASA campus in Hidden Figures just to pee at the one bathroom designated for “colored women”.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2017-02-28  ::  dave

Monday 20 February
Very Good Paragraphs

Filed under Very Good Paragraphs

Haven’t done one of these in a while. This one’s from Gary Greenberg’s stunning review of Charles Foster’s Being a Beast and other recent learning-from-animals books in the Jan 2017 Harper’s (cutting the first sentence as it’s mostly gluework from the prior ¶):

…As civilization fails to provide sufficient balm against our loss, as its costs become unbearable for more and more of us, the world’s stink begins, by comparison, to smell like fresh air, and devolution begins to seem attractive—or at least attractive enough to inspire three books on the subject in the same publishing season, which, it is hard not to notice, was also an election season, one in which Americans cast off reason in favor of passion. In its terrifying aftermath, the yearning at the heart of these books for a return to instinct takes on a meaning, and an intensity, their authors could not have intended. Some people will step off the evolutionary ladder into a realm where they can ramble with dogs or goats or badgers, and claim that they’ve become more human in the bargain. But some may land where wild instincts rule. A dog, lest we forget, will gleefully rip your pet cat in two, a billy goat will fuck whatever doe he can get his hooves on, and a fox will eat all your chickens in a heartbeat and call it a perfect day. They will be remorseless for the pain they cause. But at least they can’t be accused of giving up on themselves or one another.

This is some expert-level criticism, not only capable of finding ties among three books (on admittedly related subjects) but to set these books’ concerns amid our own, those arising out of the times we’re finding ourselves confused by. It #resists, in today’s parlance, by looking past the partisan narratives we see retweeted every day in favor of its own reasoned understanding of who and where we are.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-02-20  ::  dave

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