Less!

I promised myself I could read Andrew Sean Greer’s Less as a reward for getting through New York Comic-Con, and it took me an extra month but I’ve finally gotten to it! It’s as funny as I hoped it would be, but it’s also not afraid to be tenderhearted, and Greer makes some life observations that are simply fantastic.

Here’s one of my favorite passages:

…he looks out at the city: the Empire State Building, twenty blocks down, is echoed, below, by an Empire Diner with a card stock sign: PASTRAMI. From the other window, near Central Park, he sees the sign for the Hotel New Yorker. They are not kidding, no sir. No more than the New England inns called the Minuteman and the Tricorner are kidding, with their colonial cupolas topped with wrought iron weather vanes, their cannonball pyramids out front, or the Maine lobster pounds called the Nor’easter, hung with traps and glass buoys, are kidding, or the moss-festooned restaurants in Savannah, or the Western Grizzly Dry Goods, or the Florida Gator This and Gator That, or even the Californian Surfboard Sandwiches and Cable Car Cafes and Fog City Inn, are kidding. Nobody is kidding. They are dead serious. People think of Americans as easygoing, but in fact they are all dead serious, especially about their local culture; they name their bars “saloons” and their shops “Ye Olde”; they wear the colors of the local high school team; they are Famous For Their Pies. Even in New York City.

It’s pretty rare for a comic novel to win a Pulitzer—there are comic elements in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I’d argue that both of them find the foundations of their stories in tragedy. The only other novel that I think could be called truly comic is A Confederacy of Dunces, which is also shot through with sadness, but it’s a smaller, human-scale sadness, not the genocide that shatters the lives of the de Leons and the Kavalieris.

I might be slightly invested in the reception of novels that aim for comedy, since Manifolds (if it works) is a skewed comic campus novel, and As-Yet-Untitled Novel #2 will probably be comic-picaresque-historical-theological-fiction.

Probably.

I got yer Winter Light right here

I promise I am also writing in between walks in the woods, but when the light is like this? It would be a moral failing not to go wandering.

These low stone walls criss-cross every hill, which is hilarious to me since I just reread the first few Earthsea books.

Following deer. Not finding any damn deer.

BLUE.

There is no describing the particular quiet of a pine forest.

Once again, BLUE.

Berries!

I mean, come on.

Come on.

In the studio!

Here at I-Park. My fellow residents are all fantastic—startlingly talented and genuine. Currently sitting in my studio listening to Sufjan, snow melt, and wind that occasionally kicks up into a whistle in the pines around me. Here are some pictures!

The pond:

 

A sound sculpture:

 

Tim Norris’ The Journey:

 

My studio sign:

 

Light in the dark!

 

Stove and books:

 

I’m not entirely sure I brought enough books?

 

My studio in the snow!

 

Snow on the skylight!

 

And inevitably, my desk:

Ganesha and coffee will remove all obstacles.

[Not pictured: imposter syndrome.]

[Pictured yet ineffable: Sufjan Stevens’ voice gently suggesting that perhaps I should be a better person.]

A Residency at I-Park!

I am so happy to say that I’ve been invited to be an artist-in-residence by the I-Park Foundation! As of today I will be in the woods, writing as hard as I can.

Here’s I-Park’s Mission:

Nurturing artists and the creative process – in the fine arts and in nature.

I-Park is both an open-air and a closed-studio laboratory for individual creative pursuits in the fields of music composition/sound art, the visual arts, architecture, moving image, creative writing and landscape/garden/ecological design. From insights developed in the laboratory setting, it also develops and sponsors specially-themed cross-disciplinary projects of cultural significance – and brings these discoveries to light in the public domain.

I-Park supports these individual and collaborative investigations through its international artists-in-residence program, the aesthetic engagement of its natural and built environments and with on-site exhibitions, performances and collegial exchanges.

Since its founding in 2001, I-Park has sponsored over 900 fully-funded artists’ residencies.

I will try to track my progress (or at least provide photos of all the fauna I encounter) but I think at this point it’s clear that I’m terrible at updating my own blog? I’ll do my best.

Buy my book, won't you?

Ten Years of Tor.com in One Handy Place!

Tor.com turned 10 years old on Friday, July 20, 2018! Over the decade, we’ve published 30,000 articles, covering everything from the Silmarillion to the importance of coffee in Star Trek to the wonders of centaur digestion. To commemorate this momentous occasion, we’ve assembled Rocket Fuel, a free collection of some of the best feature articles from Tor.com’s 10-year history—which you can download for free right now at this very moment.

I am honored to have two pieces in the collection: “Sometimes, Horror is the Only Fiction That Understands You” and “Preparing Myself for Death with Joe Versus the Volcano.” Of everything I’ve written for the site, it seems fitting to me that my two most personal articles were the ones voted in, and I am ecstatic that my work is standing alongside some of my favorite people and writers.

So, in conclusion, download our book?

Hugo Award Nominations Are Open!

Hugo LogoThe Hugo Award nominations are now open! If you are a Hugo-nominating-type person, please do me the honor of considering one of my Tor.com articles in the Best Related Work category. Of all of my work last year, there are two pieces that make me particularly proud:

This Fantasy Might Save Your Life: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America” was an early entry in my column, TBR Stack. I look back at Kushner’s groundbreaking epic on its 25th anniversary, highlighting the play’s status as a fantasy and looking at its lasting emotional power. This article is one of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written.

Giving History a Better Ending: Marvel, Terrorism, and the Aftermath of 9/11” delves into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s relationship to the iconography of terrorism. This one took a bit of research, requiring me to re-watch all the films in the MCU, plus all of the (pre-Defenders) Marvel/Netflix shows, while reading their uses of imagery and exploring the way they use collective grief to tell a giant, interlocking story.

Thank you as always for reading!

A Star Wars Appendix!

I don’t often do this, but a few days ago I finally got my thoughts on The Last Jedi coralled enough that I could write about them. The result was a long article on how the Star Wars series riffs on religion, and you can read it over at Tor.com.

Because it was lonnnnng, we cut a small section toward the end discussing the newer Star Wars’ films’ attempts to depict interior faith in addition to exterior works. I liked what I came up with, so I’ve decided to share it here. Enjoy!

Faith and Works

One aspect that the new films have brought to the fore is the nature of faith in the Star Wars universe. Obviously you can’t really quantify faith, but throughout the earlier films we saw the Force through actions and results—like this snazzy number:

Obi-Wan sacrifices himself, but he’s back as a Force-ghost-voice before the end of the film. Luke rejects Vader’s offer of power, and throws away his lightsaber rather than fight—but were those moral choices or simply responses to his complicated feelings about his father? And what is Anakin’s own obsession with stopping death other than a massive failure of faith?

Which no, you don’t have to have faith to be religious any more than you have to have religion in order to be moral, you can practice most religions without believing in them, and some of the best people I know reject religious belief. But it did always seem interesting to me that we have a story about the collapse and resurgence of a religion in which none of the people discuss their beliefs. They just know. Luke never questions the Force ghosts. Never asks about afterlife, or the genesis of Tatooine, or any of the stuff that people entering into religious belief usually do, there is none of the fervency of the convert.

But here in the most recent three films we finally get that.

Finally, the Star Wars Universe has given us examples of faith—not just riffs on religious icons, or the results of using the Force, but belief in the Force.

In the person of Chirrut Imwe, we have the most explicitly religious Star Wars character. Chirrut’s mantra of “I am one with the Force. The Force is with me” cuts through dogma and denominational differences to emphasize reliance on the Force. His robe and staff recall the aesthetic of a Buddhist monk, but we don’t learn the particular rules of the Guardians, and he never attempts to instruct anyone in his particular strain of Force-faith—he simply leads by example. Even though his Temple has been destroyed and ransacked by oppressive Romans Imperial Stormtroopers, he trusts the Force, which seems to work through him despite his lack of Jedi training.

Rey’s belief is in the story itself. She believed in the story of the Force and the Jedi before she met Han and Luke. She meets Luke, and despite his grumpiness she earnestly sets off on an interior journey. She doesn’t quit when that journey doesn’t give her the answer she wants. She doesn’t give up when Kylo turns out to be untrustworthy. Her ally is the Force, more than any of the rest of them. Rey allows it to guide her during her initial fight with Kylo Ren, and again, when he offers her power. Despite Luke’s shabby treatment of her, despite learning of the problems with the Order, she puts her trust in the Force as it is within her, and follows it.

What of the other new Force user?

Kylo doesn’t even have to believe in the Force, it’s present within him, and if Luke is to be believed, manifests more strongly in him than in anyone else in the galaxy. But this raises questions: has Anakin ever visited Kylo? In The Force Awakens, Kylo essentially prays to his grandfather Anakin, promising that he will do his will. But how can he not know that Anakin turned away from the Dark Side? Has he simply rejected that part of the history he was (presumably) taught?

All of these questions are swept away in The Last Jedi. Kylo is so obsessed with outer trappings—demonstrations of power, hierarchy, his Gothy, nu-Vader lewk—that I think he’s lost access to any sense of working with the Force. He doesn’t want to tear the Jedi order down in order to build something better, or even to wreak vengeance on Uncle Luke—he just wants to destroy until he’s left alone and unchallenged. (We’ll see if I’m right in Part IX)

And finally Luke, the fallen monk, the failed Jedi, the bad teacher, who wanted to become a Jedi like his father?

We see him become greater than Anakin, than Obi-Wan, than Yoda. He reopens himself to the Force, knowing that it will kill him. He sacrifices himself not to Kylo, in order to teach Rey a lesson, or to death, because his body had naturally aged. He sacrifices himself to the Force Itself, privately, with no one to watch him, or learn from him, or understand just how extraordinary his act of Boddhisatvaism is. We’ve seen him spar, we’ve seen him battle, we’ve seen him manipulate, we’ve even seen him toss his lightsaber away, but this?

He is alone with the Force, and the Force is with him.

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.