Barricades

You saw Dunkirk last night, and you liked the film, admired it, and you have many roiling thoughts about it. As you walk to the train you decide to go out of your way to walk by St. Patrick’s, which has become something of a nexus of conflicting emotions for you.

You’re thinking about earthquakes and hurricanes, deportations and camps. Perfect storms. Forgiveness, and if such a thing is possible. Accountability and atonement. When you arrive at the church you see a line of police tape is stretched across the front door. The tourist family who wants to take pictures has to pose in the smaller door to the side, and you sit on the steps out of their way. You think about the fact that, when you have to, you think you’ll be willing to fight in the street for your city. You’ll be begging forgiveness the entire time, and you’re not strong so you won’t last very long, but you’ll still have to do it, but will you know when it’s time?

How did Walter Benjamin know when to kill himself? How did he decide that he was at the nadir of life under the Nazis, that nothing was getting better, and that death under his own power was the best path?

This is what you’re thinking when you pull yourself up and start walking to the train. And you loop through barricades, and you’re thinking about how to recognize enemies, and you find yourself surrounded by barricades, behind a row of garbage trucks.

New Yorkers know what that means.

And when you pull yourself back into focus you realize that at the end of the sidewalk on the way to the train station is a checkpoint. People are being searched to go through. You’ll be searched if you keep walking this way.

You, who have been sexually harassed and assaulted, will be searched to protect someone who confessed publicly to sexual assault. You, who ruined your body working jobs on your feet, and who has never had enough money or health care to heal yourself, will have strangers’ hands on your body. You, who worked beside poor black women to care for rich white babies in Charlottesville, Virginia, will be searched for the comfort of.

Of.

Of.

There’s a point in Dunkirk when an elderly man hands blankets out to the soldiers, saying to each one, “Well done, boys.” One young soldier, disgusted and ashamed at being evacuated, snaps back: “But we didn’t do anything.” The man replies, “You survived. That’s enough this time.”

Your grandfather with his German last name was a Secret Service agent. He protected Roosevelt and Truman with his own body multiple times in Germany, as they inspected a Nazi machine turned to rubble and ash. His body was the barricade between those two men and death.

He survived that war, and at the end of it his country celebrated the defeat of an enemy. They pulled themselves together and charged into the future convinced they were heroes.

You turn back and walk slowly down the sidewalk, waiting to see if anyone notices you and wonders why you’re acting like a skittering cockroach. You turn the corner and smile at the cops, because you can do that because you’re a white woman, and you loop back through blocks and barricades so you won’t be searched on the streets of your own city, and you think about what you’re willing to do.

Look Down

When I lived in Charlottesville I worked at a daycare outside of town. I was marking time, waiting for grad school acceptances and rejections to hit my mailbox. I was finally beginning to work my way out of a debilitating depression, and surrounding myself with the energy and love of children was the quickest way I could do it. The kids loved me. They talked to me and handed me books to read to them and held my hand to lead me over to their art. I cleaned them and taught them how to wash their hands after they used the toilet. I fed them and watched them sleep.

This time, for me, was a thin, flimsy ladder back into life.

There were a couple of lunch breaks during the kids’ naptime, so we’d spell each other, one teach hanging back to keep an eye on the sleeping children while the others ate together in the break room. When I started I noticed that the teachers broke in two separate groups: the white teachers, who were all related by blood or relationship, ate together, talking about shopping and complaining about men and children. The Black teachers ate together, mostly talking about tragedies in the community. I wasn’t interested in either conversation.

You’ll notice that the previous paragraphs have been “I” statements. Lots of ‘em. That was part of my problem, you see, I was so far in my own head that I wasn’t entirely sure other people were even real. It was work to care about them. It was easier to care about children. The other person I gradually started caring about was my teaching partner, a Black woman. She had a teen daughter, and was dating a man who maybe wanted to start a family with her. The two of them would hop in his truck and drive all night to go to New York for weekends. Over the course of working with her I realized that she, and all the other Black teachers, lived in a trailer park community, in a valley, a bit of a drive from the daycare. Their road was dirt and gravel. The white teachers, for the most part, lived in a gated McMansion community much closer to the daycare. Their streets were paved, sidewalked, decoratively-flowered.

When the older teachers threw one of the younger ones a baby shower, I was invited, despite only having worked there a few months. None of the Black teachers were invited, not even the younger teacher’s co-teacher, who had worked with her for years.

When a series of spring blizzards hit the town, the teachers were all expected to make it in, whether their roads were paved or no. When a later spring tornado hit the town there was no concern shown for the fact that one community was more vulnerable than the other.

When the younger white teachers wanted to complain, they would vent to the older Black teachers, never caring whether the women wanted to listen or not. I watched this pattern many, many times over only few months.

One day the new daycare manager found out that my co-teacher had a teenage daughter, and began speaking at some length about how much my co-teacher reminded her of another employee she had, a comparison that she clearly meant as a compliment. But when my co-teacher pressed her on how, exactly, she was similar to this other employee, the only similarities were that both women were Black and had been young mothers. They had nothing else in common…but more that than, the manager didn’t even know my co-teacher well enough to compare her to anyone.

At the beginning I went back and forth between the two breaks, trying to be friendly to both. I didn’t want to engage in the White Southern Femininity on offer (I know, I know, this is shocking to my friends reading this) so I often ate lunch with the other group. But it finally occurred to me that maybe I was, in my blundering Northern-ness and genderfuckery, imposing my presence on a group that wanted a break not from children, but from white people. I’d say this took about a month? I retreated completely at that point, and took myself out of the equation by eating lunch in my classroom while the kids slept. Sometimes my co-teacher joined me and we’d have whispered conversations while the kids slept. Sometimes one would wake up and waddle over, and I’d eat while the kid dozed in my lap.

Once the weather got better I spent my lunch break walking, Stephen King-style, on the side of the highway, so I could think. I spooned food into kids’ mouths and wiped the ensuing shit off of asses. I watched as the status quo was enforced, day after day, as older Black women were expected to provide care not only for small children, in exchange for pay, but even for adult white women. They were expected to stop their conversations and streams of thought to be there emotionally for adult women, without pay, while being shut out of becoming friends with those women.

It’s not like this was the first time I’d ever seen that—hell, I’ve been the object of such expectations, as a working-class female. I just don’t know if I’d ever seen it in such a stark and unapologetic way. Because of my position as a white college graduate I was able to hold myself aloof from it and observe. Because of my position as a broke working-class employee I didn’t feel I could say anything without risking my own financial neck.

This isn’t a story of how the kids healed me or the women healed me or anything else. I’m not healed. The depression is still there, a pit just under my waking mind. If I look down I’ll see that there’s nothing under me but air, and I’ll fall back in.

Those are more “I” statements, but as I say, this isn’t the story.

What this story is about, really, is that a type of violence was enacted on people. One group of people treated another group like they were just a little less human. One group expected the other to listen, to absorb, to take insults disguised as compliments, to remain separate, to remain less, to clean up shit. That expectation, that violence, is under everything in this country. It stabbed up into greater visibility last night, but it is always there. If you’re fortunate enough not to see it, that doesn’t mean it’s healed.

All you have to do is look down.

Homecoming

I want to talk about one of the moments in Spider-Man: Homecoming that made me cry. (Don’t worry, this is not a spoiler!)

During the end credits, a cartoon version of Spider-Man runs around New York doing cute New Yorky things. He goes to MoMA, and sees a Lichtenstein, which then morphs into a Lichtensteined Spider-Man.

This doesn’t sound like a huge deal right? But here’s why it made me tear up. Roy Lichtenstein created a lot of amazing art, but he also took comics images and used them in his painting. He didn’t credit comics artists, he didn’t do it to shine a spotlight on things people considered “low” culture (as Warhol did, which is why he’s my favorite), he wasn’t commenting on comics as a valid medium. It was, as far as I’ve been able to see, just a gag, not an acknowledgement of art.

And now, in the end credits to Marvel’s best movie in years, their working-class friendly neighborhood everyman takes that art back.

Joe Versus the Blu-Ray Format

Best Movie Ever Joe Versus the Volcano is out on Blu-ray today! Go buy, go watch, fill your soul with joy, make this cult blossom into the behemoth it should have always been.

I wrote (at length!) about why I love this movie so much over at Tor.com, and a couple weeks ago writer Ray Utarnachitt talked about it (at length!) on a podcast called Obsessed RN. He discusses finding the film at different points in his life – basically when he needed it most. He also said some very nice things about my aforementioned article.

It makes me so happy that more people are embracing the film. I think ’90s audiences rejected the mix of earnestness and silliness, but at this point I think that precise is the only thing that might (might!) save us. It’s especially interesting to see JVTV’s influence on people like Bryan Fuller and Wes Anderson, who I think are doing similar work in balancing this sort of goofy optimism and whimsy with a dark undercurrent.

Clearly, brain clouds are the zeitgeist.

Mark Twain's desk and billiards table

All Right Then, I’ll Go to Hell

We were supposed to go to a wedding this weekend, but for various election-related reasons we chose not to go. Instead we spent Thursday driving north. We got to a service station, and when we sat down we realized that the TV had the election all over it. We moved over closer to the food kiosks, and faced the people who made our food. Because of this, I was able to hear as one young man came in for his shift, asked if everyone was OK, and then clapped his hands. “There are protests all over the country. We’re going to get through this.”

We drove back into the City for a fellow No Tokens editor’s book launch. The readings were beautiful, and the evening felt like a good wake – we were sad, but we were sad together, and that sadness was punched through with hope and celebration.

The next day we were back on the road. Movement has helped, as has playing angry fuck-you music as loud as we can stand it. We ended up at an IHOP for dinner (the first time I’ve been in one since college I think) and the crowd in the restaurant were families of all different stripes, a dad with two daughters, a girl with a femme, bleached-hair boy in the corner, families speaking Spanish. When I looked at the menu, each entry had its Spanish translation underneath it.

The next morning, Mike surprised me by taking me to Old Sturbridge Village, and I lost my shit. Now, this requires some backstory: When I was a Tiny Leah, my favorite show in the world was Reading Rainbow. (I was going to marry LeVar Burton, because he lived an exciting life in New York, and he had ALL THE BOOKS.) My favorite episode of RR was called “Ox-Cart Man”, an illustrated adaptation of a long poem by Donald Hall, in which a farmer and his family toil year-round to survive in New Hampshire. I don’t know why that was the episode that spoke to me, but I have watched it almost every autumn since I was a kid. As my fellow RR fans will remember, LeVar always took us on wonderful adventures to complement the episode’s book (highlights include, a Tar Beach in Harlem, the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a radio station, and maybe best of all: A BOOK BINDERY.) LeVar demonstrated the harsh conditions of The Ox-Cart Man by traveling back in time driving to Old Sturbridge Village, a living history farm in Massachusetts where costumed guides actually do all the work necessary to live in 1830’s Massachusetts.

I have wanted to go since I was 7.

When I saw the highway signs and realized where we were going I lost my shit.

Several magical things happened at OSV. A Caribbean-accented family sat together one a bench while their youngest member, a little girl who looked about ten, ran around in a happy frenzy. A Spanish-speaking family went building to building, quietly translating the Villagers’ English for their grandparents. The banker (a real retired banker! who ran the Village’s pretend bank! OMG!) told me two things I never knew about American history, first that the push for federal paper money was part of the call of the Union to unite against the Confederacy, and second, that the earliest counterfeiters were Loyalists who were encouraged by the British to destabilize our early currency. (So I think I found the best possible Hamilton sequel.) As we were about to leave, a little boy came into the gift shop to go to the bathroom. He went to the women’s room first, and his older brother pulled him away, saying “That’s the women‘s room.” A minute later, the boy comes bounding out of the men’s saying, “I wanna go to the women‘s room!” This time no one stopped him, and his mother followed him in.

On the way home we stopped at The Mark Twain House. One of the museum workers asked a standard-issue question about why we came to the House. Mike replied,” The need for sarcasm.” The guide laughed in that dark way everyone’s been laughing for the last few days. “Enjoy it now before it all goes away.”

Oh, how we laughed.

Our guide for the House tour was a young African-American woman named Kadijah (this was the name of Muhammed’s first wife, the one who supported him financially while he founded Islam – I was too shy to ask if she was named for her) who walked us through the House calling Mark Twain “Sam” or “Our Sam”. The main gallery devoted about half of its space to Twain’s fights for civil rights, women’s suffrage, the articles he wrote denouncing anti-Chinese attacks in San Francisco, and detailing life as an enslaved person in 1840’s Missouri. There was far more space dedicated to that than to his time on the Mississippi or his famous, globe-spanning lecture tour.

We drove North rather than spending the weekend on the site of a Confederate plantation. We gave our money to a living history museum and a great American satirist’s home rather than the respectable family that is currently home-schooling their twelve children and raising them to be good Christians on the site of a Confederate plantation.

I love my family, and I’m sorry to miss the wedding, but I needed to see America, the real America, the America that welcomes everyone, that strives to be better, that remembers its history and works to heal the wounds it’s caused. I cannot allow myself to believe that my America is a fiction, or a pipe dream, or a bubble. I can only believe that we will live up to our promise, and dedicate my words and my time and my life to creating the America in my heart.

No Tokens Issue 5

No Tokens Issue #5

Tuesday night was the launch party for the fifth issue of No Tokens. We were back at the Center for Fiction, who gave us a green room and made us feel like rockstars. The readings were all amazing, and I was once again knocked out by the real diversity of our contributors. Not in the superficial way that people throw the word diversity around now, that encourages the tokenism we’re fighting – in the true way, where each person had an utterly unique voice and point of view. Equally heard, and celebrated. It was astonishing to hear them all cuddled up together, literarily speaking, and I am grateful for the night.

I love this journal.

 

Resume.

In my life I have been:

  • A janitor
  • A file clerk (briefly)
  • A cashier (Eckerd Drugs)
  • A deli/bakery worker (A dingy establishment known as Kash’n’Karry)
  • A deli worker (A gleaming establishment known as Publix)
  • An English tutor (this happened a few times)
  • An English Department secretary (Manatee Community College)
  • A car washer (I was performer of the month at The Eager Beaver)
  • A health food del/café cook/manager (The Health Nut)
  • An ice cream slinger (Ben & Jerry’s)
  • A dog washer (Pampered Pets)
  • A daycare worker
  • A private nanny
  • A health food deli worker (briefly)
  • An ice cream slinger (Emack & Bolio’s)
  • A Graduate Teaching Assistant (NYU)
  • An art supply slinger (RIP Pearl Paint)
  • A tutor (after-school program)
  • An editorial assistant (fashion mag)
  • A contract wrangler (licensing agency)
  • A gallery manager (comics museum)
  • An education department head (comics museum)
  • An event coordinator (comics museum; indie publishing outfit; lit journal)
  • An assistant director (indie publishing outfit)
  • An interim director (indie publishing outfit)
  • An editorial assistant (Random House)
  • A writing teacher (middle school)
  • A writing teacher (high school)
  • A writing teacher (comics after-school program)
  • A writing teacher (theater after-school program)
  • A copy-editor (Freelancers Union)
  • A copy-editor/writer (private clients)
  • A fiction editor (No Tokens)
  • A writer (Tor.com)
  • A writer (my giant stupid novel)

I have so many names!

Leah = the weary one. She was the sister of Rachel, the ugly one whom Jacob was tricked into marrying. I always wanted her & Esau to blow that popsicle stand and run away together. I do in fact have a friend named Rachel, she was one of the prettiest girls in school, she did get more guys than me, and she was my first kiss.

I was not named after that Leah, however. I was named for the Roy Orbison song.

My middle name, Shannon, is the river that winds its way through the gorgeous emerald hills of Ireland. I was also not named for that. Nor was I named for Castle Shannon, the lower-middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood where my mother grew up. Nope, I was named for the Shannon trolley, which my mother took to her job at U.S. Steel.

And Schnelbach is German, obviously, and means swift brook.

Teachers

The first time I remember thinking about this:

Symbolit was in a middle school science class. The teacher explained that it was a symbol for hermaphroditism – a condition in which people believed they were both male and female. I later learned that this wasn’t remotely accurate, but at the time, I didn’t know that, and anyway I was too busy processing my thrill of recognition to care. The (again, science) teacher went on to say that these people were sexually attracted to both men and women (cue more thrilling) – oh, and that people who used this symbol usually ended up dead of AIDS.

Did I mention that this was not a sex-ed class? That he just brought this up out of nowhere, with the symbol loaded up on the overhead projector?

I remember being angry at the teacher, and deciding that he was wrong, but it’s entirely possible that my brain is retroactively making me stronger than I was. I had always liked him; I was crushed by this weird mini-lecture; memory is tricksy. What I remember is being so exhilarated – feeling like someone else was showing me myself – only to punch the mirror next to my face as I started to smile.

When I saw Prince using his own version of the symbol as a name I remember feeling that same thrill. In my mind it’s woven together with how I felt reading David Bowie interviews, watching The Man Who Fell to Earth, realizing that I had more options than the binary that had always felt like a trap. They gave me that sense of exhilaration back. They demanded that I look in the mirror again. The told me to love what I saw, and fucking dance with my own reflection.