Survived 2015? How about thrived in 2015!

December 31, 2015

To be honest, twelve months ago I wasn’t 100% certain I’d be here today. At least not sitting in the baby’s nursery in our house, writing while she napped. I was fending off what was described by one of my colleagues as “academic McCarthyism.” One more witch hunt and I was done. I’d worked to become a sociology professor since my freshman year at Oxford College. I made it to the highest rank of full professor in a career that I think made a difference in the world. Then a small band of very powerful bureaucrats made it so bad that I just walked away. But I didn’t really walk away from anything. I walked toward my family and my art.

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I really thought 2015 was going to suck. How could I live without my students and my university support? It actually turned out to be maybe the best year of my life. Thanks to my iron-willed wife, Andrea, and the magic of our baby, Cozette, everything seemed to just fall into place. Our Kickstarter project was more than successful, giving me the financial support to work on the new novel. We spent seven amazing weeks living in Mexico, most of it on a beautiful tropical island where I spent my days either teaching or scuba diving with sea turtles. I still had my classes at the University of Oregon and much of the time I just enjoyed watching Andrea paint and Cozy become a toddler with her very own personality. Three truly is a magic number.

But I didn’t want this post to be about me and how awesome I am because I turned a turd into a golden nugget. It’s about three words I once heard Joseph Campbell say in The Power of Myth documentary; three words that became a bumpersticker but also an easy answer to that pesky “meaning of life” question. Follow you bliss. Follow your bliss. Follow your bliss.

Life has so many obstacles. Some are small. How do you handle a kitchen floor that is eternally sticky from a baby throwing food on it? Some are big. How do you help family members who don’t seem to be able to help themselves? Some are massive. What do we do about the endless amount of toxins in our food? There are almost 8 billion people on the planet and they’ve all got a busload of problems. If you’re one of the few mega-wealthy folks, like Donald Trump, your main problem is what to do to cure your boredom. (“How about I run for president? It will be fantastic!”) Meanwhile, the rest of us are just figuring out how much money needs to fall out of the sky so we can get the gutters fixed, or at least afford the organic avocados.

You can see how people get beat down. Some just give up. It makes me wonder how many of the over 300,000 suicides each year in the United States are just some form of protest against modern living. Against the mass of bill collectors and traffic jams and broken appliances and kids who aren’t happy because they don’t have the latest phone and and and so much noise. No wonder drugs and alcohol are so appealing to Americans. A whole Latin American drug trade exists for the benefit of over-stressed Americans who want a mental vacation on Saturday nights (or a bit of the hair of the dog on Monday mornings).

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I really understand why people turn to their gods and goddess to provide a bit a sanctuary from the din. There is something awe inspiring walking into a Cathedral that men have built as a tribute to their faith in the great unknown. But then the facts are often that that House of God was often built on a real house of horrors. The first time I visited the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (where my great grandfather was in the seminary), I was stopped in my tracks by the majesty of its grandeur. It was truly sublime. But then I learned that all that gold and opulence came from the raping and pillaging that was the Crusades. Oh, well. Anyway, lots of religious people kill themselves every day, so maybe it’s not the only direction out of the clamor.

This year for me has been about bringing things down to the micro. I’ve spent so much of my life focused on global matters that I’ve neglected my own evolution at times. In college, I was more concerned with affairs in Central America than how my own family members were doing. In grad school we built shantytowns to protest South African apartheid, but I didn’t do much to tear down the walls in my own life. And my work at the university was dedicated to helping my students engage in the world in a meaningful way. Now I had a chance to engage in my world in a personal way.

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There’s so many cliches around parenthood, but it really does change you. Your ego just gets turned upside down. Part of that is seeing that you can’t really make big changes in the world until you’ve made big changes in yourself. To have this year of self-reflection and quiet from the rush rush of higher ed work has been a great gift. To have a partner like Andrea to guide me through it has been a privilege that I didn’t want to waste.

So 2015, the year I wrote The Dream Police and short screenplays and blog posts. The year I listen to jazz and “The Wheels on the Bus.” The year I worked for the National Institute of Justice and did a hundred TV interviews. The year this blog went crazy viral because of a few timely posts about the threat of Trump. And the year I watched my daughter learn to walk and talk. The happiest moments were when I just followed my bliss, just writing a page or helping Cozy to put her rain boots on. Those small moments when I chose to do the things that made me happy and not worry about the things that threatened that happiness. Letting go, like some magical Van Morrison song, into the viaducts of your dreams, to be born again.

Life is interstitial. It’s between the structures we spend our time building. It’s the magic moments between the cracks, where something unexpected grows. Life can be hard. It could always be worse, right? But it could always be a little bit better as well. No matter how much money and privilege we have, we can’t fight the hands of time. Even Donald Trump will be dead at some point. (I can hear him say now, “Death is over-rated. Really, death is not very good. Believe me. I can do much  better than death.) Every single person has a right to get discouraged. You may even have a right to quit.

The lesson is that if you can do what you love, even a little bit, you are winning. Even if your house gets destroyed by a winter tornado. Even if you get laid off. And yes, even if someone you love very much does not make it, you can find little moments of joy between the cracks that make the whole nightmare worth it. In the future, when I think about 2015, I won’t remember filing lawsuits or the colleagues who faded from view. I won’t remember the dread of pulling out WIC vouchers at the check-out line of grocery store. I won’t remember contemplations of giving up. I’ll remember evenings when Andrea was painting, I was writing, we had a bottle of wine open, John Coltrane on the stereo and our baby was asleep, dreaming of sea turtles.

Happy new year! 2016 will have some of the best moments of your life. I promise.

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Dad’s Favorite Discs 2015

December 28, 2015

SaturnspatternDespite the fact, now that The Beatles are streaming on Spotify, there is a whole new generation of kids that will never listen to Rubber Soul straight through, I’m still a firm believer in the album format. Artists like Kendrick Lamar can have a complete musical vision that can’t be represented by one track. Some, like Bjork, will actually wrap it in some wonderful album artwork. And some will release a set of songs that you just can’t stop playing. For me that was the 9 track album a hero of mine from my teenage days, Paul Weller. Andrea and I both played the hell out of it and it will still be on heavy rotation in the new year.

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It was hard to hang out in record stores this year with a wild monkey living in our casa. I even fell behind on my three favorite music podcasts (Sound Opinions, All Songs Considered, and Alt Latino). Most of the year was spent watching Cozy transform from a baby into a toddler, and on planes and writing my ass off. But there was still plenty of music in the house and the one thing we learned in 2015 is that Cozy Valentina loves to dance, especially to hip hop and Latin music. And she likes record stores, too.

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The six weeks we spent in Mexico helped to infuse her with her native rhythms. Our weekly “Sunday Funday” fix of Cuban music on the beach and the endless playing of Osmani Garcia and Pitbull’s single, “Taxi,” had her up on her feet and shaking her diaper. The other day I was playing some dreary Bob Dylan and she figured out how to get the CD out of the stereo and replace it with a Bomba Estero disc. She hit play, climbed on the table and danced. She’s mama’s girl.

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There was a great theme of classic jazz this year. The amazing DJs on KMHD got me through the ups and downs of 2015. They provided much of the soundtrack while I worked on my new novel, The Dream Police. The year culminated with a show at the Village Vanguard in New York City a few weeks ago. The Christian McBride Trio provided an evening of bliss in the world’s most historic jazz cellar.

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We actually did manage to get out and see some shows this year thanks to some much appreciated babysitting. We went to see Patti Smith, Algiers, Madonna, Genders, Emily Kinney, La Santa Cecilia and Paul Weller. Andrea made it to shows by Sleater-Kinney and Elle King. And Cozy went to her first two concerts with us this year, U2 in Vancouver and then The Waterboys in Portland.

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As I predicted, I bought a lot less music in 2015 (and a lot more diapers). But here are 20 releases from 2015 I really enjoyed. I’ve been a Paul Weller fan since he was in The Jam in the late 1970s and I think his latest is one of the best things he’s ever done. Seeing him play these songs at the Wonder Ballroom in October was beyond thrilling. And I have to say how excited I was about a new ELO album. It may really just be a Jeff Lynne album but it captures what was great about the group in the seventies; the music that inspired my last book.

  1. Paul Weller – Saturns Patterns
  2. Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone in the Universe
  3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  4. Algiers – Algiers
  5. The Waterboys – Modern Blues
  6. Bomba Estereo – Amanecer
  7. Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love
  8. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
  9. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
  10. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah
  11. Madonna – Rebel Heart
  12. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  13. Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Best of the Cutting Edge
  14. Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
  15. Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart
  16. Bjork – Vulnicura
  17. Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure
  18. Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon
  19. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  20. Pete Townshend – Truancy

You can stream tracks here on my Spotify 2015 Top 20 playlist.

Honorable mention: Waxahatchee – Ivy Trip, Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night, The Flaming Lips – With a Little Help From My Fwends, Ringo Starr – Postcards From Paradise, Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect, Various Artists – PDX Pop Now 2015

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I love year-end lists. They typically serve as shopping lists (or at least streaming). SO much music to catch up on. I bought a Kedrick Lamar track over the summer but the album topped so many year-end lists, I finally purchased the whole thing and now I get it (but it loses points for all the “bitch” talk). It will be on heavy rotation in 2016. But it’s going to have to compete with the new David Bowie album out on January 8. And I know I need to get into Grimes and give that Sujan Stevens album another try. But what all about the great stuff that I’ll be ranking a year from now? When am I going to listen to that?

I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m sure when I get the latest albums by Alabama Shakes, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Dwight Yoakum, and Young Fathers I’ll wish I had listened to them in 2015. Cozy just wants more salsa and hip hop. I’m setting aside some album time when Cozy goes off the college.

Go back 1 year! Dad’s Favorite Discs 2014

Why George Bailey (and I) didn’t jump off that bridge.

December 23, 2015

Who doesn’t love all the lights and spiked eggnog? The Fox News war on Hanukkah aside, there’s lots of smiles in this season of holidays. But for so many, Christmas is a time of deep sadness. Even the best seasonal songs are downers, like “Blue Christmas” and “ Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (“Next year our troubles will be miles away”). It’s a myth that suicide rates go up over the holidays but it makes sense to a lot of people that between the economic pressures to buy more crap, absent loved ones and your drunk uncle who won’t stop complaining about ISIS, the exit door has a strong appeal.

On top of this is the uplifting, then soul crushing, then uplifting again Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. The 1946 film was a sleeper hit thanks to UHF and late night movie showings in dozens of Decembers. It’s rightfully become a classic, brilliantly executed by director Frank Capra. That close-up shot of the face of George Bailey (completely inhabited by Jimmy Stewart) when he realizes he is experiencing something more than a lucid dream has surely inspired every little David Lynch to see that film has the potential to slam every human emotion into one brief scene.

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I’ve seen this film more than any other and it is burned into my consciousness. When I fell through the ice as a kid, I worried about losing my hearing. When I lectured about bank fraud to my criminology students, I talked about Mr. Potter’s savings & loan grab. And on the Christmas Eves that I was alone I just wanted to get drunk in a bar like Martini’s. Flaming rum punch! We assume everyone and their buffalo gal has seen it.

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Capra takes on the dark matter of suicide and puts a Christmas bow on it and then hits us over the head with the message that our lives really do matter. George Bailey decides not to kill himself, instead returning to his family and friends. Then Clarence gets his angel wings and Zuzu’s petals grow into a garden. “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

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The dark matter of suicide has been a theme in my own life, as anyone who has read The Mission of the Sacred Heart could guess. The first time I stood on the edge, I had just turned 16 and was overwhelmed by the chaos in my family (and probably too many viewings of Quadrophenia). I thought about throwing myself in a lake in Stone Mountain, Georgia that was probably three feet deep. Then there was Pont Neuf above the Seine River in Paris and the fantasy of the romantic death. The big one was in 1998, with a brief failed marriage and an assumption that “all you need is love” was a giant lie. (I still had a lot of self-reflection yet to do.)

I was pulled off a cliff in Ecola State Park by a cop from Seaside, Oregon who was very honest about his own rough patches. I agreed to go into therapy and it was the beginning of the journey to understanding what this suicidal impulse was. It’s something that runs in the family. There have been a bunch of attempts by others in my clan, but we all came out the other side better people. It seems silly or stupid to people who have never been encased inside an inescapable darkness, but I know there are plenty of people reading this who have been down in that pit.

The first part of therapy is the intervention. Stop doing dangerous things! So the immediate message is this – Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. So true. If I’ve learned one thing in my 51 years on earth is that, at some point, everything will be in the rearview mirror. You are going to get knocked down in life. You are measured by how you get back up. Survive and thrive. Some seriously great stuff is coming. The other quick mantra you get is that suicide is an inherently selfish act. You check out and leave the people who love you with a lifetime of pain. So don’t be a dick on your last day.

When you are in the grips of depression, sometimes it’s hard to see that. The psychiatrist immediately put me on Zoloft which made me feel like I was mainlining espresso. But it gave me a plan. I wanted to know why is it so hard to actually kill yourself. So I started writing the story of Mission and I promised myself I wouldn’t kill myself until it was done. And then when I finished, I had my answer and decided that life was worth sticking around for. The fact that others have told me that my story helped them with their suicidal issues means I must’ve found a valid answer.

Most of us depressives have our favorite way to imagine our grand finale. For some it’s the peaceful sleep of an overdose, or a violent but quick gunshot to the head. For me it was drowning, the idea of returning to the water. Then someone told me that drowning is actually the worst way to go. You just can’t win.

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While I was writing the book, I was having a lot of conversations about suicide with a friend of mine named Heather. I was so wrapped up in fixing myself, I didn’t see how deep her struggles were. In 2008 she jumped off a parking deck, leaving a wonderful husband and 5-year-old daughter behind. She was a PhD. and well revered in her field but completely consumed by her depressive thoughts. Mission is dedicated to her. If she had decided not to jump, she could’ve gotten to see how much her daughter now looks like her.  Instead she must be haunted because of her mother’s impulse to exit.

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These things have a tendency to stick around. By the Christmas 2008, I was in a similar spot. Christmas morning I watched Wonderful Life and balled my eyes out. Then a radio program about suicide came on. (Merry Christmas!) Someone had interviewed the handful of people who had survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and they all said the exact same thing. The second after they jumped, they all said to themselves this; I want to live. More sobbing but something that people like me need to hear.

Therapy has been a wonderful friend. Besides working out why this “feminist” kept having similar problems with the women in his life, I got a better picture of my suicidal ideations. It’s about escape and control, getting the last word and checking out on your own terms. It’s not that different from the guys that shoot up their workplaces or schools with the intention of dying in a hail of police bullets. But you don’t get the privilege of looking down from heaven and saying, “I really showed them!” You’re just dead. (This is why religions really have to make suicide a big No No. The fantasy of the afterlife might make watching the aftermath of your death pretty appealing. “Oh, that asshole’s sorry now!”)

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I think my suicidal impulses really started to disappear that day in 2014 when we first heard Cozy’s heartbeat. My whole world changed in that moment. It was no longer about me but this child, about protecting her and making the world a better place for her. When she was born, my very sense of self was transformed. There was only one priority, making her and her mom happy.

The blues still come back. I’ve got a whole legion of racist skinheads, psychotic bigots, neo-Nazis, and now Trump cultists that would like me to drink an arsenic smoothie and they occasionally make my life hell. The university witchhunt that culminated last winter had me back in that black hole and I re-upped my Zoloft. I was in similar place on Christmas Eve, on the verge of losing “everything.” But it was different this time. I had a mandate to stick around and fight for my child and her generation. Cozy cured me of thoughts of diving into the Willamette River. I want to be there for her to the last moment. And I don’t want to miss a second of her own wonderful life. I would never want her to suffer the way every single child of suicide has suffered. I might be living in a box under a bridge, but I’ll be there. In a box under a bridge. I’m sure Frances Bean Cobain would take that. (And the Zoloft sits unused in the medicine cabinet if you need some.)

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That moment when George Bailey is back on the bridge, praying to live, is a gift. It’s the moment that most folks have the second after they’ve jumped and it goes unanswered by anything but the last moment of pain. There is always joy ahead. As bad as things get, they always get so much better. If I had jumped at any of those points I would have missed all the bliss that was ahead for me. That incredible Sonny Rollins song KMHD Jazz Radio played in the middle of a rainstorm yesterday. The moment yesterday when Cozy rubbed her face in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And Andrea’s beautiful face when I dropped her off for work this morning as she said, “Take care of my baby today.” How could I even have imagined forfeiting that? There are surely some hard times ahead, but there are many more moments of bliss like that.

Social media reminds us of how many totally miserable people there are out there. Some are truly suffering from depression. Some are just sad, sad people who want everybody to hurt the way they do. They haven’t found the strength yet to see the root causes of the negative patterns in their lives. I’m sure they all have had moments on that bridge in Bedford Falls. I would say to all of them, there is great joy ahead that is worth sticking around for. One minute with Andrea and Cozy is the reward for not quitting this mortal coil, easily worth all the emo months of dwelling on my grand demise. And there’s a lot more of those beautiful minutes ahead. So stick around, okay? And dance by the light of the moon.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s streaming for free here: WONDERFUL

NOTE: As my friend Dave just pointed out, George does in fact jump off that bridge, but it is to save Clarence Oddbody, AS2.

A Star Wars for Our Daughters

December 19, 2015

There are no major spoilers in this post about The Force Awakens, including anything about the Wookie-Ewok wedding at the end of the film.

Now that the long wait is over, I can reveal what makes The Force Awakens perhaps the best Star Wars film of the series. This opinion is greatly influenced by the fact that I am now the father of a little girl and have a vested interest in the world being a fairer and kinder place for females.

When the first Star Wars film came out in 1977 I was a 13-year-old boy waiting in line for the first screening at the Lefont Tara theater in Atlanta. The word was out among comic book and sci-fi fans that this was a different kind of space movie. I bought a program that listed all the actors who would soon be icons. When that giant Empire ship moved across the opening scene, all our jaws dropped. I don’t remember any girls in the audience but there must have been a few.

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Later that year, at the Atlanta Comicon, I entered a costume contest. We didn’t call it “cosplay” yet. In honor of the Marvel Kiss comic book, I went as Paul Stanley. I was beat out by a Jawa and a Sand Person. Star Wars had taken hold of the universe.

 

hqdefaultWhen the third Star Wars film, The Return of the Jedi, came out in 1983 I was a 19-year-old college boy (I saw it opening day at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta). This is the film where Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer) is enslaved by the grotesque Jaba the Hut and forced to wear a bikini with a chain around her neck. The image was featured prominently in the movie posters and promotional materials and is the only thing a lot of fanboys remember about that film. I should point out that badass Leia ends up strangling Jaba with that chain in what could be viewed the greatest feminist metaphor in all film history. (Similarly, I’m sure some claim Game of Thrones is feminist because a few of the many rapists on the show get beheaded. Um, no.)

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But that image has remained iconic among the sci fi boy world. Not the killing of the slaver but the eroticizing of the slave. Carrie Fischer has said how much she resented director Richard Marquand putting her body on display in that scene. But how many boys wanted a slave Leia of their own? I’m willing to bet that 99% of comic conventions have at least one “Slave Leia” cosplayer in attendance with Jaba the Hut-like boys getting wood right and left. Even Kim Kardashian has worn the outfit. So there’s that.

I try not get sucked into the pop culture hype machine (Adele, meh.), but I would be lying if I didn’t say my 13-year-old self was reawakened by the fact that J.J. Abrams was doing the next chapter of Star Wars, the follow up to The Revenge of the Jedi. Besides the cool Star Trek/Star Wars link, Abrams is just two years younger than me and has the same reverence for the Skywalker mythology.

And a mythology it is, deeply rooted in the most ancient heroic tales. If you’ve never heard religion scholar Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) discuss the links between Star Wars and the ancient myth of the reluctant hero, you should. It’s a life-changing analysis. These are old tales. But they are typically stories about boys and men.

That’s why The Force Awakens is such an absolute joy. Yeah, it’s great to see our old heroes rolled out of the prop closet. (Harrison Ford looks only a bit more rusted than C-3P0.) But our reluctant Skywalker hero is now a female named Rey, played genderlessly by newcomer Daisy Ridley. The nearly all-male cast of the original has been expanded to include plenty of amazing female actors, including Fischer, Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie, and Oscar award winner Lupita Nyong’o.

The cast is also much more ethnically diverse, including Finn, the other reluctant-hero, played by black Brit John Moyega, and a Latino X-wing fighter named Poe (Oscar Isaac). This made my Mexican wife very happy but of course it infuriated racist trolls and Donald Trump supporters who lamented the “political correctness” of the casting and mounted a pointless #BoycottStarWarsVII campaign on Twitter.

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Having a female hero like Rey surely means a lot to the scores of female fans. When Finn tries to hold her hand during an attack by the bad guys, she rips her hand away and assures him that she can take care of herself. And that’s the sub-plot of the film. What at first appears to be a “damsel in distress” scenario gets turned on its head and here comes our girl to the rescue. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler.) Even Han Solo recognizes her badassness. She’s ultimately a Skywalker-Solo hybrid who drives a giant movie on her never uncovered shoulders.

There’s sort of a sad test to measure the “feministness” of a film called the Bechdel Test. Do two women in a movie have a conversation about something other than a man? Lots of  “chick-flicks” have a female heavy cast but the dialogue is often about their men (i.e. every Jennifer Lopez movie ever made). The Force Awakens has several scenes that pass including one with (now) General Leia Organa and Rey.

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J. J. Abrams has a teenage daughter so I have to think he thought of her and how her experience sitting in a theater would be different than a girl sitting in the theater in 1977. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy have given us an epic tale that puts a female protagonist at the center for at least three films (Star Wars 8 and 9 are scheduled for 2017 and 2019). Along with this year’s successful Mad Max film, it serves to rewrite the narrative that boys like action and girls like romance. (The other side of ledger would be films that deal with the romantic emotional lives of boys and men. Where is this generation’s Woody Allen?)

When we think about movies and video games that are targeted at boys and boyish men, there are usually lots of explosions, chases, shooting, and scantily clad women who need to be rescued. It’s a male-driven narrative. The Force Awakens has plenty of those tropes but seriously tweaks the primary one and that may be a game changer for a generation of fanboys and their sisters.

Like 1977 (and 1980 and 1983), I was in the theater Thursday for the opening night of The Force Awakens. I had our tickets months in advance. I could barely contain myself with excitement as I fell through a time hole to my adolescent self.  And like 1977, the theater audience was 90% male. (Do these guys have wives or girlfriends? Some brought Star Wars toys, though. That may be part of the puzzle of patriarchal pop culture.) When the John Williams score started and the Star Wars logo appeared on the screen, we all screamed with approval (as we did whenever any of the original cast of characters and spaceships appeared). The film was wonderfully loyal to the original trilogy in all the important ways, but was a huge departure in one very significant way. Hopefully that evolution continues. Carrie Fischer made it clear to her young female cast mates, “Avoid the slave girl costume.

Andrea and I always have a good conversation after a film and it was immediately clear how important it was to her to have a female protagonist in such a massively hyped film. She loved having a hero that looked like her. It was a subtle message buried inside an epic tale that all those boys in the audience will hopefully digest without even thinking, Oh, the main hero was a girl! That’s how change happens. After our post-film analysis, Andrea excitedly said, “I can’t wait until our daughter is old enough to show her this movie.” Me either.

 

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 5: Elmo is queer

December 15, 2015

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It’s funny how we look for gender clues in toddlers. When Cozy wears my old baby clothes or the Atlanta Falcons gear my dad bought her, people don’t hesitate to make her male (although he did also buy a Falcons cheerleader outfit for her). When she’s pretty in pink, it’s all good in the Ladyland hood. As a sociologist of gender, I keep looking for it and wonder what, if anything, is innate about gender. She watches her dad cook and clean house. Will she see those as male activities? I’m the nurturer, wiping her butt and a face every five minutes. Her Mexican mom is much sterner so there’s the authority in the house.

Cozy turns 16-months-old in a few days and she’s fully into imitating behavior now (which means I need to watch my fucking mouth). The three-year-old girl on a flight to Atlanta taught her Peek-a-boo and that’s her jam now. She imitates me washing dishes (that’s a good hobby), but she really loves to imitate her mother. Especially when it comes to make-up. Maybe it’s the just the feel of the brushes on her face, but when mom is at her make-up table, Cozy is wrapped up in a lesson from the master.

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The other night Andrea was at an art gallery, hanging out with some beatniks and Cozy and I were home. Cozy climbed up on to mom’s vanity and looked at herself in the mirrors. She picked up different lipsticks and brushes and I could see it starting. “This what I do to be like mom.” Now, first of all Andrea doesn’t have to do any of that but she’s an artist and has really created an amazing look for herself. And secondly, a little boy of the same age could also find his way to mom’s make-up table and be as fascinated by all the candy-colored treats.

I found myself wanting to pull her down and shove her beloved Elmo doll under her arm. Say what you will about Sesame Street going to HBO and PBS running only the too-short 30 minute versions of the show (Abby’s Flying Fairy School just got gentrified the fuck out of this neighborhood), there is salvation in Elmo. Elmo is my daughter’s security blanket and a link to something close to baby bliss.

Elmo first stumbled on to Sesame Street in the early 1970s as “baby monster,” so the little red thing should be firmly in its 40s by now, instead of perpetually 3-and-a-half. But the one thing that’s consistent about Elmo is Elmo’s non-gender (and maybe the fact that Elmo bizarrely is unable to refer to himself or herself in the first person). Most see Elmo as a boy monster but there are plenty of little girls who see Elmo as a girl monster. Elmo is gender-queer. I was just in New York City and saw four Elmos in Times Square. Were there males or females in those costumes? It really doesn’t matter as long as they were fairly sober.

Elmo is a blank slate that we write gender scripts on to. In a patriarchy, the fallback assumption is male and Sesame Street exists in patriarchy so there are some who refer to Elmo as “he,” but are you really sure about Elmo? He/She doesn’t wear pants so there should be some extra red fur down there. Yeah, you might see Elmo dressed like Indiana Jones but also wearing a tutu. Singing hard with Elvis Costello and later singing softly with Norah Jones. Elmo doesn’t expect Elmo to be masculine or feminine. Elmo is just Elmo, free of gendered norms.

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So, even though her Elmo doll is probably made in a Chinese sweatshop, I’m happy Cozy feels a connection to the little red monster. Her Elmo is not a baby doll with lessons about mothering or a Barbie Doll with a dozen problematic messages about body image and heteronormativity. Elmo comes with one message, Elmo loves you. Elmo’s like Jesus but a lot cuter. Maybe if Jesus was a genderless furry monster baby, some of his followers would stop shooting up women’s health clinics and closing doors on refugee families and just being, in general, dicks. Elmo would never do that shit.

Cozy imitates her mother in many wonderful ways. She likes to draw and cuddle and she’ll take off my mopey music and put something Latin on so she can dance. And she knows when I’m trying to BS her. Her hat obsession comes from me, but her love of boots comes from mom. And someday Cozy and Andrea will have long discussions about how to do your eye liner like Amy Winehouse.

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For now I’m just gonna try to keep her in the Elmo zone for a little bit longer, though, if that’s okay.

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture, Round 1

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 2: Ain’t I a Black Girl?

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 4: She’s gotta be free!

 

I told you Donald Trump was a fascist!

December 9, 2015

Well, I hate to be the one who said I told you so, but even mainstream Republicans are using the “F word” to describe Donald Trump. After his ridiculous fantasy about banning Muslims from America, I felt I should chime in, even though I’d rather write about Cozy’s first poop in her IKEA baby toilet. His use of the these emotional hot-button issues certainly is good at keeping this billionaire “man of the people” candidate in the headlines, but there is a frighteningly ugly side to his appeal.

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It’s clear that a lot of people don’t understand the basic political spectrum with fascism on the right side of the continuum and communism on the left. (Hint: We’re pretty much in the middle.) I’ve given up on explaining to people that Hitler’s “National socialism” is not actually socialism but a violently anti-socialist form of fascism. The right is characterized by the rule of the one and the left is characterized by the rule of the many, with lots of gradations between the extremes. (Bernie Sanders is to the left of Hillary Clinton and to the right of Fidel Castro. Similarly, Donald Trump is to the right of Marco Rubio and to the left of Benito Mussolini.)

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So the memes comparing Trump to Hitler have been coming fast and furious. Godwin’s Law aside, I’m sure Trump is flattered by the comparison with a former Time Magazine Person of the Year. They do have much in common. But let’s stick to four hallmarks of fascism.

Conspiracy Theories: Trump is the king of the “Birther” movement. The theory is that Obama was born in Kenya instead of America and his college transcripts were forged. It’s all part of an elaborate conspiracy by foreign Muslims to instal a jihadist in the White House and institute Sharia Law in the United States. Since Obama will be leaving the office in January 2017, he better get his Jihadi ass in gear.

Then there is the fun one about the Mexican government is “sending its worst” to the U.S. (Remember, all those rapists and murderers?). They’re destroying us, he will tell you. “Believe me!”

Obviously, all these guys harp on the “liberal media” conspiracy that is out to get them.  (Hint: The media is only as liberal as the corporations that own it.)

The fact that these juvenile theories are disproven on a daily basis doesn’t really matter. Facts don’t matter to Trump and his minions. Conspiracy theories offer simplistic world views and explanations. Everything is very black and white. And the left has a few conspiracy theories of their own (9/11 was an inside job, Monsanto runs the world, etc.). But Trump’s are rooted in xenophobia and blaming “outsiders” for our problems and that puts him firmly on Adolf’s team.

Racism: I think Trumpies believe that you have to parade around in a Klan robe to be a racist. Trump does have a few black supporters and Hitler had a few Jewish supporters (before he gassed them). But let’s be clear, Trump is either a seething racist or he is an opportunist who uses racism to rally his sub-moronic drones.

A) He’s anti-black. Whether encouraging the man-handling of “disgusting” Black Lives Matters protesters or crowing that “All lives matter,” it’s clear that he has no interest in addressing the institutional racism that plagues the lives of millions of Americans. He’s tweeted “facts” from a white supremacist websites to reinforce his position that black people are a violent threat to his white followers.

B) He’s anti-Latino. His asinine comments about immigrants (he never mentions white immigrants) is based on the most extremist narrative and denies the reality of actual Latino immigrants, including members of my family.

C) He’s anti-Muslim. I know Islam is a religion and not a race, but it comes from the same dark place. He’s denied the role of Muslim Americans in the war on terrorism, in the armed forces, in government, in eduction, in science and even in sports (while  bragging about his “good friend” Muhammad Ali).

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Trump is not the traditional racist but brown is the new black so he can hope for a handful of black supporters by going after Latinos (“Mexicans”) and Arabs (“Muslims”) and his loyal flock is A-Okay with it. The assumption is that all non-whites are voting Democratic anyway so why not just recruit the highly motivated whites and make America great again, “again,” meaning back to early 1954 before America went all to shit.

Of course Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims from America is idiotic. According to what he told ABC’s George Stephanapoulos , customs agents would just ask people if they were Muslim and if they said “yes,” they wouldn’t be allowed into the country. You know, because actual terrorists are so honest. And would they be allowed into the country if they converted to Christianity? It seemed to work for the Spanish Inquisition.

In that interview he likened his plan to FDR’s WWII internment of American citizens of Japanese descent, one of the great American human rights abuses of the twentieth century and a massive violation of the due process constitutional rights of 110,000 Americans and thousands of Japanese immigrants whose only crime was being Japanese. In 1988, President Reagan apologized for the atrocity but here is Trump using it as his model. Even Jeb Bush described Trump as “unhinged.” He may be nuts or he may be secretly trying to help ISIS make the case that Americans hate all Muslims, but most likely he is  just be rallying his rabid jingoist base.

Aggressive Nationalism: All this is wrapped up in a flag and rhetoric about “making America great again,” taking us back to a time when straight white Christian males didn’t have to be bothered with the “politically correct” language that addressed all the others who thought they deserved a bit of equality at the American table. Trump hates political correctness. He doesn’t want to have to be sensitive to the issues of the needs of Americans other than his brat pack. “Believe me, they are doing horrible things.” He wants to kill the families of ISIS members, including their children. (“Pro-life!”) He wants to be a bigger terrorist than the terrorists. He wants to save America. He says, “We’re at war. We don’t have a choice.”

Donny, you always have a choice.

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Fearmongering: This is what Trump does best. The Mexicans are going to rape you, the Muslims hate you and are going to kill you, and anyone who disagrees is second rate and is a less valid human because they don’t get the ratings he does. He demagogues until his voice goes out. “Believe me, I saw thousands and thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11.” No you didn’t. Maybe you saw Muslims helping people and got confused.

“Believe me, there will be lots more 9/11’s if we don’t do something.” Remember when Rudy Giuliani tried this scare tactic in his 2008 presidential campaign? It’s only slightly historically removed from Father Coughlin who, in the 1930s, told his radio listeners that Jews were coming to kill Americans.

Trump is using the fear of terrorism and the general ignorance about Islam to whip his followers into a nationalist lynch mob. Listen to them carefully and then listen to people at a Klan rally and tell me how they differ. Scapegoating is an old tool but it is very effective.

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I’ve gotten some flack for referring to Trump’s followers as “sub-moronic” and it’s a fair criticism. It is not my intent to dehumanize them. I’ve been studying right-wing extremists and white supremacists for thirty years now. I know what connects them and the Trumpies is a desire for  simplified world view provided by a charismatic leader who can explain how to solve their problems, whether they be real or imagined. It’s how cults work and it’s how fascism works. But I also know many intelligent, compassionate, and progressive people who once subscribed to those ideologies and then walked away from them toward the light. There are plenty of former neo-Nazis and former jihadists who can testify that it’s entirely possible. And soon we will have some former Trumpies to add to the list.

This piece could be about the list of hate groups that have endorsed Trump or hate crimes that have been committed by his “very passionate” followers. It could be about how the Tea Party has dragged to the GOP into the ditch and how we should celebrate the death throws of an increasingly irrelevant political party that now only appeals to rednecks and fascists. But I just want to remind people, that America has been here before, in the 1930s. The specter of fascism was growing in America and the exact same bogus claims that Trump is now making were made by little Hitlers here. But America was better than them and America is better than Trump. We reminded ourselves of our core values and turned away from the fascist tide. It’s refreshing to hear this message from traditional Republicans, like Paul Ryan. We are so much better than Trump.

But for those who continue to follow this megalomaniac, here is a picture of my daughter’s first toilet turd. I’ll look forward to your brilliant comments.

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