ISA HOPKINS

Raconteur. Adventurer. Kimchi Enthusiast.

Our Dumpsters, Ourselves

Written in April 2012.  I came up the title and needed SOMETHING to match it!

 

When conservative pundits caricature progressive, ecologically-minded urbanists as hothoused wealthy elites, I can’t help but laugh: I fit the profile as far as a college degree goes, but I’ve also spent more time in a dumpster than I ever anticipated at my Georgetown graduation and, sometimes, I’ve eaten ketchup packets for dinner.

 

We’ll get back to the ketchup thing later.  The dumpsters — it started when I worked with Habitat for Humanity.  One day my site supervisor tasked me with ensuring that the mountainous pile of cast-off lumber and sheetrock fit properly into its green metal container, so like the twenty-two-year-old badass that I once was I climbed in, revved up a circular saw, and bent a gigantic mound of trash to my will.  My photo on the staff page of my current employer’s website is of me sitting kinglike atop compressed leaves and branches and clippings in a green waste bin — I spent an entire day directing volunteers in the technique of proper dumping, and it was awesome.  Unlike some of my other poverty-addled environmentalist brethren, I’ve never actually dumpster-dived; no, my time in dumpsters has been spent in the seemingly eco-antithetical act of putting things in, not keeping them out, but I’ve still learned some lessons from it.

 

Most of my dumpstering experience thus far has been purely professional (you try working in a construction-related field and not learning a thing or two), but recently, things got personal.  I’ve never been one to have a lot of stuff — even as a kid, I relished the compactness of my closet — and that trait, compounded with general young-adult transience and the fact that I spent most of 2008 living out of my car (and occasionally dining on free condiments), has always kept my personal dump-quotient to a minimum.  But I’ve been living at the same address for a year and a half now, and although it’s a one-bedroom apartment shared with two other people, permanence has enabled stuff to settle and collect with a vastness that my prior vagabonding made impossible.  Also, my roommates have so much crap that sometimes I want to light it all on fire just to have it out of the way — not everyone, it turns out, adapts well to small-space living, but they’re working on it.

 

Even those of us committed to living lightly, however, can find ourselves with big problems that end only in a dumpster.  Recently, I picked up a new mattress (well, new to me — I got it off the Craigslist free section) to replace the one I’d had for over two years, a memory foam hand-me-down from a friend who’d moved back to Texas in 2010.  Regular flipping had staved off the development of permanent dents for some time but over the last eight months or so I had found myself sleeping in an indestructible foam crater, reappearing no matter how strenuously I flipped or rotated.  Replacement, I finally acknowledged, was my only option, although with the victory of a free Craigslist conquest came a startling question: what the hell does a person do with a yellowed, compressed, used foam mattress?

 

Sure, there are a couple of recycling programs out there, but most are run through manufacturers (not much of an option when your mattress is second-hand) and, as it happens, even the progressive Bay Area doesn’t offer anything in the way of alternatives.  My options were twofold– a dumpster or a giveaway — and I just didn’t feel quite comfortable pawning off the source of my recurring back pain on somebody else.  Sometimes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, but sometimes, no matter how much we upcycle or downcycle or recycle or freecycle, crap is just crap.

 

So I hacked the foam mattress into pieces with a serrated blade, and into the dumpster it went — there was some other garbage in there already so it fit less than neatly, the sort of job I wouldn’t find acceptable if I were loading the dumpster from the start.  When I run dumpster crews, I often surprise volunteers with the suggestion that hauling and tossing trash is a task which actually requires skill and strategy — after all, we’re trained to stop thinking at the word “trash.”  No wonder most folks find it difficult or impossible to envision the scale, logistics, and impact of landfills or Pacific garbage patches: if a twenty-cubic-yard metal container at a construction site or streetcorner or park cleanup day is already regarded as a black hole of refuse, how are we possibly to make sense of what happens to our waste even further afield?

 

As I shoved my old mattress into my apartment’s dumpster, I couldn’t help but reflect on William McDonough’s eco-classic Cradle to Cradle — in that moment of doing battle with hunks of memory foam it was tempting to think that the problem was in its disposal, but the real issue — the one McDonough articulates so clearly — was that the mattress wasn’t built for reuse in the first place.  My friend had purchased it new less than five years ago, and now it was all but useless; she’d bought it on some great sale, but how good of a deal is anything that doesn’t last — and, moreover, that can’t be put to new life once its time has come?  My new box spring was previously used by a now-deceased old woman who had it for decades, and if it craps out on me I can at least cut it open and reclaim the lumber from its frame.  Memory foam, on the other hand, looks awesome in the ads, but in my experience it has been less than promised, just another piece of junk to add to the garbage patch.

 

But I know (albeit on a small scale) the effort that garbage-management requires, and despite the claims of marketers across the country, there is no piece of junk that is truly easy to dispose of.  If only we all got to spend a little more time hanging out in dumpsters, then maybe we might spend a little less time buying — and making — the kind of tossed-away stuff that fills so many of them.

 

Four years later: still love a good round of garbage Tetris.  This one holds up.

Your San Francisco Treat

Reaching waaaaaaaaaaay back before this blog even existed: March, 2007.  This was written for an NYC friend’s zine, and I honestly have no idea whether it was ever published, or whether the zine even existed past its first issue…

 

In September of 2006, I moved back home for a temporary, painful stint in Cleveland.  The job market was crap, none of my friends were around, and the whole four months I was there I was stricken by a longing to return to the city I’d left behind: San Francisco.  Like Journey, I composed mournful ballads in homage to the city by the bay; unlike Journey, I resisted both a mullet and the impulse to make any such tunes public.

 

But I did get back to the Bay Area as fast as I could.

 

San Francisco looms large within the American cultural imagination — the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, streetcars and the Transamerica building are all iconic.  But that’s just tourist crap.  What is the substance of contemporary SF?  Is it really, as some aging radicals will tell you, a sellout town of yippies and Silicon Valley money?  Or is it, as Bill O’Reilly would have you believe, still the bastion of liberal thought in this country, all Birkenstocks and acid?

 

Eh, a bit of both.  The Internet explosion may have priced pretty much the entire Bay Area real estate market out of ownership range for anyone not a millionaire, but the technology sector also ensures a population of young, progressively minded intellectuals; these engineers may have bigger bank accounts than their hippie forefathers, but the sense of personal hygiene is about equal.  And it’s the only major American city our current president has yet to visit — the Republicans have given up altogether on even making an effort here. 

 

I would love to wax rhapsodic about Bushman, a permanent fixture at touristy Fisherman’s Wharf who would jump out from behind branches to scare tourists, but — as much as he represents the stereotypical Northern California free-spiritedness — he’s retired, so that will be of no use to any NYC’ers planning trips this way.

 

No, the best place to recapture the sixties spirit is Golden Gate Park.  It’s on the west side of the city, the non-hip and predominantly Asian side, and thirty-nine years ago it was host to many Summer of Love festivities.  To go there now, you’d think it’s all gentrified, art museums and arboretums and Japanese Tea Gardens.  But on the western edge, hidden behind a bocce ball field, is Hippie Hill.  And Hippie Hill is where the sixties will never die.

 

Hippie Hill is not the actual name of the place, but if you’re wandering around the park looking for it, you can be assured you’ve found it by several measures.  Frequent drum circles provide auditory clues, and a pervasive odor of marijuana is omnipresent.  If you find a field meeting those criteria and are still unsure whether or not you’re in the right place, you can further verify your location by checking how many people around you are either (a) barefoot or (b) appear homeless.  I had a long conversation there once with a man known as Bag Lady Betty, who was a college friend of Robert Zimmerman at the University of Minnesota (which Mr. Zimmerman left before becoming known as Bob Dylan).  Bag Lady Betty got a PhD and was a professor at Berkeley when he got kicked out for dropping too much acid, which of course begs the question: How much acid was too much acid at frickin’ BERKELEY in the SEVENTIES?  It blows the mind to contemplate, and judging by Mr. Betty’s new hobby of collecting cans, it blew his mind as well.  On a related note, if you’re wandering through Hippie Hill and find yourself suffering a sudden hankerin’ for the reefer, pretty much anyone will share with you.  The ol’ hippie spirit of communalism still lives on, right alongside the drug culture and the drum circles.

 

And from Hippie Hill, on the western edge of Golden Gate Park, it’s just a short few blocks to the corner of Haight-Ashbury, where you can wander into the Gap and buy corporate, sweatshop-produced clothing to your heart’s delight.  It’s definitely a dichotomy.  The good news, though, is that if neither of those options — barefoot stoner-hippie, limousine liberal — sound appealing, you can always just pick up a wetsuit, a surfboard, and hit the beach.  Or some hiking boots, maybe a mountain bike, and head for the trails.  Outdoorsiness not your thing?  Well then, how about Chinese culture?  We’ve got the highest concentration of Asians outside of that continent.  Dim sum doesn’t sit so well?  How about burritos?  You can’t go a block down the Mission District without tripping over a taqueria (and, in a special note to the New York readers — good Mexican does not exist east of the Mississippi.  I know you’d like to believe otherwise, but our burritos are the best burritos.  Trust me.  I am a burrito connessouir!).  And if none of this is working for you, you can visit America’s most infamous prison at Alcatraz, or, alternatively, drive up to Napa and get shitfaced at wine tastings.  Because I’ve waited until the end to tell you the very best part of life in Northern California: being so close to hoity-toity wine country might make for some of the most expensive (and best) restaurants in the world, but Pinot Noir comes cheap enough to chug.  Similarly, since the coastal corridor from San Francisco north to Vancouver is generally considered the best weed-growing climate in the world, the marijuana is both potent and inexpensive.  And really, whether it’s rich techies getting drunk in their wine cellars, or dirty hippies smoking up with some smooth Humboldt County ganja, intoxication is one thing that everyone in this city can agree upon.  And isn’t that what matters most?

 

Ha!  Remember when I could afford to rent a place in San Francisco??  Or was able to eat glutenous burritos?  Oh, naive youth… (I did make a fun video about Hippie Hill — and the ease with which one can procure pot there — in 2009.  Watch it here.)

“Sharing,” My Ass!

Written late October 2014; rejected by Grist and Shareable shortly thereafter.

 

Have you shared lately?  I don’t mean “share” in the sense that most of us use the word — the sense that we’re taught in preschool and kindergarten, the sense that commonly implies “wait your turn” and “be considerate of others” — but rather in the Silicon Valley definition of the term, with the rather less-common meaning of “use an app to hire a stranger to perform a service for you.”

 

Wait, what?

 

As the battles over Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and their ilk become ever-more pitched (this week saw Uber drivers protest in multiple cities across the country, and the company’s PR attempts at LA Weekly backfiring badly), it’s worth wondering how the heck these companies ever came to adopt the feel-good collective moniker of the “sharing economy.”  As originally conceived, the phrase was a rebellion against consumption, rather than a new and deregulated form of it; it was coined by thinkers operating outside the boundaries of traditional capitalism, and looking to redefine our concept of ownership and need.  Even before it had a name, the sharing economy had exemplars — Couchsurfing.org, for example, has existed for years as a worldwide hub for travelers, regulated only by social norms and community reputations (think of it as exactly as thorough and safe as Airbnb, except free).  Ridesharing was found not only in company-organized carpools but bulletin boards (whether at a coffeeshop or on Craigslist) and civic-led designated carpooling pick-up spots, not to mention, of course, the longstanding, grande dame of ridesharing: public transportation. 

 

Neither Uber nor Lyft look anything like real ridesharing, so it’s strange that they’ve co-opted the term while focusing their attention on killing the real industry that they mimic: taxis.  Read Uber’s corporate press and you’ll hear a lot about “taxi cartels,” as if cabbies are nothing more than organized millionaire thugs who happen to sometimes drive people places.  The app companies are doing a public service, they claim, by “disrupting” this inefficient service, and while it’s true that taxi rules could be improved in many cities, this could just as easily be accomplished by disruption’s gentler cousin, reform — a process in which all stakeholders could participate, that might even resemble actual sharing. 

 

The appeal of the “sharing economy” is obvious: public transportation is painfully unsexy, but dialing up a black car on your smart phone feels a little like being on an episode of “Gossip Girl.”  Couchsurfing is a hobby of vagrants and dirty hippies, but renting a couch (or a room, or a treehouse) somehow becomes aspirational.  One of the great lies of consumer capitalism is that value only exists as financial value, and so a service like Airbnb seems safer and more secure than the trust-reliant Couchsurfing.  I get it — when I traveled throughout South America in 2011, renting a room for three weeks via Airbnb felt vastly more proper and adult than arranging accommodations via Couchsurfing, but when my Airbnb host was a no-show and I was left stranded in Buenos Aires, it was the Couchsurfing emergency list that came to my rescue, no fee involved.

 

And therein lies the fundamental problem with the “sharing economy”: however much it co-opts the language of cooperation and collaboration, the “disruption” these apps promise most is the monetization of previously unvalued (financially, at least) interactions.  This sounds great on paper, particularly in a recession — hey, make some money doing the kinds of things you do anyway! — but as numerous studies have shown, introducing financial incentive into gift exchanges breeds distrust and destroys relationships.  You’re much more likely to become friends with your Couchsurfing host than your Airbnb landlord, and to be chummy with your carpool organizer or bus buddy than your Lyft driver.  The promise of human connection secured by money will always be false.

 

What’s not false, though, is the money these companies are making, and the anger their practices are generating.  Uber has been banned in Germany, and activists in places like New York and San Francisco are working to rein in Airbnb, which offers profit margins so far above long-term rental rates that mass evictions and conversions of buildings into exclusive Airbnb listings are leaving locals in a lurch.  The halo of “sharing” still offers these companies a comfortable veneer of anti-establishment do-goodery, even as Uber drivers run the numbers and realize their earnings fall below minimum wage, and even as the originators of the “sharing economy” concept have quietly abandoned the phrase — visit the websites of Shareable.net or the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which promote efforts like co-ops, b-corps, and community gardens, and you’ll read about the “new economy” or, more formally, the “social and sustainable economy”, or SSE.

 

In the interest of fairness, I think we should follow their quest for better labeling and call the “sharing economy” what it really is: the App-enabled Sub-minimum-wage Service Economy.  That’s a bit of a mouthful, so we can just go with an abridged acronym — the ASS economy.  Because only an ass could think it has anything to do with sharing.

 

Still true.

Dear America: You’re Doing It Wrong (#Ferguson edition)

According to my computer, I wrote this in 2014 — on Christmas Day.  Huh.

 

Hey there!  Do you have opinions about what’s happened/happening in Ferguson?  Of course you do!  You’re a person.  Perhaps even a person who cares about peace and justice!  Maybe you could use some extra ammunition for all of your Facebook arguments with people who think “posting links to Ted Nugent’s point of view” is a helpful tactic.  Maybe you’ve been posting links to Ted Nugent’s point of view (about anything, really).  Either way, let’s dive in to a hot topic and call bullshit on a lot of bullshit!

 

Bullshit One: “Mike Brown was shot in the front.  Therefore, his shooting was justified.”

 

This particular piece of bullshit has gotten a lot of airing among defenders of Officer Darren Wilson (with headlines like “shocking” and “conclusive”).  But guess what?  It’s also bullshit!  Fun fact: the direction a person is facing when fatally shot by a police officer has next to nothing to do with whether or not that officer will be charged with anything.  Front, back, side — if a cop can justify a “reasonable threat,” then it pretty much flies.  And if someone is shot in the back, then that means that they were running from the police, and the only people who ever run from police are criminals/the guilty (FACT!*); therefore, by cop-logic (or at least the tortured cop-logic deployed in these situations), someone running from the cops can still constitute a “reasonable threat” to public safety and deserve to be shot.  Even fatally.

 

There’s a reason that very, very, very, very, very, very, very few lawyers take police brutality cases.  The facts of the case hardly matter.  And speaking of…

 

Bullshit Two: “Mike Brown robbed somebody!  Therefore, his shooting was justified.”

 

Mike Brown may have robbed a convenient store before his death and stole some cigarillos.  Whether this is true or not has yet to be established, which is why it’s bullshit — yes, a grainy security video shows someone who strongly resembles Brown, but the store owner (aka the robbery victim) has said it wasn’t him.  Really, what this particular bit of bullshit demonstrates is how few facts around Brown’s death have been actually established, which is why a trial would have been a very good thing.  Determining the facts of a case is a major part of why trials happen at all!  It’s not why grand juries are convened, so at this point social media is basically carrying out the investigation which the St Louis county prosecutor was too lazy/corrupt/racist to do himself.  You know, like he’s paid to. 

 

Bullshit Three: Anyone cares what you think about the protests/riots.

 

Are you Pharrell Williams, Charles Barkley, or Ted Nugent?  Shut up.  Are you posting memes of Martin Luther King with the words “I respect this…” alongside pictures from Ferguson saying “not this”?  Stop.  Stop now.  Please, for the love of god, shut up.

 

Whether you’re riot-shaming, respectability-politicking, or just straight-up racist (thanks Ted!), all you’re actually doing is refocusing the conversation away from the very real injuries suffered by black Americans to whether or not their reaction is up to your standards.  And you know what?  Your standards are complete, utter, highest-order bullshit.  Of course you respect MLK now, and if we’re being real, fifty years from now today’s protestors might very well be regarded as freedom fighters — but in the meantime, asking them to live up to the best, most sanitized version of one of the greatest non-violent leaders in all of world history is fucking absurd.  Can you imagine telling anyone in your regular life that you can’t respect them because they’re not acting like MLK?  No.  Because that would a ridiculous, arbitrary, and impossible standard to live up to.  (If you don’t believe me, try it!  Tell a coworker that you won’t respect them until they live in the image of MLK, or Gandhi, or Mother Teresa.  See what happens.  See if you get punched.) 

 

If you want to have an impact on the tone of the protests, get out in the streets yourself.  Otherwise, shut. the. fuck. up. with this line of bullshit.

 

Bullshit Four: Cops are rational actors.

 

This bit of bullshit is one of the most endemic and problematic, because it’s what shields cops from the consequences of their fatal mistakes.  But let’s say for a second that it’s generally true — we can even put race aside for a couple sentences.  Let’s say that generally rational, good cops sometimes misjudge the situation and kill unarmed, innocent twelve-year-olds (#Cleveland edition), because they thought such a kid constituted a “reasonable threat.”

 

Well, reasonably, that is bullshit.  Reasonably, we must conclude that any cop who does such a thing is not particularly capable of accurate threat assessment; reasonably, we must conclude that such a cop is not very good at one of the core competencies involved in cop-hood.  Reasonably, if chronic tardiness is enough to get someone fired, mistakenly ending the life of an innocent human being whom you have sworn to protect should at the very least cost a cop his or her job. 

 

Reasonably, if typical citizens can be imprisoned for manslaughter when they accidentally kill someone, agents of the state — authorized to use lethal force only for the protection of the polity — must be held to a higher standard of behavior.

 

I’ve met many perfectly nice cops in my life.  I’ve also been on the receiving end of a completely arbitrary and essentially purposeless exercise of police authority: it’s a trivial comparison, but when my friend Smo and I were arrested for a curfew violation, it had very little to do with any meaningful law enforcement and much more to do with a new, young cop bullying two vulnerable targets to satisfy his own ego.  Again, it’s trivial in comparison to the stories of Mike Brown or Tamir Rice, but most white girls — indeed, most white people — don’t ever experience police bullying, even on such an inconsequential level, unless they choose to (namely, by participating in justice-oriented protests).  It’s not something that the vast, vast majority of white people ever consider as an everyday possibility, but the truth is that cops can be dicks, and when a cop is being a dick to you, you’re pretty much at their mercy. 

 

Which is to say: the greatest bullshit of all is people claiming that they would, or would have, acted differently — if they were at the protests, if they were Tamir Rice, if they were Mike Brown, if they were Trayvon Martin.  Are you Martin Luther King right now, today, in your regular life?  No?  Then why do you think you could transform into Martin Luther King when faced with a gun?

 

We all know how that story ends, anyway.  As others have pointed out, MLK still got shot in the head.

 

Bullshit The Fifth: It’s just a few bad apples!

 

Are the majority of cops basically decent human beings?  Probably, but then again, the vast majority of humanity are basically decent human beings; nothing more and nothing less.  Sociopaths and heroes are exceedingly rare, and you don’t have to be a sociopath to kill people (especially in America). 

 

I put this one down because I just couldn’t stand to keep wading into the superheated discussion (and yes, I am aware that stepping away from stuff like this is absolutely white privilege at work).  Also, apparently I wrote this on Christmas, and, y’know, that’s a pretty busy — and generally happy! — day for me…

#YesAllWomen: A (Kind Of) Homily

Written in June of 2014.  

 

Some thing are worth saying because they are timely; others, because they are true. 

 

Lately in Cleveland, I have had a routine: after the quieting of the daytime bustle and as the long summer evenings bent into darkness, once parents were asleep, I made tea and took my laptop to the living room for emails and writing and general webfuckery, the cornerstones of my California life folded into a few nighttime hours.  “Friends” ran on the CW and then Nick at Nite and became the background to my labors, something like five episodes per night, and after weeks of this unfocused soundtrack I realized why Ross and Rachel took so damn long to get together: because neither of them knew what love is.

 

Ross idealized Rachel, from their preteen days.  Shy and insecure his strategy was years of pining, punctuated by an occasional grand gesture — an attempted prom rescue, for example, or a night at the planetarium.  And Rachel, the idealized object, enabled this, never considering Ross as a romantic partner until his devotion was revealed via such gestures.  Their on-again off-again relationship propelled the show’s narrative but it was also ludicrous, especially as the comparatively tame Monica and Chandler navigated a commitment built on friendship, shared values, shared goals, mutual attraction, and compromise — which is to say, a genuine and strong commitment, but not one to sustain an audience’s interest.

 

Grand gestures do not a relationship make, which is why so many gesture-built romantic comedies end when people fall in love (or “love”) rather than exploring an actual relationship, and also why romantic comedies are mostly bullshit.

 

For those who have experienced sexual assault there are two possible labels, it seems; we are either “victim” or “survivor”, both of which lend far too much credibility to the event in my mind.  “Survivor” implies more agency than “victim” but when I think of survival I recall my mother in intensive care, scrawling on a pad of paper because a tracheotomy prevented her speech, bald and pallid from chemotherapy but somehow still alive despite leukemia’s best efforts.  The sexual assault which I survived did not threaten my life in such a fashion, although the aftermath fully pursued may have; there were many reasons I did not testify against my late grandmother’s husband but the most prominent was that I simply wanted the whole thing over with, sooner rather than later. 

 

But whether I testified or not, the situation was beyond my own control.  Through a combination of coincidence my grandmother’s husband (her second husband, after my own grandfather died before I was born) was arrested and although he spent less time in jail for misdemeanor domestic assault than I did for violating curfew it unleashed a torrent from his enraged son, who paid a lawyer fifteen thousand dollars to send me threatening letters throughout the summer of my sophomore year of college — they would find out why I’d lied; they would find out the truth of why I’d transferred from Caltech to Georgetown; they would tell the world that I was nothing but a spoiled pawn of my father; they would destroy me. 

 

And what had I done to deserve such a backlash?  Was it because I had worn a tank top that night (or maybe it was a polo shirt — I can’t quite remember)?  Was it because I had visited my grandmother in Miami?  Was it because it was it was Good Friday?  Was it because I was nineteen and had a future that could yet be destroyed?

 

Or was it because yes: all women.

 

Those who stand in a witness box, who stare down the feint of objectivity that is the law, who force justice or at least demand to be heard — those are the real survivors. 

 

One of the most popular #YesAllWomen tweets was a quote from Margaret Atwood — “Men are afraid women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid men will kill them.”  When Margaret Atwood and Louis C.K. are making the same point, there is no secret left to it. 

 

My own story is complicated (as these things always are) by ethnicity.  To be Cuban is to be Hispanic and to be Hispanic is to be a culture of machismo, a society which excuses male philandering, and so an eighty-five-year-old groping his nineteen-year-old step-granddaughter is seen as part of a larger pathology; and Americans can shake their heads in sadness at the dysfunction of others. 

 

But Latinos have Dilma and Cristina and Michele and even Violeta, an elected female leader all the way back in the twentieth century.  Women at the helm do not disprove systemic misogyny any more than Obama’s election here ended racism, but it is not meaningless either. 

 

We have yet to vote a woman into our highest executive office, but in one of the most liberal states in the US we brought in the Governator.  The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, and yet somehow it is the caballeros whose problem is more tragic.

 

Here is a real tragedy: the distance between “I refuse to apologize for my privilege” and mass murder is much shorter than most anyone is willing to acknowledge.  

 

This was the start of a super-long examination of our narratives of romantic love, and how they promote misogyny; and how our American/Western sense of our own progress impedes us from seeing how much work remains to be done.  But I didn’t finish it.  I did get sexually assaulted again, though — in a totally different context this time! — so I could bring a whole new perspective to it now… but I’m not gonna.

Going Home

More from the archives — this was written about a year ago.  I’m not entirely sure if I decided that it was finished or not….

 

My executive director recently discovered that I’m Cuban.  “Oh,” she said, scrolling through an Internet video to show me a particularly cruel squat she’d seen, “are you going to go?”

 

My face betrayed me, and she caught herself.  “Is your family exiles?”

 

Yes, I said, and she said she had friends who were Cuban exiles; she knew it was a complicated question.  Our conversation returned to fitness.

 

Earlier today I was in a meeting with my immediate director and a co-worker.  I don’t know how Cuba came up in the discussion but my boss’s reaction was immediate: “Oh, I can’t wait to go,” she said, then addressed us.  “Don’t you guys want to go?”

 

I’ve only known my co-worker for three days now but she’s quite savvy, and she redirected the conversation before I even had a chance to react.  A good thing, because if I had reacted, I would have — at the very least — expressed the same frustrated refusal that I showed my ED, that reminded her of the other Cuban exiles she knew.

 

The ED’s question, though, was redundant.  To be Cuban is to be exile.  There are rare exceptions, to be sure, but for almost all of us the identities are inseparable and insuperable, a daily paradox of who we are and who can never really be.

 

*

 

My sister-in-law is an immigrant.  She came to the United States from Australia after completing her PhD in astronomy to do a postdoc at Harvard, and then to work at NASA.  She did not anticipate living stateside indefinitely until she met my brother; now they have a house and twin babies and her green card is in process, sponsored by their mutual employer.  But if they hadn’t accepted job offers at Caltech they would have taken positions at Australia National University, and living Down Under is not off the table of their future.  Her mother and sister visit regularly, freely, and the question of whether Jessie would ever like to go back to Australia is freighted only with pragmatic negotiation and personal history.  Immigration is never easy, but hers bears no geopolitical scarring.

 

When non-Cubans ask Cuban-Americans if they will or have ever or would like to visit Cuba, I suspect that they — that you — think you are asking the same question you would ask Jessie.

 

You are not.

 

*

 

Growing up in Cleveland, I walked the same streets that my father navigated in his childhood.  My brother and I went to the same high schools as our paternal aunts and uncles and grandparents; we ate at the same pizzerias; we sat in the same pews, in the same churches.  My father’s life has a context that I can never truly grasp — the Cold War, Vietnam, pre-civil rights — but it is also familiar and knowable from having lived there, laying new memories across a well-worn geography.

 

My mother’s childhood is the opposite of all of that.  To walk the streets of her childhood was not only to cross a significant distance but to traverse legality.  The US government is frequently blamed for freezing out Cuba, as if we are the sole bad actor, but even with rarely-granted American permission I could not have walked freely through my family history on that impossible island: tourists of any stripe but particularly Cuban-Americans are monitored if they stray from the beaten path of photo-ready beaches and hotels or the picturesque spots of Old Havana, where the nostalgic ideal of Cuba is shepherded and mediated, curated for all those in need of something “authentic”. 

 

Things are changing now, of course, there more so than here.  My cousin Teva, a Spanish citizen who can travel more easily, laid her mother’s ashes to rest last year in Santiago. 

 

Someday, I will make it all the way to Marcane.

 

*

 

Marcane is where my mother grew up, a small sugar-cane town in Oriente province, in the southeastern part of the island, along the alligator’s lower jaw.  I know it from stories and pictures and fever dreams, and I’ve imagined going back a thousand times.

 

You may know Cuba from news stories and articles, documentaries and the Buena Vista Social Club; photos might catch your eye, spark your imagination for a moment, inspire a moment of sympathy for those poor Cubans. 

 

To grow up Cuban-American is to be immersed in a place forever out of reach.  We know Cuba from news stories and articles and documentaries and the Buena Vista Social Club, from photos smuggled out and every photo that makes the paper, from articles clipped and mailed, memoirs and novels and blogs, links to El Nuevo Herald and Generacion Y.  I don’t linger on images of tropical beaches but about a decade ago there was a gif of Fidel Castro tripping on his way to give a speech, face-planting; I don’t normally delight in injuries to the elderly but I watched it over and over and over again, transfixed, gleeful.

 

We know it from family, from pork and black beans and ropa vieja and empanadas and mojo, from heirlooms that made it out, from letters, from diaries, from memory. 

 

What does it mean to return to a place that you already know by heart?

 

*

 

But of course, I don’t know Cuba at all.  I’ve never been there; all I’ve ever lived with is the rupture and the loss, the omnipresent absence.  Of course I want to go.  Of course I will go.  How could I not?

 

*

 

Going to Cuba is your vacation.  It is something wholly different for me, and for those like me.  Cuba is not about beaches and food and music and vintage cars but about understanding the central trauma that shaped the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, my grandfather, the interconnected web of extended family.

 

Cuba is about my mother: a determined and resilient woman who has survived cancer twice.  She came to the United States when she was nine years old.  Some of her stories I know by heart and some of her stories I will never know; traversing ninety miles of ocean is a hurt that time has mostly turned to scar tissue but hasn’t entirely healed, and I don’t know if going back to Cuba will be enough to close the open wound she still carries.

 

Cuba is about my grandmother: stiff and aristocratic and unyielding and judgmental; warm and generous and big-hearted, with a laugh that could transcend all of my shortcomings.  I didn’t know she had a sense of humor until I was twelve years old and we were in my parents’ sunroom in Cleveland, and her laughter was a revelation.  Most of my stand-up material would have shocked and appalled my abuela but she’s so much of the reason I ever did comedy at all.

 

Cuba is about my grandfather: a hard-riding, cigar-smoking country doctor, friends with Mongo, the overlooked third Castro brother.  He died before I was born, before I existed at all, but there are photos of him at my parents’ wedding and him with my brother and it is a miracle that he made it to the US at all — he stayed in Cuba after my mother and aunt and grandmother all left to tend to his sick parents and by the time they died he found himself wanted by the regime, and his escape is the stuff of legend. 

 

In eighth grade English class we had to prepare and present a short speech about an ancestor.  Most of our classmates spoke of German and Irish immigrants, hardworking people who sought economic opportunity along Lake Erie’s industrial shores.  My brother and I both, one year apart, brought in our abuelo’s whip and pistol and told a story of dodging assassination by one of the great villains of the twentieth century.

 

We were not, generally speaking, cool, but on that day — on that day, we were the coolest.

 

*

 

I have lived for thirty-one years in a Cuba that may or may not resemble the actual country.  This is what exile means: not only to be separate but to be severed, to subsist in suspended, impossible fantasy.

 

Do I want to go to Cuba?  I’ve ached for it for decades.  To stand in front of twenty-two thirteen-year-olds and tell a tale of derring-do was, like all boastfulness, an act of concealment; in 1997, I didn’t know if the possibility would ever be real, and in my desperation to encounter the man of myth a bragging retelling was the most I could muster.  Now I might soon be able to meet him as a native son; now my grandmother is gone, too, and so instead of her voice and her memories I can only hope to find their echoes amongst the bougainvillea and the mango trees and the sugarcane.  Going to Cuba is going home.  Of course I want it. 

 

*

 

I don’t think that is what they — or you — or they — mean, though, when they ask, and that is why my face falls and my jaw sets at the question.  The Cuba you want to see is worlds apart from the one that I’ve always known — but more than that, your Cuba is an erasure of mine, a pretty mask over my mother’s unanswerable pain. 

 

Yes, I want to go to Cuba.  And I will.

 

But although our passports might bear the same stamp, I will never visit your Cuba. 

 

*

Les Mis-a-Trois

Another blast from the past: an attempt at the Internet-hallowed form known as “snarky recap,” from early 2013.  Because I always shoot for the advanced-level shit, this first effort was for a threefer — the novel, stage musical, and movie musical versions of “Les Miserables.”

 

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO LES MIS

 

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables has been in theaters since Christmas Day, but with its multiple Oscar nominations and the general controversy surrounding the adaptation, people are still buzzing — and buying tickets.  Whether you’ve already seen the movie and are kinda fuzzy about what exactly happened over those two and a half hours, or want an outline to help navigate the plot before you go in, or just want to be able to condescendingly correct people at cocktail parties who refer to the film as “about the French revolution,” here’s everything you need to know about the history, the novel, the musical and the movie — in a nutshell.

 

Before we even delve into the plot, the first thing to be aware of is that Les Mis is different from many popular musicals in that it is entirely sung-through; in this way, it’s more like an opera than it is like, say, Chicago.  Although the category of “sung-through musicals” has been invented to cover the likes of Les Mis and other recent pieces like Rent, which are more pop-infused and lyric-heavy than traditional opera, it’s also worth noting that some of the vocal parts in Les Mis are also more traditionally operatic than you’ll find in most musicals — namely, the two leads of Valjean and Javert.  So bear that in mind when you crap all over Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe: even a Broadway vet like Jackman struggles to stack up against the demanding range of Valjean.  The other thing worth knowing is that the novel on which both the stage production and the movie are based is hella fucking long, you guys.  Seriously.  The movie runs two and a half hours, which feels like a marathon until you realize that two and a half hours of reading Victor Hugo’s dense prose still leaves you learning about how the Bishop of Digny is the greatest human being who has ever lived (for reference, the bishop is in the movie for all of, like, eight seconds).  Most of the problems of the musical have to do with the unavoidable fact that compressing something as sprawling as Hugo’s epic political novel — which has been (kindly) referred to as “gassy” by fans — into something that is both entirely coherent and also less than seventeen hours long is damn near impossible. 

 

Anyway!  On to the movie.  We open as the stage musical does: on the docks, with the chain gang.  Unlike the stage version, however — which relies on the high technology of a rotating stage to showcase the many scenes of the musical — this movie is CGI’d way the hell up.  Hey!  Wolverine is helping to pull a giant boat!  He’s a prisoner, and his prison guard is the Gladiator.  Or, as he pointedly tells Wolverine while giving him his parole papers, Javert.  Wolverine is Jean Valjean, which in French means “John Johnson,” and in literary theory means “Everyman.”  Also, Valjean is super-strong.  Like, he might still actually be one of the X-men.  He heaves the giant, broken piece of wood that holds up the flag on a ship (I don’t know my maritime vocabulary), which manages to be a visual metaphor for Valjean-as-Christ-figure and also Valjean-as-Everyman-who-holds-up-the-nation-of-France.  But enough with the metaphors now: Wolverine is freeeeeeeee!

 

Except it turns out that being free kind of sucks.  First of all, Valjean’s been in the clink for nineteen years (five for breaking and entering — he was trying to steal some bread for his starving nephew — and fourteen more for trying to escape from prison), and dude looks like hell.  Which is taken pretty directly from the book, in which even dogs attack him for looking like such a sloppy vagrant.  He can’t get any work, because he must present his yellow parole papers everywhere he goes — his status as a felon is following him for life.  Hey, it’s only been one-hundred and fifty years since Hugo wrote about this particular form of social injustice, and guess what?  We still think it’s a pretty swell way to live!  Well-played, society. 

 

So Valjean gets spurned at joint after joint, until he rolls up to the bishop’s house.  As I mentioned earlier, if you sit down and read the unabridged novel, you will learn everything the Bishop of Digny has done in his entire life — or at least it feels that way, given how much Hugo rambles on about the guy.  (Fun fact: he went into such excruciating detail about how the bishop was the Best Guy Ever because he wanted to show what an ideal priest might actually be like, in order to shame and embarrass the actual prelates of his time, most of whom were pretty far off the mark.)  The bishop in the movie is played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on the London stage; he’s the Original Valjean, or O.V.  I always found O.V. to have a bit of a doddering-grandfather quality to him, so I like him much better as the bishop than as Valjean.  But don’t share this opinion too widely in musical theater circles, as many consider it heretical.

 

The bishop is a pretty cool guy; he’s the sort of person whose boundless generosity and high expectations of others make you want to become a better person yourself.  He feeds Valjean dinner off of some fancy silver plates — his lone extravagance in life — and lets him crash on his couch, and in the middle of the night, Valjean decides to take the silver and run (Couchsurfing.org does not use Hugo’s work as an advertisement).  He gets caught pretty fast, though, on account of the entire town being terrified by the crazy-eyed hobo-felon who wandered in earlier; the cops have been watching his ass.  They bring him back to the bishop’s house and give him the what-for: how could he dare to steal from O.V.?  And to claim that the bishop had made him a gift of his silver — preposterous!  But O.V. zigs when the po-po expect him to zag, and he says that yes, indeed, he did give the silver to Wolverine; in fact, he forgot the nicest part of the gift — two fat silver candlesticks.  The police leave, and O.V. announces that he has now purchased Valjean’s soul for God.  (Everyone wants Wolverine on their side!)

 

Narratively, this introduction is much more efficient than the novel, but it also minimizes the role of the bishop, who in Hugo’s work casts a very long shadow (in part because he takes up, like, four hundred pages before Valjean even shows up).  The book has a gentler introduction to the Valjean/Javert dichotomy — we learn about his time in prison through tormented flashback, after he’s already met the bishop and had his soul bought — and Hugo has already taken great pains to point out the enormous social benefit of such iconoclastic mercy.  The bishop is the anti-Judas, using silver to bring souls to God, but politically, he’s a royalist; his family was rich before the Revolution, like all sane folks he was appalled by the Reign of Terror, he was pretty cool with Napoleon (except at the end) and he’s down with the restoration of the monarchy.  In short, the bishop might be the kindest, gentlest person alive in all of France, but he’s also not about to start agitating for the kind of serious structural change that would do much to seriously improve the lives of the peasants for whom he cares.  Which is important towards the larger meaning of the story, which we’ll get to (though it will take a bit of time to explain, because seriously you guys, this book is eleven billion pages long).

 

So, back to the movie.  O.V. brings Wolverine over to Team Jesus, though it takes Valjean a songologue to decide he’s on board; life has been hard for him up until this point, and accepting the bishop’s mercy is not easy, because it challenges him to live a better life himself.  (Arch postmodern literary types who studiously avoid didacticism probably hate this story.)  Ultimately, Valjean decides to tear up his parole papers with his Wolverine claws and make a new and better life for himself — he cannot fulfill the moral obligation the bishop has placed in him while still forcibly oppressed by the state, so he throws those yellow papers off a mountain, sells the silver (except for the candlesticks, which he will use as dreamcatchers for the rest of his life), and becomes a respectable man.  From the mountains of Digny he lands in Montreuil, near Paris, where he runs a garment factory and serves as mayor.  People are still hella poor here, though.  When Tom Hooper’s camera zooms in on the streets of Montreuil we see that they are filled with peasants and beggars, dirty, wet, hungry types who part for Javert, who is riding through the town on horseback with his posse.  (Russell Crowe is a better rider than singer.)  He’s gone from gladiator to prison guard to police inspector, and he rides right up to hobnob with the mayor, a gentleman who goes by the name of Madeleine but who we all know is really Wolverine.  Javert cannot fathom that a convict could ever become a truly decent person, so he doesn’t suspect him too much at first. 

 

This is also when we meet Fantine, in the workroom of the factory; the foreman wants to bang her, because she’s the prettiest princess (or, you know, factory-girl) around.  Also, all of her coworkers hate her for the exact same fact — specifically, they’re jealous of her beautiful hair and gorgeous white teeth, which, as this movie makes very visually explicit, are NOT common at this period of French history and oral hygiene.  Fantine keeps to herself and is barely adequate at her job, so everyone gossips about her, and the song in both the musical and the movie does a pretty job of efficiently conveying that this is regular, routine sport for her coworkers — they’ve been razzing her for a while.  In the book, Hugo takes pains to connect the gossip-ringleader’s attitudes towards Fantine and her open-secret of an illegitimate daughter with her political and religious background — in the novel of Les Mis just about everything is connected to politics and religion, whereas in the musical, the ringleader is just kind of a bitch.  Although at least the musical doesn’t take the time to call her a “gorgon,” which the novel definitely does.

 

Anyway, Fantine gets thrown out on her ass after getting into things with the gorgon, which sucks, because she’s gotta support her illegitimate daughter, who lives with an innkeeper named Thenardier and his wife.  They keep writing Fantine and asking her for more money, so she’s gotta come up with some way to bring in the benjamins (or the napoleons).  She goes to the docks, where there are lots of whores and seedy characters waiting to take advantage of her need!  This is a change from the stage musical, wherein “I Dreamed A Dream” happens right after Fantine loses her job — the rearrangement is much more powerful, and is possible because this is a movie, so there’s no need for a five-minute solo piece to allow enough time for the female chorus members to change from their factory-girl costumes to their whore costumes.  Fantine sells a locket, then sells her gorgeous hair, then sells some of her teeth; the first two items are in the stage musical but the last is not, probably because that would be really hard to stage, but it’s taken directly from the book.  Then some pimp sees her lying shorn-headed against a wall, nursing her wounded gums, and he’s all “Yeah, I’d hit that.”  So she starts working for him, banging a captain and then being very, very sad about her life.  She sings “I Dreamed A Dream.”

 

Here’s the thing about this movie: Anne Hathaway fucking owns it, and it is all because of this song.  It’s amazing.  I have never been a big fan of this number — not even when it is sung by Lea Salonga or Patti Lupone, and I love Patti goddamn Lupone — because, as a big solo number in a big Broadway show, it’s usually, well, big, belty and unsubtle and sung to fill a theater.  But this is a movie, and Tom Hooper’s directorial decision to use mostly extreme close-ups pays off in this song more than any other.  In the intimacy of film Anne Hathaway is able to communicate the depth of feeling motivating each word, some of which are more breathed than sung; it’s the opposite of the Susan-Boyle-esque whimsical sadness with which this piece is typically imbued, and what it conveys is a woman who is absolutely shattered by the choices presented to her by the world.  It’s fucking phenomenal, and I usually hate Fantine (in the musical, at least). 

 

Now that Fantine’s a prostitute she wanders the streets coughing a lot (because, oh yeah, she has tuberculosis, and let’s be honest, probably also syphilis) and getting groped at by random dudes, one of whom looks like a poor man’s Paul Rudd.  PMPR smarms at her but she’s not into it, so he grabs her and she claws at his face, breaking the skin with her nails; PMPR cries out and because Montreuil has only one policeman in the entire goddamn town, Javert shows up.  He’s ready to haul Fantine off to jail for assaulting the guy — violence against sex workers has always been a normalized part of society, apparently — but then Wolverine rolls in and asserts his discretion, as mayor of the town, to decide punishment for such incidents.  He elects to take Fantine to the hospital instead of prison.  Javert is displeased.

 

Valjean is wandering around his town when someone grabs him to help lift a wagon that has fallen on some old dude, slowly crushing him.  Valjean uses his Wolverine-strength to lift the wagon that others could not (lift with your legs, people!), and Javert — seeing all this — recalls the freakish might of convict 24601, the man who lifted that heavy-ass piece of boat right before he got his parole.  Gladiator is onto Wolverine’s game, y’all.  But — what is this?  Javert gets a letter from Paris, and goes to visit Valjean to confess: he thought the mayor might be a convict who escaped his parole, and reported him as such, but it turns out that they caught that guy and have him on trial, so, Javert’s bad.  He’s all ready to fall on his sword over the matter, but Valjean is like, “Dial it down, dude, you can keep your job.”  Valjean dismisses Javert and immediately begins to songologue his moral quandary — the false arrest of another man in his place is surely wrong, but if he confesses and saves this other man’s life, all of his current good works will be brought to a halt.  Wolverine sings it out and ends up going to court and announcing himself, saving an innocent man and condemning himself instead.  Everyone thinks the mayor has lost his goddamn mind, and folks are too shocked to arrest him yet.  This is pretty much the way it goes down in the novel, except there’s a lot more detail about the courtroom and the trial against the innocent dude — Hugo’s book has many universal themes, about love and mercy and justice and mortality, but it’s rooted in the very specific details of French governance at a particular period in time, and he documents those narrative environs with sometimes-excruciating precision. 

 

And now… Fantine dies.  Valjean goes to visit her at her bedside, in the hospital (which is run by nuns), where she is hallucinating about her daughter, Cosette.  Anne Hathaway sing-cries her way into the Great Beyond, and Valjean decides — promises! — that he will take Cosette into his care and raise the girl as his own daughter.  It’s just like in the Princess Diaries!  But before he can get out and do that, Javert shows up, and Russell Crowe is not very good at singing, you guys.  Their confrontation does not have the dramatic tension it should, and at the denouement — Javert announcing that he is “from the gutter, too” and Valjean leaping out a window into a river to escape — it’s all kinda “meh.”  Which is really too bad, because this can be beautifully sung, and Javert’s history is actually quite important to understanding the character as part of the whole of society that Hugo is trying to portray; he was born in prison and he understood from a very young age that this fact shut him off from most routes to “respectable” society.  Without the ability to become a gentleman or a professional, Javert instead sought respectability via the only avenue open to him — an institution of violent authority, in this case, law enforcement (his other choice: the military).  Javert lives by a straightforward moral code that has been shaped by his own experience in the world, an experience in which he was never shown the sort of transformative kindness at the hands of power that Valjean knew from the bishop.  His moral rigidity — that if one lives rightly, by the rules, one can overcome one’s past as much as is ever possible (although never fully) in the eyes of society — animates everything he does, but Crowe is not a powerful enough singer to communicate any of that.

 

(Also worth noting: in the book, the whole confrontation goes down very differently.  Indeed, when Javert first shows up at the hospital, Valjean lets himself be arrested, and then he breaks out of prison and runs back to the hospital, where he hangs out in Fantine’s room again.  Javert immediately tracks him down but Valjean hides in the shadows and an awesome nun named Sister Simplice lies to Javert, who believes her because he is so immune to moral complexity that he cannot believe a good woman who is a representative of the authority of the Church would ever speak falsely.  Obviously, Javert is not familiar with the capacity of nuns to be the most badass people in the whole Church hierarchy.  The high school I went to is where Sr. Dorothy Kazel used to teach; believe me when I say that shit is for real, y’all.  Then there’s a looooong digression about the Battle of Waterloo, and then Jean Valjean gets recaptured in, like, a paragraph, and made to work in the galleys of a ship again, until he jumps overboard to his freedom.  The musical compresses all of this, and the audience is grateful.)

 

But anyway — Valjean escapes, one way or another, and runs off to find Cosette.  Who is living with the Thenardiers, venal innkeepers in another small, nearby-ish town.  Cosette is pretty and innocent and sings a song about imagining herself in a castle on a cloud where someone loves her instead of being stuck doing chores for some clowns who like to slap her around.  She clutches at a doll that is basically a bag of dirt and is not so much a real character as an object of pity, which foreshadows the fact that Cosette pretty much never becomes a real, fully-drawn character in any version of this story.  It is not Victor Hugo’s finest moment as a writer.  Madame Thenardier — hey, it’s Bellatrix LeStrange! — sends Cosette out to get some water from the well and fawns over her daughter, Eponine, who is the same age as Cosette and appears to have everything Cosette does not.  Then Bellatrix wakes up her husband, Borat, so they can open their inn and sing a hilarious song about how they are the scum of the earth.  The Thenardiers are used as comic relief in the musical and the movie, but in the book their greed is portrayed bluntly for what it is: they are part of the parasite class, taking advantage of whomever they can, robbing from rich and poor alike, with no sympathy for anyone.  They’re the sort of people who refer to themselves as “realists” to cover up the fact that they’re really just selfish, self-serving assholes who prey on the weaknesses of others.  In short, they suck balls, but they’re very popular characters in the stage musicals because they’re funny about it.  (And, to be fair, the musical really needs the comic relief.  You can put the book down and take a breather when shit starts to get too heavy, but on stage or film, where you’re presumed to sit through the story more or less continuously, something’s gotta break up the parade of misery.  Not all critics have enjoyed the somewhat jarring change in tone which occurs whenever they’re on-screen, but try to imagine getting through the damn thing without it…)

 

Valjean finds Cosette wandering in the woods, and she hides for all of three seconds before deciding that this random helpful stranger is probably less of a threat than the people she lives with.  They roll on back to the Thenardiers, and Valjean pays to take Cosette away, covering Fantine’s outstanding debts plus all the profit that the Thenardiers extort from him, because that is what they do.  It’s quite quick and very different from the book, wherein Valjean keeps his intentions hidden for an entire evening at the inn, choosing instead to play some serious mind games with the Thenardiers by paying them to stop yelling at Cosette and giving her a brand-new, giant-ass doll that makes young Eponine (who doesn’t actually have that great a life, except by comparison to the shit-show that is Cosette’s) crazy jealous.  They have no idea who he is or what he’s after and it’s kind of amazing, but the musical ain’t got time for that shit.

 

Debt settled, Valjean and Cosette ride off into the sunset (or, Paris).  Shortly after they depart the Thenardiers’ inn Javert shows up in pursuit of Valjean, making quite an impression on the innkeepers (which will come up again later) but not quite catching up to his man.  Valjean is in a carriage with a sleeping Cosette, singing a fairly bland song about how this sudden fatherhood has changed his life even though so far all he’s done is buy a kid a damn doll.  The song is new for the movie — it’s not in the musical — and it’s fine, but not great.  They roll up to the gates of Paris only to find that carriages are being checked — Javert has gotten there first, and the cops are on the prowl for a fugitive!  So Valjean wakes Cosette and they sneak out (but not before Javert spots them and follows), running through alleyways as they are pursued by the long arm of the law.  They reach a dead-end and Wolverine busts out his mad X-men skills to free-climb a multi-story wall and then pull Cosette up after him, because Valjean really is a superhero after all — he was bitten by a radioactive bishop, and now shoots deadly mercy-beams from his eyes!  On the other side of the wall they land in the safety of a convent whose groundskeeper just so happens to be the old dude whom Valjean saved from that carriage earlier, and who will of course keep their secret.  See, kids, you never know when saving someone’s life might be the key to finding safe haven from an overzealous, self-righteous police officer later down the line!  (Or maybe that’s only the moral if you live in Oakland, or early-nineteenth-century France.)  This whole scene is quite well-done and is absent from both the musical and the book — it’s never really explained how Valjean manages to make it into Paris, so this is a welcome addition, even if it does stretch credulity a bit.  (Although no more than some other things in the story.  Victor Hugo was a big fan of coincidence, y’all.) 

 

Even my love of French history could not power me through such an exhaustive recap — especially when it involved reliving Russell Crowe’s butchering of “Stars.”  (I would love to post a video of Norm Lewis utterly crushing the same number as a balm to everyone’s soul, but apparently YouTube took them all down?!  GOD DAMN THE MAN!)

The Moral Universe of Harry Potter

I began writing this three years ago; it was meant to be an epic, but I lost steam fairly quickly.  Visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter last week has rekindled enough enthusiasm to post the fragment that I finished now.

 

Like so many others, I am a giant “Harry Potter” nerd.  With the release of the final film, I’ve been embroiled in some discussions — and read some articles — about various facets of the Potterverse, much of which revolve around the usual meat of this blog: ethics, narrative structures, social justice and political identity.  So I thought I’d go ahead and, rather than respond piecemeal to different sources, collate all my thoughts in a single post here.  There’s a lot to cover, so I’ve tried to impose a structure that keeps things pretty clear.

 

First principles: “Harry Potter” is written for kids.  That’s not a slam — I love (and sold) kidlit — but it is an important rebuttal to two common complaints against the series.  Firstly, there’s the writing style.  JK Rowling’s prose is not revelatory, but it does the job well, maintains an appropriate reading level, and gets in a great deal of wordplay (what other book has contributed so many inventive new words to common language in the last fifty years?).  Rowling’s a better storyteller than she is prose stylist, and while the very best writers are both in equal measure, children’s literature tends to lean more heavily on the former than the latter.  I’m not going to pile on the series for using too many adverbs or ellipses (even though it kinda does).

 

The second complaint often leveled against the series is the simplicity of its moral universe, which is what I’ll be deconstructing for pretty much the rest of this post, but I’d like to begin that process by pointing out the obvious: “Harry Potter” is told from the perspective of Harry Potter (almost the entire series, save a few expositional scenes, are in third-person limited, in Harry’s voice).  Harry Potter is a kid.  We meet him when he is eleven years old and part with him at seventeen.  Adolescents are wonderful and capable creatures, but their moral compass is still very much under development.  As such, in order to fully understand the ethical complexity of the Potterverse, we have to read past Harry himself.  Readers encounter the wizarding world as Harry Potter encounters it, but hey, this is a post-Nabokov literary moment — trusting that our narrator, however heroic he may be, is correct or complete in his perceptions is just being a lazy reader.

 

The last premise I’d like to establish before getting into specifics is my reference point for authorial intent.  Authorial intent is kind of a twitchy thing to lean on, and my aim isn’t to find things that aren’t actually present within the text but rather to backstop textual interpretation with a sense of Rowling’s own attitudes and politics.  I’ve read several interviews with her but the most extended and thought-provoking speech I’ve seen from her was at the Harvard commencement in 2008 — my brother was graduating with his PhD and although I, barely employed and couch-surfing in Los Angeles, could not afford the cross-country trip both he and my parents insisted that I not miss the video of her address, which celebrated the dual importance of both imagination and failure (the latter of which was quite reassuring, as I watched with a cup of ramen noodles from my temporary home on a friend’s floor).  Imagination’s import is not presented frivolously but rather as the groundwork for empathy and political action: prior to writing Rowling worked with human rights refugees, and in the speech she interpolates a causal relationship between the literary imagination and the compassionate courage necessary to engage in positive changemaking.  It’s a powerful idea, and I’ll revisit it herein.

 

So, without further ado, I’ll run through my thoughts character by character, in an order that I think makes the most sense.

 

Harry — Although it’s his name on the cover of every book, Harry can be easy enough to dismiss as a hero: he’s blessed with athleticism, good looks, and a frankly absurd amount of money, and that’s before we even start in on the whole “Chosen One” thing.  We’ll get back to the prophecy stuff in a bit (and won’t really bother trying to decipher the wizarding economy, because really, that… is a whole ‘nother can of worms), but I’d like to bring up a point that’s relevant to his narrative reliability — in addition to being an adolescent boy, in addition to being tasked with a tremendous burden, he is also recovering from a full decade of abuse.  If Hagrid hadn’t shown up and whisked Harry off to Hogwarts at age eleven, then one could only hope that the boy might’ve encountered a sympathetic teacher to report the Dursleys to social services — kids who have experienced what his aunt and uncle do to Harry are the kind of kids who wind up wards of the state.  I don’t say that to be facile, either; I say that because, about six years ago, my father — who teaches severe behaviorally handicapped students at a residential school run by the county — had a student whose parents also used to lock him under the stairs (in a crawlspace, not a cupboard), where he would befriend insects and spiders to pass the time.  Like Harry, the kid was resilient, but he was also messed up.  Harry’s inability to see flaws in Sirius; his petulant anger at Dumbledore’s unrevealed past during the entire first half of book seven; his immediate judgment of Snape after being treated poorly by the man; the fact that Harry can never shut up about his dead parents — y’all, this kid is needy.  Yes, it can be a little irritating at times, and occasionally obscure some important points (as we’ll discuss regarding Sirius), but given what she stuck the boy with as a premise Rowling does about the best she can at striking a middle ground between a tolerable narrator and the psychological reality of a teenage boy coping with a history of serious abuse at the same time he’s also trying to, like, save the world and shit.  The Potterverse is not entirely unproblematic but to lay those problems at the feet of Harry himself is, I think, incorrect — after all, if anyone wields genuine power in the Potterverse it is not Harry but rather his mentor, which brings us to…

 

Dumbledore — The AV Club write-up of the entire HP saga took JK Rowling to task for her comment that Dumbledore is gay; they found it “opportunistic.”  Which is a head-scratcher to me — how is Dumbledore being gay any more or less opportunistic than his being straight?  There are those who feel that his homosexuality should have been more overt, that he should have had some kind of romantic entanglement, that more evidence is necessary to justify his sexual orientation, but this response disregards the created reality of the wizarding world, which is, plainly, heteronormative, perhaps even more so than muggle society.  Dumbledore holds a great deal of power and prestige, but even he is not immune to the undemocratic manipulations and machinations of his (numerous) enemies; were he to come out publicly there would surely be repercussions, particularly given his past history with the dark wizard Grindelwald (wouldn’t Rita Skeeter love to report THAT story!).  It might not be the most courageous option, but Dumbledore’s pragmatism in not coming out publicly has served him well in leading the effort against Voldemort.  Revealing this part of his identity privately to Harry, with whom he was fairly close, would be less scandalous but also entirely irrelevant — the entire first half of book seven goes to great lengths to point out how little Harry actually knew about his mentor, because their relationship was always focused on either a) Harry or b) Voldemort.  For Dumbledore to suddenly bring up his sexuality would have been rather Catholic-priestly of him, and, well, isn’t it better for everyone that the series didn’t go there?  Moreover, for those who found no precedent for Dumbledore’s orientation, I suggest looking to his generous outlook towards house-elves, muggles, giants, centaurs, and all the other manner of creatures discriminated against as a matter of course within the wizarding world.  Dumbledore is not an agent for systemic change (which fits with his closeted sexuality) but he does express a consistent solidarity with oppressed classes, suggesting that underneath his power and privilege there is some experience with marginalization.  This is why, although he is a closer mentor to Harry, the young wizard who most echoes Dumbledore is in fact…

 

Hermione — Dumbledore aside, Hermione is the best thing the good guys have going for ’em; when Sirius calls her “the brightest witch of [her] age” he could be referring either to her class at Hogwarts, or to her entire generation.  Without Hermione on their side, Harry and Ron die in their first year of wizardschool and Voldemort comes back into power without much issue.  In short, Hermione is AWESOME, and as others have pointed out, she deserves her name on the cover of the books at least as much as Harry — her heroic efforts happen not by happenstance or prophecy but arise from intelligence and hard work, and on top of all those smarts she also demonstrates the most well-developed conscience of any of the Hogwarts students; her love of rules is not so great that she can’t see past them to recognize the many structural injustices of the wizarding world.  

 

And that’s all I managed to finish — mostly because there’s just too damn much to say about Hermione, her experience of marginalization, her solidarity with house-elves (and the flaws in her allyship, and the pushback she receives from other wizards for even making an effort) — and then the great revelation that Hermione could be black (as, indeed, she is in the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) — well, that’s a lot to unpack, and most of it is already there in bits and pieces on Tumblr.  

 

(Also, for those of you who are noticing a pattern: yes, this is the week in which I dig out old writing that’s sitting unloved on my hard drive and send it into the digital ether.)

This Body

Written in spring 2013

 

My toes are hairy; fine enough hairs on the four little toes to go unnoticed but the big toes betray my Hispanic roots more than any other feature.  In Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides defines the “Hair Belt” across Eurasia but he forgot to jump oceans and include us bestial Latino folk, swarthy, unibrowed, hairy-toed Latin lovers that we may be.  The paint on my toenails is chipping, half off, bright blue at the moment until I make the time to sit down with nail polish remover and balled-up bits of toilet paper to separate each little piggy.  The paint job tends toward the neon end of the palette, and it’s never well-done — on interior finishes I can be maddeningly precise but hand me a makeup brush and I might as well have Parkinson’s.  My arches are dropped and my feet have been a source of pain since I could walk but lately I have a new pride in them too, for an orthopedic flip-flop tan so absurdly well-developed my feet may well have been grafted together from skins of my mongrel background, Cuban bronze intercut with German-Irish pale.

 

Do I have cankles?  I can never tell; it seems to depend on the viewing angle, or the style of shoe, or the cut of pants.  I broke my left ankle my sophomore year of college, racing into a friend’s dorm room to hide an anatomy-class fake cat skeleton in her bed.  God did not approve of my pranksterism and smoted me, or maybe I just have bad balance, but I turned a corner and the thing shattered.  It bothered me for years until I finally did some damn physical therapy and it’s reserved real estate for a tattoo now, a standing microphone which is next on my to-tat list.  My shins can flex with muscle and my calves can bulge with it but as they taper towards the knee it’s all overlain with fat, though I never shave often enough for my legs to be aesthetically appealing anyway — who has room in her schedule for such constant maintenance?  I’ve got better things to do with my life; the entire series of “Cougar Town” isn’t going to re-watch itself.  My hair is coarse and dark and my legs are pale and there’s usually some kind of bugbites involved as well — I am nectar to fleas, shrugged off by human males but irresistible to insects — plus the odd assortment of bruises and scratches that come along with drinking and carpentry (never together; my limbs may be imperfect but I like having the complete set).  I wear shorts anyway, year-round, because that’s why I moved to California in the first place. 

 

Above the knees I don’t get laid often enough to shave with any regularity and besides the hair helps cover the shame of my thighs, chunky, cellulite-riddled, stretchmark-addled.  My legs are stubby (all of me is stubby) and the detritus of so many In-N-Out burgers shows all too clearly, even if I do order them protein-style.  On my inner right thigh is my most colorful inking, a red chili pepper winking ironically near the juncture of my legs: I am a spicy Latina.  I was pantsless in front of a friend and a stranger for an hour while the latter laid the colors into my skin and though there was a moment of panic when I first dropped trou (they will see the worst of my flab) the event was surprisingly comfortable, really; I’m friends with the tattoo artist on Facebook now, which is more than I can say for most gentlemen who spend any length of time working that general region.  My left inner thigh reflects back a long skinny scar, memory of a high school birthday party where an intense capture-the-flag chase scene ended with me lacerated by a furnace’s protruding metal flange.  (I paid the chasee back the next year, bruising her kidney during a particularly vicious game of foosball.)  The scar is thin and gleaming ivory, easy to miss amidst the creeping, rambunctious pubic hairs that spill beyond my bikini line; I know there are strict maintenance standards now (or so I hear) but I’m too poor to get professionally waxed and have not yet mastered a razor around the knee in fifteen-plus years, and some things just aren’t worth risking — I’ve never celebrated my genitals in the fashion of the Vagina Monologues and between gut-busting menstrual cramps and regular urinary tract infections the whole thing can sometimes seem more hassle than it’s worth, but my vagina has proved its use in other ways, so I’d rather leave it furred and intact than tempt fate.  I’d probably hate my ass if I could see it easily but as it is I don’t think much about it except when it earns me the kind of compliments that only come because I live in East Oakland, and there is a different kind of ideal figure here.

 

My belly is pooched and droopy — I went to the emergency room recently, with abdominal pain so intense and long-lasting that I thought I might have a burst appendix, and I would have liked to flirt with the cute jokey resident but he started off by palpating my flabby, gluten-intolerant stomach, and there was really nowhere to go from there (except to discover that I didn’t have appendicitis anyway, just severe gas) — but cures for this adipose are harder to come by.  I used to swear by crunches, five hundred a day at the end of my freshman year of college (my anorexic phase), but now my back is a wreck and I must work my core carefully.  My back held up for years under the duress of piggyback rides and stair-falls and construction work but in October of 2011 it gave out in the bed of a pickup truck, a tarp half-a-ton full of wet dirt in hand, and it’s never been the same since, spasming under even the mildest of exertions.  I used to be a beast, to savor the fatigue of a long effort, but now I fear I’ve become just some functionally useless fat chick.  The pain runs along my spine to the base of my ribcage and above it lives not relief but constant soreness, consequence not of spectacular muscle failure but of everyday pressures; I’ve traveled to four continents with my trusty backpack and it’s with me always day-to-day, a lesson of my transient personal history: keep what you need close at hand.  The weight of the backpack earns cheap jokes from coworkers (no it’s not filled with rocks) and strains my shoulder blades — I should have my dowager’s hump by forty, if the permaknot at the top of my spine can be trusted, just above the infinity sign etched on my back.  It was my first tattoo, standing shirtless at a parlor in Dallas, wondering how well the needles might sting, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  I like to think it distracts from my backne.

 

There are hairs on my breasts — I thought for some years of my adolescence that I was a shameful mutant but in time I learned that it’s quite common, though uncommonly discussed; that the much-adored breasts of Renaissance art and of Playboy share a certain artifice beyond inflation, the fiction of rose-tipped, pristine skin, uninterrupted by something so unseemly as a follicle.  But the common ancestor we humans share with apes was almost certainly one hairy motherfucker, and hirsute boobs are a real thing.  I have another tattoo above my left breast, sitting atop my heart, the cursive letters dbh flowing from a fountain pen.  It was my twenty-seventh birthday present to myself, nine months after my little cousin David Berosky Hopkins died, another young man made statistic. We’d spent a lot of time together learning finish construction from my father, one or both of us working at his side during endless home renovation projects, but when the time comes for me to buy my own fixer-upper I will have to work alone.

 

I have not always been kind to my own flesh, but I am trying to be gentler now.

 

When I was sixteen years old I spent a summer at Carnegie-Mellon University, taking calculus and physics courses, and there my studies were inconvenienced by a strange diagnosis: afolliculitis, or a bacterial infection of the hair follicle.  Probably my razor touched something in the dorm showers, the medical center staff said, and I was forbidden from shaving or using deodorant for one week while the antibiotics did their work.  I don’t think I was born with the impulse to do comedy but there is a certain point wherein one must come face-to-face with one’s own inherent ridiculousness, and for me that moment was when the doctor told me I had an armpit disease.

 

But from the cesspools of my underarms spring my most glorious feature, arms less toned than Michelle Obama’s but no less magnificent for their achievements.  My right forearm is significantly larger than my left although the difference is not so freakish as it once was; at the peak of my work with Habitat for Humanity, five days a week of swinging a hammer and raising beams and hefting fifty-pound buckets of nails (two at a time, by years’ end) — back then my right forearm was a beautiful monstrosity, bulging and jaw-droppingly capable.  Sometimes when there’s no one around to high-five I take out my old framing hammer and swing it at nothing, just to feel the completion in the arc of my arm, just to feel complete.  On my right wrist is my lone easily-visible tattoo, a tiny outline of a hammer to remind me of my own strength — my Habitattoo, I like to say, although I got it months later and hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles.  My left arm has little to offer except symmetry and a place to hang a watch (I’ve got a bitchin’ watch-tan), but then, it’s tough to compete with a hammer-arm.

 

I have the stubby unpainted fingers of a small child and the thick squat neck of a linebacker, my shoulders always creeping towards my ears with tension and momentum until I notice and force them into relaxation.  I have a birthmark on my neck that looks like a hickey, covered with hair usually, just like the tattoo behind my left ear; a light bulb, the old incandescent style, memento of a road trip to New Orleans.  A light bulb because I’m a thinker, in case the thick glasses and the constantly furrowed brow (I’m not yet thirty, but the lines are already starting to show) are not evidence enough that this whole body is really just casing and vehicle for the blob inside my skull, hyperactive and impossible to turn off when my physical self demands a pep talk even to get out of bed.  I like my face well enough, pretty sometimes, other times sweaty and set; my hair has grown finer with age but in spite of six years of red dye (I wanted to be Agent Scully when I was in high school) I’ve come to terms with the dark brown color.  The scalp underneath is nicely shaped, too, a fact discovered my freshman year of college when I shaved it all off for a bet; one hundred and fifty dollars, and the first thing I did with my riches was buy a hat.  At Christmas I came home with a crop of dark fuzz and my mother, auburn-accustomed, couldn’t accept that this was my lot in life: “God made you wrong,” she told me, not unkind. 

 

I never thought myself so graceless until I began telling jokes in public, and in the dark with a microphone in hand I felt confident in what I’d written and confident in my vocal delivery and completely confused about what to do with my body; this was stand-up, and I just stood there.  I tried to take a dance class at the local community college to fix it but the instinct and muscle memory I rely on to, say, drunkenly punch my male friends abandoned me altogether and I was as awkward in the classroom as I am in the clubs.  I know physical surety amid scaffolding and roof trusses, driving nails bent and left by volunteers, and alone in my house with music blasting (or sometimes in a particularly empty grocery store aisle) I can bust moves with impunity — but the moment a gaze is fixed upon my gyrations then it all falls apart. 

 

On the rare occasions when I am really feeling down I take the BART across the bay, to the Daly City station, and I stand on the platform and look across the street to the houses I helped build, with sweat and effort and the brute force of this imperfect body.  They are homes today, foundations and frames and finish now joyful and sorrowful and occupied, and I always feel better for the trip.

 

Postscript: I don’t live in East Oakland anymore, and can’t just hop the BART to look at my handiwork when I’m down; I also never got that microphone tattoo (instead, a Foo Fighters quote on my arms).  But effort and attention has restored my back to much of its functionality — a fact I genuinely do not know how to celebrate without relying on ableism (suggestions welcome) — and this imperfect body has accompanied me on three more years’ worth of adventures.  I think I appreciate it even more now than I did then, cellulite and all.

On Idealism

I haven’t written in a while; it’s been a long come-down from ten years of scratching away against injustice in the non-profit and cause-based sphere, earning sub-poverty wages while I strove to lift others to better lives.  I don’t regret the work, but I do regard it very critically.

 

This had been an issue of personal reflection and growth until the purity contest of the 2016 Democratic election became the runaway train ever-bearing down on my Facebook feed; I have left the activist circles of the Bay Area only physically, and digitally they are #FeelingTheBern.  At first I was on board — who doesn’t love an outsider campaign that successfully pushes a mainstream dialogue about the principles of democratic socialism?  But the outsider campaign has become, simply, a campaign, and I am, frankly, too tired for this bait-and-switch bullshit.  Call me a Ho for Hillary if you must, but that’s an overstatement and besides I’m really more of a Ho for History, America’s and the world’s and my own.  Plus, I don’t give a shit who you vote for.

 

Idealism is a tricky thing; by its very nature it invites purity contests and border-policing and a pedantic tendency towards righteousness, from which I know myself to have suffered all too well.  I graduated from an elite college and spent ten years living in the federally defined category of “low-income,” and three of those years below the federal poverty line.  I rarely had health insurance and I was on and off food stamps and I found myself repeatedly homeless.  I couch-surfed, I slept in my car when I had one, I squatted; I made it work, but as I sat at the library emailing out as many resumes as I could I continued to seek job postings on Idealist.org and the Craigslist non-profit section, where my underpayment was essentially guaranteed to continue.  And it did.  I survived on the generosity of family and friends, on luck and persistence, and I never sold out.

 

Or maybe I did.  I don’t particularly care anymore, because what I’ve realized in the past year or so is that the concept of “selling out” — of moral or ideological compromise — is mostly garbage.  Making positive change depends on effectiveness, not upon self-righteousness.  This isn’t an argument against principle, but it is an argument for not being limited by it, or — perhaps more salient to the Sanders campaign — not being blinded by it against political reality.  Or just plain reality.

 

Maybe we progressives use “establishment” as a slur because our own moral elevation is easier than compromise, or the acknowledgement of our failures and disempowerment.  Maybe we don’t even really know what “establishment” means, or maybe it has so many meanings that it can suit whatever definition we need at the moment, leaving those tarred by its accusations of complicity and effectiveness to shadow-box with an ever-shifting Republic of Virtue.  And we all know how those end, anyway: with all of us unfit residents.  (Robespierre might be one of my all-time favorite historical figures, but that’s only because I’ve never lived in late-18th/early-19th century France.)

 

I spilled a lot of ink on Facebook threads about the inherent double-standard of calling Hillary Clinton “establishment” until The Onion made the point more succinctly.  If that doesn’t persuade you, then the existence of voters torn between Sanders and Trump — which, for all the shit I’m about to pour on Sanders, I truly don’t understand, because there is a vast gulf between the two — might speak to the empty value of “anti-establishment.”

 

Ah, say the only-mildly-chastened, but Hillary represents second-wave white feminism, and we are intersectional these days, and we will prove this with a torrent of Internet screeds excoriating Hillary and her white feminist supporters, like Madeline Albright (willing to countenance the death of millions of Middle Easterners in a moral calculus that Bernie, as the leader of the most militarized nation in the history of the world, will somehow… avoid?) or Gloria Steinem (who said something dumb and offensive in public) or John Lewis (bought off and irrelevant, further evidence of the Clinton machine) or America Ferrara (pshaw, a Hollywood star, although we could also call her the youngest child of Honduran immigrants whose father left and whose mother supported the family working as a hotel housekeeper), or the middle-aged-plus black women who are shaping up as the ride-or-dies of the Hillary electorate (they must be uninformed, and it is our moral duty to fix their ignorance), or Dolores Huerta (DOLORES MOTHERFUCKING HUERTA!, but she’s with Clinton so she must be bought off) — but please, lecture me again about how intersectionality works.

 

Because the truth, unacknowledged by those who think a woman in the White House would be a “trophy” rather than an embodied radicalism entirely independent of policy, is that identity politics developed and gained traction as a direct answer to the shortcomings of traditional Marxist/socialist class-first approaches.  The intersectionality of democratic socialism is only theoretical, and perhaps those legions of black Hillary voters are not ignorant of Clinton’s faults but overinformed about the failures of progressive populism to move the needle of black liberation in any meaningful way.  I’ve seen a few memes comparing Bernie to FDR, but that comparison might reflect more than supporters and sharers realize: the New Deal was famously passed with Dixiecrat votes in a compromise that excluded entire categories of low-wage, predominantly black workers (primarily domestics and agricultural workers) from its benefits, but less known is that white security came not only from continued economic exploitation but from an officially-unofficial sanctioning of violence against the black body, because FDR also agreed not to pursue any federal anti-lynching legislation or enforcement in the South.  Compromise is the price of political change, and the idea that Bernie will be somehow immune to this reality — in a way that Hillary or Obama or FDR were not (was it their own moral failing?) — is a comforting illusion only until the time comes to actually do anything. 

 

(In the meantime, however, Sanders supporters are more than welcome to continue writing screeds about intersectionality which dismiss Hillary’s accomplishments and competence as merely a “feminist trophy,” a phrase that doesn’t at all mean the exact same thing as “affirmative action baby,” that isn’t on its face a rejection of the idea that representation matters — an idea so opposite to intersectionality that it’s probably more efficient to just tweet “#OscarsSoWhite but UGHHHHHHHH PANTSUITS AMIRITE?!?!”)

 

And like the white feminism she represents, Hillary Clinton has many faults, and there is a lot of legitimate criticism of her record, although strangely that criticism seems to be awfully one-directional: Hillary’s stumbling in answering for a twenty-year-old remark endorsing a racist criminology isn’t good enough and it seems the only possible penance for the ’94 crime bill would be for her to go back in time and clothesline her husband on national television to physically prevent his signing it (even though it was a compromise bill with broad progressive support that had a fairly limited impact on rising incarceration rates, even though Bernie voted for it, even though Hillary was political deadweight in 1994 after the HillaryCare debacle and her support was pretty irrelevant to its passage, even though she’s spoken consistently and repeatedly in recent years about her regret over some of its elements, even though her current platform aims to undo not-insubstantial parts of it) — but the young diverse intersectional supporters of Bernie accept his about-face on immigration after decades of consistent and repeated “protect American jobs” and “porous borders” rhetoric that is not indistinguishable from the official Republican party line (non-Trump, non-racist version), even though Step One on Bernie’s official “immigration” platform on his website is to pass comprehensive immigration reform not tied to building a wall, even though the last time Bernie had a real opportunity to help just such a bill pass, less than a decade ago, he voted against it, even though Hillary voted for it and Bernie’s nay put him with the ranks of the far-right.  And so in summary: one extremely intelligent and committed millennial activist and POC who is a Facebook friend of mine can post about how Hillary’s inability to immediately answer for her “superpredator” remarks of two decades ago reveals her as an amoral opportunist who couldn’t be trusted on, say, executive orders related to immigration, even though everything in Bernie’s actual record, everything beyond his recent campaign rhetoric, indicates that Bernie — like the Danish he venerates, and like the entire history of progressive populism in America — is perfectly comfortable with a good dose of nativism if it protects American wages. 

 

But Bernie is allowed to learn and grow from his encounters with activists (isn’t it great how he developed a criminal justice platform in response to the Seattle #BlackLivesMatter interruption?), while we all already know that Hillary is a craven flip-flopper who will say anything to satisfy her ambition, incapable of “growth” or “learning” because she’s just saying whatever people want to hear.  When Bernie commends a woman for breastfeeding at a political rally, the Internet swoons; if Hillary points out that she balanced breastfeeding and political rallies as part of her actual life, well, she’s just trying to get us to vote with our vaginas.  

 

Maybe.  Or maybe Lady MacBeth was a tired stereotype even in Shakespeare’s day.  Maybe it’s easier to blame Yoko Ono for breaking up the Beatles than to acknowledge that the band was coming apart at the seams — that George had already stolen Ringo’s wife and was so mad at John that he literally wrote him out of his autobiography, that Paul was already doing side-projects with sweet unambitious supportive blonde Linda, that music was moving on with or without them — and maybe what really makes it sting is that it was through his relationship with Yoko that artistic hero and genius John Lennon transformed from a wife-beating misogynist to an avowed feminist who was, at the time of his death, repairing some of the myriad relationships he’d broken in his life by being a raging asshole.  But sure.  Let’s make Yoko the villain of the piece. 

 

And sure, maybe Hillary really is everything Rush Limbaugh said she was, a conniving, utterly amoral creature defined only by her lust for absolute power, master of a cabal that could off Vince Foster and do whatever the fuck she was accused of in Whitewater and Benghazi and emails and Monica Lewinsky and those Chinese donors and a million other things probably and maybe she really is equal parts Jimmy Hoffa and Joseph Stalin in those goddamn pantsuits. 

 

Or maybe we live in a world that really likes projecting all our insecurities and ugly bullshit on women, especially old women or public women or ambitious women or ew, gross, all three at once, are you fucking kidding me? 

 

Your call.  I’m gonna stick with Occam’s Razor, which is to say, the patriarchy did it. 

 

And their policies.  What Bernie offers is tempting; it’s a vision of America that is beautiful, that I could fall in love with, but it’s also — and here’s the rub — a vision of America that is fundamentally false.  2009 was not so very long ago (even the very newest voters this year were over the age of reason at the time), and can’t we all recall Obama spending every single goddamn cent of his considerable political capital to juuuuuuuuuuuust barely eke through an imperfect compromise health care bill that, for all of its flaws, materially and significantly improved the lives of millions of people?  (Before ObamaCare, I could only treat my suicidal depression by joining a clinical study.  For those of you not directly affected, let me tell you: this imperfect compromise bill has been a fucking godsend.)  And the consequence of this bare-knuckled and incomplete victory was Republicans taking over Congress in the next midterm election cycle and repeated efforts to undo some or all of the bill, some of which have been, at least in some states, successful.  That is the America we live in.  That is the political reality of trying to address major social issues from a progressive perspective at a national level.  And those with longer memories were utterly unsurprised by Obama’s challenges because they remembered 1993 and HillaryCare, her national, universal health care program that was well-researched and well-designed and crashed and burned so completely — not on its policy but on its politics — that health care was effectively off the table for the remainder of the Clinton administration, in large part because the 1994 midterm elections brought in massive Republican numbers to Congress in response to the fear-mongering around HillaryCare and hey is this maybe starting to sound like a familiar pattern here?

 

But Bernie will do it right.  In spite of a Republican Congress, he — the old white man from one of America’s smallest and whitest states — will succeed where the woman and the black man failed.  Bernie will give us Medicare for All, without compromise, because the people — those same people who rose up to elect Republican majorities in direct response to the two previous serious efforts at universal health care — those same fucking people will, seven years later, rise up to support Bernie. 

 

And we (progressives) apparently believe this.

 

If this were a story arc on a prestige television show there would be scores (hundreds?) of thinkpiece essays about the problematic framing of this particular narrative, of the idea that millions of diverse young progressives would rally to an old white dude offering cheap promises of succeeding where the non-white and non-male had failed.  “If the phrase ‘the people too must rise’ sounds familiar,” some of those essays might point out, “it’s from the musical Les Miserables, where the young revolutionary Enjolras sings the same line during the uprisings of 1832 against the restored monarchy.  The tragedy of the story, of course, is that they don’t: the working-class Parisians who were to be France’s liberation let the idealistic young rebels die at the hands of the king’s soldiers.  Are the moderate gains of ObamaCare to be similarly sacrificed in the fires of revolutionary fervor?” 

 

“Some of those essays” might be an overstatement, but at least one of those essays would say that, and I would write it.  But here’s the thing that’s not a joke, or a hypothetical: this isn’t a prestige television show, and the progressive-left “we” is what constitutes that problematic framing.  We are participating in it and, in our denial that representation matters, in our reliance on right-wing narratives to justify that denial, we are only digging ourselves deeper into the problem; with every social media share of another supposed “truth-telling” link from a website that claims to be an organ of both Sanders and the People but has actually compared of Hillary to Trump, spread false information about delegate math, straight-up lied about the superdelegate procedures in an effort to discredit the primary election itself, and generally peddled a self-victimizing mythology (the “Bernie media blackout” schlock) pulled directly from the right-wing playbook, we are only digging ourselves deeper into the problem.

 

Not to mention, of course, there is quite literally nothing to support Bernie’s claim that he will succeed where ObamaCare failed, and there is quite literally nothing to support the idea that the majority of Americans even want him to.  Most health-care-related rising up has been in direct opposition to even moderate universalizing.  There is no way to reconcile every single piece of our recent history on this issue to what Bernie is proposing will happen.  That’s not a serious campaign, and that’s not a promise.  That’s a delusion.

 

It is not his only one.  Let’s talk about another beloved plank of the Sanders campaign: free college.  Hillary has, in debates, pointed out that free college is not very feasible without mechanisms to control costs, to which Sanders has mostly replied “But Europe does it!” — because this deflection is much easier than a serious discussion of how, precisely, colleges might control costs to fit their tuitions to federal funding levels.  The most likely route is, of course, what colleges are already doing to cut costs: adjunctification, that is, the replacement of retiring full-time, tenured professors with poorly paid wage-slave contract laborers.  I don’t think that’s what Bernie wants, of course, so perhaps the free-college-tuition-law will be some massive omnibus bill that regulates details like what percentage of the faculty must be full-time in order for schools to qualify (states might have to consolidate a bit in order to meet these regulations, and of course we’d also have to set a cap on how many full-cost-paying foreign students they could enroll, since upping those numbers is another strategy already very much in play) — at which point schools will most likely just keep doing exactly what they are already doing and close down unprofitable departments in favor of revenue-generating science and business programs funded by corporate and foundation grants, with the legally permissible number of adjuncts corralled to departments and programs like English and composition because, well, maybe it matters that college grads can write a complete sentence.  It’s not illegal for a school to only offer a small number of majors, after all, and besides, kids who want to do something else, who come from sufficient means or who are sufficiently spectacular, will still have the option to attend private colleges, where their tuition money might bring with it perks like “foreign language classes” and “labs not sponsored by Pfizer.”  Because — and this is a mistake made by many, many progressives, not just Sanders — there is a MAJOR difference between the American system of higher education and that of every other developed free-college country on the planet, and that’s that we have a massive and thriving system of private colleges and universities in addition to our public schools.  Other countries have private schools, sure, but they don’t have so damn many, and it is to these many that parents and students will turn as public colleges contract under cost-control measures, and again this is not some wild prediction because this is already fucking happening.  A brilliant few lower-income students will attend places like Harvard or Stanford or Yale, which are rich enough to offer full scholarships to anyone from a family below a certain income threshold, but the very existence of so many private institutions of higher education means that we can’t simply imitate the European (or Canadian, or Australian) model of free college without huge numbers of folks jumping ship to the ready, widely-available, unconstrained alternative.

 

I think zero student loan debt and affordable college is one of the most important things we can do.  I also think Bernie’s plan leads pretty directly (based on trends which are, let me reiterate, all already happening, this is not exactly difficult stuff to game out) to a two-tiered system in which private schools are widely preferred over the cost-constrained (but free!) publics.  I also think there’s a really easy way around this, which is simply to expand the federal Pell grant program to fully fund the tuition of all qualifying students.  This is, coincidentally, Hillary’s plan.  It’s a lot less ambitious and romantic than Bernie’s.  It’s also a lot more likely to actually work, whereby “work” doesn’t mean “satisfy neoliberal economic-imperial ideas about the function of education” but means, rather, that Hillary’s plan is much more likely to serve actual human beings, rather than serving an ideology, or an ideological vision of how American institutions and policy “should” look.

 

And that is, at heart, why I can’t get on board with Bernie: because Bernie can’t seem to get on board with America.  Not the America that we on the left like to talk about, the America of hard-working immigrants and smart young people of color and kind old Social Security recipients, but rather the America that elects people like Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush and quite possibly Donald Trump, because this is a democracy and they are part of it too, and we can’t simply wish them away, much as we would like to; we have to negotiate and compromise with them according to procedures laid out in the Constitution and according to the institutions and cultural practices which already exist and a campaign that relies on revolutionary ideals of people “rising up” rejects all of that, whether it comes from the left or the right. 

 

And I know, I know, but Bernie was a great compromiser in the Senate, they call him the “King of Amendments,” and that certainly speaks to his value in a legislative body, where a greater diversity of opinion can and should be represented.  I’m proud of the votes I’ve cast for Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee, quite possibly the only two contemporary national politicians who can be called substantively leftwards of Sanders.  I also don’t know that either of them would make a great president, because the American executive office is designed for centrism.  Saying that Bernie would not be a good president is not a denial of his accomplishments in the Senate.    

 

And there are, of course, very legitimate critiques to be made of Hillary.  I certainly don’t agree with all of her political choices over the years, although I appreciate her tenacity and her willingness to be persuaded to another point of view.  I’d heard reports from Beltway insider types that she was a shrill interpersonal nightmare but when I’ve actually spoken to people who worked under her at the State Department they have unanimously characterized her as humane, committed, and deeply caring.  I think she’s progressed quite significantly in her views on incarceration and racial justice but I’m troubled by her support of welfare reform, which unlike the Crime Bill she has actually defended in this century; I’m also troubled that true progressive Bernie hasn’t made more of an issue of it, but then again, the cultural currents have shifted against mass incarceration — it’s become one of those “Holy shit, I agree with Rand Paul about something?!” kind of coalition issues — whereas the public tide has yet to turn against welfare reform, so I suppose even the true progressives can’t make too much too much of a ruckus over amoral policy without losing their electability.  I also think this is how politics works in a representative democracy, that everything is a calculus, and that Hillary’s incrementalism is frustrating to those of us who have a vision of what justice looks like right now but is also, in fact, more effective in the long run for being actually workable.  And I think all of these things are equally if not more true in the arena of foreign affairs, where Hillary’s respect for Kissinger is deeply troubling but where the necessity of the calculation is even more undeniable, and where the questions and hopes and aspirations of peace and justice run most sharply against militarism and imperialism and hegemony, and these things would be so much easier to resolve if they weren’t shaped like actual people, like drowned Syrian toddlers and Vladimir Putin and everything in between. 

 

Because I don’t think Hillary has always made the right choice or will always make the right choice.  But I think we on the progressive left are often and deeply guilty of ignoring the complexity of the choices at hand, of oversimplifying reality for the sake of the possible, and it does not serve us.  We underprepare for the challenges that need to be not conquered, but met in compromise and coalition, and we don’t recognize compromise for its small victories so long as there is still morally indefensible injustice being perpetuated.  And I can’t craft a genuine moral defense for incrementalism.  I can’t.  The world should be a better, more just, more loving place, but it’s not, and we have to live and make positive change in the space between those two truths.  But maybe while Hillary is making small improvements to ObamaCare and expanding Pell grants and, yes, upholding the general neoliberal economic perspective, the rest of us can be winning hearts and minds, not talking amongst ourselves but mingling with the evangelicals and the rural poor and the high school dropouts and all those who aren’t generally a part of the progressive coalition, who find it profoundly alienating or even threatening; let’s bring them in and genuinely listen to what they have to say.  Maybe we can be thinking creatively and strategically about what democratic socialism might look like in a country with a massive and growing private non-profit sector, which like those private colleges sets us apart from our European and Canadian and Australian counterparts and complicates the transplantation of their methods for equity; let’s push for boring-sounding but wide-ranging reforms to tax policy around 501(c)3 status and charitable giving and the structure of foundations, all of which interact with inequality in uniquely American ways.  And let’s borrow from the Republican playbook and cultivate our state-level leaders and control redistricting so that the demographic inevitability of a more liberal America isn’t held hostage by a House of Representatives that is thoroughly un-representative. 

 

But let’s stop deceiving ourselves that pragmatism is an approach without either value or values, because that is complete and utter bullshit.  The veneration of the possible over the actual doesn’t serve people on the front lines; rather, it punishes them for the smallness of their accomplishments, no matter how hard-won those accomplishments may be, and I know because for ten years I’ve been one of those front-liners, for which I have to show zero retirement savings, a decades’ worth of truly pathetic tax returns, a recovery from suicidal depression informed largely by my sense of having failed to meaningfully change anything in the world, and a handful of small accomplishments which may prove utterly ephemeral but which are also indisputably real, tiny and insignificant against the promises of world-changing but stubbornly relevant to the handful of us who were there. 

 

And that’s all we can do; that’s all any of us can do, even the goddamn president.  I’m not moved by Bernie’s claims, and the claims of his supporters, that he can do otherwise, that he can be effective without compromise, that his moral calculations will somehow always or even occasionally involve situations in which there is a clear ethical choice.  I’m not moved by the idea that he will be a purer president than Obama, or that we need a purer president than Obama, and my reluctance comes not from cynicism or apathy but from the hard-fought optimism of having been in the fucking trenches myself and realizing that justice and kindness and a truly fair and equitable society is the longest fucking game around and it’s not won with self-deception or platitudes or idealism but with unyielding curiosity and unsparing honesty and a kind of self-brutalizing courage to keep wading in shit, day after day, even if you were wrong before, even if you fucked up yesterday or five minutes ago, even if there are no good options, even if the only way forward is deeper in shit.  It’s as commonplace as raising children, or building human relationships, or life; and it’s not always as hard as we make it out to be but we don’t need to pretend it’s easy, either.

 

Bernie’s campaign is predicated upon authenticity, realness, truth-telling beyond politics.  Idealism is an easy comfort, and in a universe’s worth of truth, it can offer a not-unimportant sense of possibility.  But it can only — ever — be a small piece of the expansive and complicated whole, and to pretend otherwise is the most insidious political gimmick of all.