Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Finding Your Line, or, Why I Hate Christmas

This post is going to get pretty heavy, but while I don't have the strength to share this individually, I want the people who care about me to really know what has been going on in my life the past few months. I will warn you now, I will discuss suicide (in multiple contexts) and emotional abuse in this post, so if you fear it will be too difficult for you, due to your own lived experiences, that is entirely valid, and I am so sorry; I hope you know that I am here for you and willing to talk, if you think will help you. Otherwise, hang in there with me and allow me to elucidate some events that have had large effects on me. Understand, I am not "seeking attention," so much as using this as an easier way on my own heart and mental health to share this with people- I've dealt with and come closer to reconciling the first big thing, and talking about that is easier now. But that one was easier to keep close to the chest, while the most recent events are still visible right now, in my bedroom.

So, to use the line I have used before and think is just so damn applicable when talking about this dramedy that is my life...

I officiated a wedding in September, for a dear friend from college, in our college town, to wit. It was beautiful, and superbly relaxed, and even though I only knew about 10% of the guests, my speech during the ceremony wowed them all with its wit, charm, and earnestness. I even opened with a joke* that led to this picture being taken by one of the photographers:

 The reception was pretty fun, and the food was amazing- a little old lady was pressing tortillas for the taco bar, and the sangria! It was at a bed-and-breakfast, so the party was in the backyard, and as the sun set and the little lights started to twinkle, I kept warm by snuggling close to my date, the person I had been with for nearly two years at that point- it was our first wedding we were both able to attend together, so it was one of those Big Steps in an adult relationship. While he was inside in the bathroom, I was alone at our table, far off from the dance floor where everyone else was. I saw my phone light up and crinkled my eyebrows. Mom? Why would she call me now, of all times? I gave it a second, thinking  maybe she had butt-dialed me and it would stop ringing, but it continued. Well, this doesn't make any sense, she knew I would be here and  unavailable... So I picked up, and instead of saying hello to me, she demanded I put my boyfriend on the phone. Wait, what? She repeated, a little urgent this time. I explained that he was in the bathroom, and she repeated the original request, more urgently. I said I didn't know when  he would get back, so she asked me, "Are you alone?"

"Well, I'm at a table by myself... Why? What's up?"

"Honey, are you sitting down?"


"Honey, your aunt went to visit your dad today, and she found him in the bathtub."


"Honey, he killed himself."

I felt my chest tighten and my face get hot, my hands shook and my voice cracked. I started to ask questions and panic. At just the right moment, I looked up, tear-stricken and still babbling, to lock eyes with my boyfriend. Even though it was dark, he somehow knew I needed him, so he beelined to me, nearly taking out a chair (or himself) on the way. I held the phone out for him, and he stepped away without saying a word as I put my head on the table and sobbed so hard (but silent- I didn't want to draw attention) I could hear the wine and champagne glasses bobble. After a few moments, which was enough for him to get the necessary information, my boyfriend gave my phone back  to me, took me by my hand, and led me around the side of the house so that we could walk through the neighborhood around the B&B instead of disturb my friend's wedding. After a struggle, I was able to get my mom to tell me my dad had shot himself in the head with his mom's gun. We sat on a park bench for a while, his arms around me as I sobbed and tried to talk to my mom, before heading back to the reception.

My boyfriend told a couple people, the small spattering of those that realized something had happened and were asking after my well-being, but I tried to avoid the wedding guests as best as I could- again, this wasn't my night, and it was supposed to be a happy moment for someone I hold very close to my heart, and I couldn't in good conscience tell her then. That night, I cried instead of slept, and my boyfriend held me the whole time. We had to drive home the next day, but I spent most of the car ride and the rest of the evening in tears, and the same with the next two days, before going back to work. He had to change his shirt a few times each day  because  of all of the tears and snot I was getting on him.

As my life is a dramedy, it wouldn't be complete without some mildly morbid comic relief here: I had started seeing a counselor in July, and we had arranged for bi-weekly appointments to start. I had seen her two days before the wedding (which was a Saturday), but on Tuesday, amidst the crying, I got a reminder phone call from the clinic about "my appointment" two days from then- apparently she had accidentally scheduled me for the next week, so I didn't even need to call ahead to squeeze myself into her schedule!! AAAAND, I also happened to have an appointment with the person that handles my meds for Wednesday, too- so I was able to walk into my already-scheduled appointments and let then know what was happening.

I've had weekly counseling appointments ever since.

Flash-forward to about a month ago. I was having a heart-to-heart with a friend whom I love dearly, opening up to him (or rather, elaborating) about my relationship with my boyfriend. While I still had never been entirely open with him about my boyfriend, he knew things weren't as good as I tried to make them out to be, and as I cried and made excuses, I admitted that while I had thought I knew where my "line" was for "how much" I would put up with, I had lost it. We talked some more, but as he was leaving  he said, "Look, I can't tell you what to do, and I would never try to do that. But all I have to say is," and he put his hand on my shoulder, "Find your line. Just find your line again."

Then a series of necessary events happened last Monday/early Tuesday morning:

1) I received  a check in the mail from my mom for Christmas that morning. I sobbed, first because I feel guilty taking money from her, since  she works retail, too, and then second, because I didn't want my boyfriend to know about it, because I knew he would want me to cash it and give the money to him. So I tore it up.

2) That day, we were supposed to go on what I came to call an "errand date" where we spend  spare time together by getting stuff done together and helping with each other's errands. We did this before, and it usually ended with making dinner together and spooning while watching Netflix. On  this day, he decided to take a nap instead.

3) Later, he started getting irritable because he didn't have any cash, and he kept snapping at my dog. She started shaking, and I didn't feel comfortable with trying to comfort her until he was out of the room.

4) That night, he couldn't sleep, so he kept thrashing and grumbling right beside  me in the bed, getting up and laying back down, going in and out of the room, and about once an hour even getting dressed and stepping outside. He became gradually more and more vocal during these little tantrums  as the night progressed, and at about 2AM he got up and grumbled about how he's "tired of holding on just to hold on" and that I "don't need to worry  about the holidays" because he "wouldn't be around for that shit." And he left the  house again and I heard him peel off in his car.

5) When he got back to the house, he started rattling the door knob, and I thought maybe he  had  taken  shots or something quick to get sloshed. But he sent a text demanding I unlock the door, and it dawned on me: I had gone to the bathroom after he left, and apparently had subconsciously locked the bedroom door. 

I refused to talk to him or let him cuddle (his way of apologizing) that night and the next morning. He left before I got up, so I sent him a text demanding he get his stuff out while I was at work.

The short version of the rest of that is while I started out hoping to take a break so he could get himself together, I realized I needed to cut all ties completely after some pretty horrible stuff happened and two more days passed. I realized he will never care about himself enough to care for me the way I deserve, and I cannot save him. The last time I saw him was Thursday, and I hope it's the last time I ever see him. 

I know, it seems odd, that the man that was so supportive when I found out my dad killed himself would be thrown out just a bit over three months later, but I need to explain some about both.

First, my dad. I hadn't seen him since 2013, summer. And the last thing he said to me was, "You bitch," while I was helping my mom pack up the house in which I grew up so she could leave. See, my dad had changed once I hit 16. A lot of life happened, and his depression won over: He went from being Dad of the Year to a non-functioning alcoholic that was emotionally abusive and manipulative to my mom, myself, and my younger sister. It took time, but he was a completely different dad to me than he was my younger siblings, something I apologized for all the time after leaving for college. By the time I was a sophomore (and thus only home for breaks), I hardly ever saw him sober. And he would pick fights whenever he could, however he could. The house became toxic, and I hated going home for breaks and found every excuse I could to make the visits home short or avoid them altogether. When I found out it had evolved to physical abuse, I finally begged my mom to leave him. I, and she, had held out hope he would get better, would seek help for his mental illness, but he didn't, and Mom had to draw the line somewhere. 

But even after that, I had still hoped. Hoped he would take that as his wake-up call and seek a therapist, medication, whatever. That he would sober and up and get serious. That he would come back to us and be that dad I remembered, the one that sprained his ankle fixing a swing at a park for me, that let me stay home from school to play video games. The dad that used to make me laugh, (gently) stop my tears, and made me feel safe. I had had visions of him barbecuing with my boyfriend at our wedding reception.

So him killing himself, and in such a way, was an even more complex situation for me and everyone else. I had, in a way, already been in mourning over the loss of the dad of my youth, but now I was in mourning for a man that was so broken, in so much pain, he decided to end his life. "Forgiveness" isn't the word I have for how he treated us later on, but that doesn't make the loss of any chance at better memories less painful. Add to it the fact that I had hoped to reach out to him myself, once I had been in therapy for a while and felt more in touch with who I am and at peace with my past traumas (not just caused by him), and you have a huge ball of awkward and pain and uncomfortable and confused and anger and hurt and... Pretty much everything you can possibly imagine. 

So this leads to the now-ex boyfriend. He, too, is mentally ill, and he, too, refused to get help with it. And, like  my dad, he took his pain out on me. Don't get me  wrong, both men had legitimate reasons to be angry, to be hurting, but they projected it and it manifested in passive aggressiveness, unpredictability, manipulation, and isolation. My ex never explicitly said I couldn't spend time with friends, but the way he moped, texted me nonstop about how he missed me while I was gone, and/or picked fights with me over text trained me not to do it. With his mood swings, I never knew how he would react to the same kind of joke (or even exact same joke) from day to day. And the above scenario, where he turned his frustration with himself  over having no money and not being able to sleep into rants  about how  unhappy with me he was, happened far too frequently. He "broke up" with me at least once a month. I would make excuses, hide it from most people, tell myself he didn't mean it, he's just angry and in pain, he loves me more than anything.

And like with Dad, it didn't start out that way. He was charming and attentive and kind and warm, and the first man to see me as a woman and treat me like a human  being. Even though he loved me selfishly, he at least proved to me I can be loved, and for that I am forever grateful. And even up to the last few weeks, it wasn't always shouting and tears: when he was doing better, he could be disgustingly thoughtful and sweet, and he did take care of me during some of my darkest moments, like what happened with my dad. He was good in a crisis... when it wasn't his own. And when he started to boil up, he would gaslight me, change the topic, snap for no reason, act like everything was my fault. I was losing myself, and willfully blind to all of this because I had seen it before. That could never happen to me, I wouldn't let it, I'm far too smart for it. I knew exactly where my line was, and so help me, no man would ever cross it.

Except he did. He crossed so far over it, I lost sight of that line. He loved me, but it was a selfish, jealous love. It wasn't nurturing, not overall, even though it had its moments. It was draining, and it hurt to love him. I was always the one trying to make us work, yet I would be blamed whenever something was bothering  him, something he wouldn't tell me about until one of his blow-ups, something that was his fault in the first place. (Like remember how I said he napped instead of went out with me? That was a patterned behavior, too, backing out of plans- yet he would yell at me he was "tired of never doing anything" with me during his rampages.) So later on during the height of the drama last week, as my ex was saying he was sorry, that he missed me, missed us, missed the family we had made with each other and my dog, my friend's words echoed through my head.

"Find your line."

That same friend has been my rock through all of this, and I will never be able to repay him the kindness and selflessness he has shown me. Remembering that advice helped me find the strength to admit the truth  to myself, out loud, and to my ex.

"You want to know what that is? It's abuse, that's what it is."

And once I said it, I felt myself gaining strength, at least in that first moment, and I kept going. That wasn't the end  of it, but it was the start for me. 

He even kept throwing that it was "almost Christmas" in my face. That fueled my fire then, and I held that line, but once he was actually gone, Christmas was even worse for me than usual.

When I was little, Christmas was always great. Our family had our little traditions and rituals, but we had fun, and we loved each other. As time went on,  things got more and more prickly and fake, and we went from spending all of our waking moments Christmas Eve and Day with each other to barely speaking and staying in our own designated areas of the house. And now that I work retail, I won't get a chance to repair with my mom and siblings. I get that about my life, but I still mourn it. Even before I left my grad program, Christmas reminded me of everything I had lost. Then all of the breakup stuff happened, and I felt more alone than I ever thought possible. I could force myself to enjoy a moment (after all, I wasn't physically alone- I had people willing to take me in, and that wise friend of mine was there, too), but staying up until 2AM (again)  on Christmas  Eve rewrapping because I had written both of our names on the "From" line with Sharpie on all of the presents I had bought (the one year I wrapped as I purchased, I didn't bother to get tags I could attach... nooooo, I had to write directly on the gorram wrapping paper of all but two gifts) didn't help. 

I haven't slept more than a couple hours at a time since the first night he wasn't beside me, and waking up to an empty space in the bed on Christmas morning was awful, even though I had only woken up beside him once on Christmas. I miss the Christmases we'll never have, so I keep seeing  them, the ones I dreamed about, where we had our own home and family, our own traditions and rituals. I would be in charge of the Nativity scene, he would do the lights around the house. And I keep remembering my dad and how much he used to care about his Christmas town, meticulously placing every piece, re-attaching limbs and chimneys whenever necessary; how he gradually let it crack and break before he was too broken to go on anymore. There was a drawer he would put the broken  pieces until he was able to fix them. I don't think any were there for more than a day when I was young; by the time we were packing the house, there were some in there from before I graduated from college. 

And  it hurts. It hurts so much. The truth is, while I never planned to kill myself before, I had thought there was no point in living, the the pain is too much, that others around me would be  better off without me. Those thoughts stopped a while ago, but it hurt so much that it flickered through my mind a little. I know it's irrational, and I will not actually do anything to hurt myself, but this is how much pain I am in right now. I am in so much pain, I can't bring myself to clean the mess he made while packing, just when I had finally started to keep the room cleaner.

I will never get my dad back. I will never be able to reconcile with him, no matter how much I had wanted to. He was in too much pain and valued his own life so little that he didn't try to get any help. Eventually, he killed himself. It has nothing to do with me, and there is nothing I could have done.

I will never take my ex back. I will never reconcile with him, no matter how much he wants to. He will never have my trust again, even if he does get the help he needs (and a job). Because  I will have no way of knowing for sure that it's not to get me back, but because he values himself enough to do it- and it's the latter that is necessary for him to be a true partner, not a dependent. 

I told a few friends that "my Christmas gift to myself this year is freedom." This is true. But freedom comes with a price. I will be in pain for quite some time, and I have no idea when I will be ready to try to love again. But, as my  mom said, it's better to be lonely and alone than lonely and with someone. 

I don't have a witty, funny way to end this. But I can say that I have been thinking of a quote from my favorite movie:

"There are no happy endings, because nothing ends."

That sounds dire, but for me, right now, it means my story is still going, and this isn't my ending, happy or otherwise. My life will go on, and while a part of me will always mourn both of these men that were so similar, both in good ways and bad, I have learned what I deserve, and, importantly, what I do not deserve from a partner. The kindness others have shown  me during both times has helped remind me how good others can be, and that even though I may feel alone, there are people that would more than happily ease that pain. 

I don't expect a happy ending now, and I never have. But I do expect to find some happiness again. And, someday, I'll enjoy Christmas again, forge a family in whatever way I can, to make better memories. 

*Question: What did Batman say to Robin  just  before they got into the Bat-Mobile?  Answer: "Get in the Bat-Moble."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mind the Rule of Three

I used to work in special education (as a paraprofessional), and I know I missed my calling there. It came naturally to me, having grown up in a household with disabled siblings. I was nine when the older of the two was born. And since I spent so much time with my younger siblings and their peers, I was surrounded by kids younger than I from just about the age when you start to develop cognizant perceptions of people and who they are, right as you start to do it for yourself. Kids with disabilities were more "normal" to me than typicals, simply because I was around kids with disabilities way more frequently. 

I think this, in part, has to do with why I always despised my peers as a whole when I was in middle school. Not just having matured emotionally at an earlier time than most of them because of the home situation, but because having been around kids with disabilities so often, I found the behavior of my own peers without them insufferable. You see,  kids with disabilities often have behavioral problems, sure, but these can be traced back to their disabilities and how they're treated and cared for regularly; when given appropriate coping skills and in the care of people that understand  them, those behavioral problems can shrink down to a bare minimum. Kids with disabilities may seemingly behave selfishly, but that seemingly selfish kid may actually not be able to understand concepts like selfishness and its opposite, selflessness. They may act out, but if you figure out the trigger and eliminate it, it can be prevented in the future.*

Middle schoolers? They're just selfish assholes that act out at any given opportunity, for no other reason than the fact that they can't see past their own goddamned noses. 

You, right now

Yes, I said it. I can't stand middle schoolers. Even when I was in middle school, I couldn't stand  them. I think some of my peers thought I was stuck up, and in a way, I guess I was. Because I knew I was better than them. Not in the Pride and Prejudice kind of way, but that I was a better human being. I actually gave a damn about other people, I didn't try to be center of attention every second I got, I didn't make a scene over absolutely goddamned nothing

And duh, I get it. Middle school, your tweens, is the time in your life where, like I said already, you're starting to understand individuality in more intense ways than just "I need to poop" and "I want a puppy." It's puberty. It's when you're trying to attempt self actualization, without even really knowing what that is, or what it looks like, or what you want it to look like. When you start to want to do things outside the house with your friends, so you either need to bike or bus it, or figure out a way to cajole a ride from those assholes you have to call your "parents." It's social  pressure. It's really caring about what people think about you, while simultaneously trying desperately to not let that show, otherwise you're really uncool.

I get it. And I got it back then. But I was still disdainful at my peers writ large, en mass. Because, the way I saw it, just because you may be having a hard time on your own, you still didn't (don't) have the right to be an asshole (at least, not in a situation where no wrong had come to you- by all means, stand up for yourself and your beliefs). I guess that since I had had so many  huge things already happen in my life, I thought it was petty and pathetic that there would be so much drama over such stupid shit like backpack brand and who sat next to whom in the goddamn cafeteria. And I didn't realize  it, but a lot of that was privilege, on their  end- I went to school with some rich-ass kids, and while the biggest complaint  they could lodge with their parents was that they "need mo' allowance," I had dealt with violence, death, and so much pain, from personal, deeply influential experiences, that I couldn't relate to most of them. I couldn't relate to how all they cared about was themselves, when I had grown up caring so deeply for my family, and especially my younger siblings. From the moment the older one was born, I put them first, and I didn't understand how so may of the kids in school with me couldn't comprehend how to do that, ever. Especially the ones with siblings a similar age as mine- I had seen some  of these middle schoolers be mean to their younger siblings when we were in elementary school, and I especially didn't want to be around these individuals. 

Now of course, I had friends. I had tons of them, and because I was (am) so goddamned nice. And these friends were consistently also more mature than errbody else, which is why I wanted to be friends with them in the first place. I was beat up and made fun of, sure, but there were always specific reasons for that, i.e. someone with a personal grudge or beef with me over something entirely inane, but that was so goddamn important because... middle schoolers. (Sigh.) I was actually, I would say, of the Middle Class, socially- the Popular kids would sit or chat with me when not enough of their own people were around, and I would get invited to birthday parties by people of every ilk. I was usually more comfortable with other Middle Classers and also Lower Class kids, though, because they were usually less selfish and asshole-ee then the socially elite.

But back to the beginning. Like I said, I have always been extremely comfortable (one could say "at home") around kids with disabilities. So I get mildly embarrassed nowadays when I tell someone for the first time that I used to work in a special education room, and they get all reverent at me. They say things like, "You must have the patience of a saint!" or "Wow, that's amazing!" or "Ohmygod, really? I could never do that!" It feels weird to me, like they're really saying, "OH MY GOD YOU KNOW HOW TO BREATHE!"

Every bloody time...

Well, you know what I say to anybody when I find out they teach middle school?

"You must have the patience of a saint!" and "I could never do that!!!" Etc.

And I mean it. I could never teach a whole class of goddamn middle schoolers. I would literally prefer to be in a classroom where getting poop thrown at you isn't entirely unheard of than have to deal with middle schoolers all day. 

Now,  before you get all, "MY KID IS IN MIDDLE SCHOOL AND HE/SHE IS AN ANGEL!" on me, let me get to my theory about middle schoolers, and why I was able to maintain friendships with them back then, and also why I've never actually strangled one to death.

See, they're fine on their own, or in pairs. Even in groups of three, they can be decent, even enjoyable to be around. I've met many a sweet, kind middle schooler in my adult life, and I'm more than happy to, say, keep an eye on a middle schooler on their own when in public. I like chatting up the middle schoolers that come to the store I work at when their parent(s) are busy, or when they're all at the register. I especially enjoyed ringing up families during the Back-to-School season when I was head cashier at an office supply store- I liked asking the kids their favorite subjects, if they played any sports or played any instruments, etc. Because I like kids, I do. And the poor things often look so painfully miserable to be there. When they're in smaller numbers, I actually try to engage. And when I was in middle school, I didn't usually do things in big groups (and whenever there were more than three involved, there was eventually drama, even if not immediately).

But when there are more than three...

I think it's a law of physics. Like  when too many of their bodies are in the same space, the chemicals in their brains start going  haywire, and they compulsively turn into walking turds that bump into you, block your way, yell in your ear, insult you, and go out of their way to make sure you can hear them swearing profusely. If you separate them out, they'll go back to normal and wonder why you're so upset with them, as if they can't even remember how bratty they were behaving literally ten seconds earlier. In packs, they act out, they give you the side-eye as they misbehave in public, making sure you're noticing them but totally playing it cool and pretending to ignore you. One-on-one, you can have meaningful conversations with them and enjoy their presence. 

To prove this theory, I went into the field earlier today to gather data, at my own peril, for the sake of Science. Namely, I went to a Safeway across the street from a middle school ten minutes after school got out.** 

And it was utter chaos.  

Packs of middle schoolers were running and shouting everywhere, flailing their  arms like Kermit the frog as they scampered from aisle to aisle. It was so bad, there were actually five security guards in a huddle by the registers as I left, and from what I could overhear, they were literally strategizing how to handle the groups of kids causing problems. But see, that's just it: the ones causing the ruckus were the ones in groups of four or more. Because I also saw a bunch of kids flying solo, or with one or two companions, that were much quieter and politer. While the ones running around in hoards would bump into me without a word, would congregate in the middle of the goddamn aisle, shouting as many swear words as they could fit into each sentence, would barrel out of the aisle without yielding to those passing***; if there were any less, they would smile and make eye contact, would apologize if they bumped into me by accident, would hold out a hand as if to say, "After you," if we both got to an intersection at the same time. Hell, I even saw a kid on his own bend and pick up the can an old lady just dropped for her, and while a cluster of five boys on the other end of the aisle was holding a shoving match, to boot.

I mean, damn, can you geta better symbolic moment than that??? Seriously. I'm picturing beams of light coming from the can as the solo kid hands it to the woman, her eyes glossing over in gratitude, an undulating blob of darkness behind them. Then the beams fade as the foreground and background slowly switch in clarity, and we discover the blob is actually a cluster of boys  rough-housing in the middle of a goddamn grocery store. ::cue horror movie music::

Bam! See? 

Yeah, yeah, I know, anecdotal evidence isn't proof of anything. But just as how the lived experiences of women may individually be anecdotal when it comes to harassment, while the overall reality is that women deal with a lot of shit men don't "get" every goddamn day, I find this idea of mine too often corroborated to be merely a whimsical notion made up all by me onesie. Because a number of (adult) friends of mine have said they feel the same about kids that age. That on their own, they're fine. But in groups, they're terrifying. 

And it makes me think, "God, I hope I do a good enough job that my kids aren't little snots like that when they're that age." This isn't to say  the behavior of every delinquent-esque middle school kid is the result of failed parenting. I just hope I can teach my kids the lessons I learned without them having to learn them the way I did.

And as an adult, I realize that was probably part of it, too: I was jealous of them, because I knew why we were so different had to do with how different our lives had been. I resented them for not having known the kind of pain I had. And no, not every friend I made then had experienced tragedy and trauma like my own, but you could say, in those cases, it was a mild form of bigotry with the, "Well, you're different," qualifier attached to the friends, "the exceptions  that prove the rule," or something. 

So no, I don't want my kids to live the way  I did. But I hope they act the way I did. That they  respect others (or at least,  those deserving), that they apologize for bumping into someone, that they save the swearing for the house, and that they be willing to sit  next to the school's biggest nerd when he/she is alone, too. And all this, even while they're in that "delicate stage" of life, or whatever the fuck it's called.

But I'll still tell them to keep their social engagements small. Three, at most. 


I would never wish any actual harm to a child. This was just a sort of rant from a stodgy old woman that doesn't appreciate getting her glasses knocked off by some kid flailing his arm and yelling at a friend, a kid that then laughs and  runs off with the rest of his buddies, and a chance for me to muse over something I've thought about a lot in the past. Like I said, I do love kids, and I would put myself in harm's way for the sake of a bunch of middle schoolers, if it came down to it.

*Yes, I know I'm being very simplistic, here, but hang in there with me.

**I lied. I actually totally forgot school was getting out, and I nearly got back in my car when I realized the huge mistake  I had made in going to that Safeway at that exact, unfortunate moment.

**Grocery Store Etiquette 101, you ALWAYS yield when exiting an aisle. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Songs About Nothing, Vol. 1: Can't Even *Start* the Feeling

Okay, so I know I've started a million different "series" on here, like the "Girl Nerdery" one or the "Diversity in Comics" one (which still only has one entry... oops?) and... I feel like there are more, but I'm gonna confess I'm too lazy to go back and see if there are more. But I was in my car and a song from my childhood came on the "throwback"* station. And I was contemplating the lyrics and said, "This song is emphatically about nothing." And yes, I said it aloud. I'll do a post on that song sometime soon**, but as I was already writing about JT's newest single with a similar theses in mind, so... why not, eh?

I think Justin Timberlake seems to have this unfortunate habit of not churning out albums as quickly as his fans would like. I remember when this video came out, and how I thought, "These people; they get me. From the gal talking about Bruno Mars, to the dude admitting he can't say 'Da'... Because that's how science works!"

It was still almost two years after this video when The 20/20 Experience came out. Of course, I had to get the Target exclusives of it and Part 2 of 2. BECAUSE I NEEDED THOSE EXTRA SONGS OR MY LADYBITS WOULD HAVE GIVEN UP ON LIFE. And now we've been waiting again, and we're on year three. Until early May, I had resigned myself to the fact that it would probably be another year or two from now. 

And then I saw people talking about JT's  new single all over The Facebooks and The Twitters (yes, I still creep on Twitter, even though I rarely tweet nowadays). I was at work, of course, on a break, and didn't want to suck up the data, and also didn't want what promised to be an orgasmic experience (since, hey, it's Justin Timberlake's new single, people!) to be ruined by the shoddy reception in the office at work. So I was antsy with anticipation, and as soon as I got home***, I looked it up on YouTube. And what I found was this:

I kind of sat there, not even bothering to stop the autoplay from starting some random song I don't even remember but know I wasn't interested in. I was stunned. I wasn't super sad and disappointed, but  I also wasn't super excited about it. The best way to describe it, is I was whelmed:

I mean, it's a decent song, but it's  not... amazing. And when JT does stuff for himself, i.e., his albums,  amazing is one of the descriptors I would use. I just felt kinda meh about it. So I hit the back button and replayed it again. And again. And again. And I honestly don't know how many times I actually listened to it before I realized the problem: At the end of the day, it's just an empty pop song, intentionally catchy and about so many things at once that it's about nothing. 

Either that, or it's about a massive orgy.

First, I do want to acknowledge that the funky baseline kind of saves it from being bad. That is true Justin Timberlake there. But the rest? Let's look at the lyrics, shall we? (Note: The link is to a basic, I'm assuming, fan-done posting that The Googles pointed me to; I have the same link that's embedded up there open in another tab and listen to it when I think the full lyric linked is incorrect, so if there's a difference, don't freak out.)

I got this feeling inside my bones/
It goes electric, wavy when I turn it on: Okay, nothing too weird here. Dude's just happy, and making vaguely nerdy sciencey references.

All through my city, all through my home/ We're flying up, no ceiling when we're in our zone: This already starts to scatter things. Dude was alone at first, then is singing about other people. So... maybe they're sharing the joy with him? But it's just a little jarring, since he's singing with first-person singular pronouns, and then suddenly jumps to plural. He could have at least had a line about how he has his friends all up in his home or something. 

I got that sunshine in my pocket: That's cute. Like the kind of stuff you'd see in an episode of a kids' show, like Gullah Gullah Island or Out of the Box. This is actually the crux of the whole thing, but I'll get to that later. I should note that, once again, he's singing in first person. Where'd the people that make the earlier part a "we" go? 

Got that good soul on my feet: What? I mean, okay, he means soul music, but I don't really feel like soul is usually attributed to lots of dancing. And the bass line and beat aren't that "soul-ee," but more R&B-ee, or even funk...ee. Funky! Get it

I feel that hot blood in my body when it drops/ I can't take my eyes up off it, moving so phenomenally: What the fuck is "it"? The beat? The coke? Take his eyes off what? And in the overall lyrical content of the song, "phenomenally" is quite out of place. The first time you hear it, it's pretty obvious he couldn't figure out what to put there without sounding erudite.****  It's kind of jarring. Then later, when you hear it again, it's... uncomfortable, but not as shocking, since you know it's coming.

Room on lock the way we rock it, so don't stop: I'm going to guess this is where the orgy starts taking place. Obviously, you'd lock the doors of an orgy. I would think, anyway, since I've no personal experience. 

All of you, judging me now

Okay, seriously, though, this is just entirely nonsensical. I guess they lock the doors of his "home" referenced earlier? 

Under the lights when everything goes/ Nowhere to hide when I'm getting you close: WHERE DOES WHAT GO? I'm just frustrated, because these lyrics are bouncing around like pinballs in a box  of potential topics. Now he's singing to one person? I thought he had all his homies? So he's been singing about one person the whole time, and just singing about them, eh? The fact that it took this long for there to be a singular noun that isn't first-person makes it hard to understand. 

When we move, well you already know/ So just imagine: Do you SEE why I can't get away from this orgy theory? I mean, yes, he next starts singing about dancing, but "dance" is often  metaphor for sex...

Nothing I can see but you when you dance/Feel good creeping up on you, so just dance: So it's kiiiiiinda a love song? Or just a physical attraction. After all, there's nothing about this person's character, just a lot of underlying sexual tension and hints at sweating bodies.

Feel good creeping up on you, so just dance/ All those things I shouldn't do, but you dance: Hmm... So he's seducing this person, even though he shouldn't? I'm going to make the assumption, then, that they're in a relationship and he's persuading them to cheat. Tut-TUT, Mr. Timberlake. Either that, or they're getting into some really kinky shit in their little sex party. 

Ain't nobody leavin' soon, so keep dancin': And this is where the big sex orgy comes (HAH!) back. Maybe he's being super creepy, like horror move, I-have-you-trapped-in-my-death-house-creepy, because a killer in a horror flick would say that kind of thing, "Nobody's getting out of here any time soon, MUAHAHAHA!" And it's not in the context of a breakup song, such as "D.O.A." by the Foo Fighters; the whole song is about the buildup of this positive "feeling." So no, not creepy. So... 


Or, you know, it could just be that the party is so good, no one is going to want to leave. But that's not as exciting. And also, if it's not meant to be a sinister command, the use of "nobody" indicates more than just one other person besides the singer. 

I can't stop the feeling/ So just dance (etc.): Meh, that's filler. Which is kind of pathetic, since the phrase "can't stop the feeling" is the NAME OF THE SONG. This gets at my main point of all of this, which will show up pretty soon.

Because honestly, the next verse is just more  bullshit about the ever-present-yet-unspecified "it." And another line about "control" that says  the singer really is a sex-crazed maniac with a bunch of prisoners in his sex dungeon, forcing them to participate in ritual and sacrificial sex acts involving animals and freshly dead bodies. 

If you're still with me, then here's the deal. I said at the beginning that this song is about so much random shit, that it's about nothing. And that's possible. But actually, I think the real problem with the lyrics to this song is that they're your basic, generic, "Top 20" dance anthem. It's a song about dancing, and that's it. Nothing more. It's topic and lyrical execution are dull, bland, and overdone in basically every genre, not just pop, per se, but also country, rap, hip-hop, rock, whatever. Everybody does it. Not everybody has a single that hits the charts, or does as well as this one, but this song has a lot to back it up: First and foremost, Justin Timberlake. That alone is enough to get it into the Top 10, because the vast majority of his fans will soak this up, regardless of content or quality, or whether it's up to his usual caliber of song or not. Second, since it is for a movie, Dreamworks (the company making said movie) will throw money at it to promote it (which, I'm sure, is  why  they let JT release the above video first, conveniently featuring the cast of the flick). And for a movie about gorram TROLLS to have a single that's radio-worthy, it couldn't actually be about the trolls. So it's about, as I said, dancing. 

But I think, since Justin Timberlake is more an artiste than just "artist," meaning he cares about his craft the way a person would care about their child (hence why there's such a gap between albums- he works long on them, perfecting and refining them, caressing them into the shape he thinks they deserve), he avoided a lot of the stereotypes in the usual "party rock" repertoire. 

And so perhaps why I don't overtly hate this song is because JT at least has enough class to keep his fucking hands out of the air (in  the lyrics... the video... well...), and never actually says shit like "party" and "fun" and doesn't talk about drinking. The last point is obviously because this song is for a kids' movie. But even so, avoiding "da club" and cars and hot babes, as well as that amazing baseline, makes this song at least tolerably close to his usual level of product. 

So I at least can say I still respect him. The song itself is disappointing as a fan of his,  and no, I don't keep listening when it comes on the radio. But I appreciate his attempt to raise the bar in what comes down to a basic dance anthem. And I just pray that, sooner or later, he comes out with an entire album of his own that makes this song a blip on the radar. 

*I say "throwback" because they play Bruno Mars's newest stuff... and Drake. Maybe I'm being picky, but I feel like "throwback" indicates at least ten years old... right?

**Or maybe I won't, given my penchant for getting excited about a Thing, "starting a series," and then forgetting about that Thing.

***After letting out my dog to pee, and taking a wee, myself.

****As one of my best friends said when we looked this up because a professor said she was "too erudite" in a gorram research paper, "I don't think a person can use 'erudite' without being erudite themselves..." ;)

Monday, August 1, 2016

Here We Go Again: More White Washing and Savioring

Admittedly, I had no intention of really blogging about this, but two things happened, close enough to each other that the resonance in my head (and heart) was pretty loud. (Also, a friend asked about it on FB, and my initial response became over two pages in Word...) First, I iked the trailer I saw for Kubo and the Two Strings when my partner and I went to see Finding Dory a few weekends ago. I'll embed one here for you, in case you aren't familiar:

But something about it unsettled me, and I couldn't place it at the time. After seeing a different one on TV, I realized that the Big Dude sounded alarmingly like Matthew McConaughey. So a quick IMDB search (link above already) fixed it and proved me right. And I say "alarmingly like" him because he's white. And so is the vast majority of the gorram cast, and all of the major hitters for the crew (writers, director, producers). Sure, George Takei is in there, I would guess for a bit  role... Buuuuut... it looks like it's set in Japan, right? Yes, since synopses on various sites (just Google it) mention in some way how Kubo's father was a samurai. So... that bothered me, and still does. 

Then I saw a poster for The Great Wall and didn't think much of it, because I only looked at the picture, not the words... But I realized just how white-wash-ee it is when I saw the trailer:

So... Yeah. That's two in less than a month for me, and it makes my fingers twitch with Internet Indignation.* 

I want to start with some links to various responses to both by people of Asian ethnicity, commenting on the whiteness. I'm not Asian American, so I'm not trying to speak for them, and it's important to include the voices of people being affected when advocating. So here's one about Kubo, and a good tweet and then a VERY well-written piece about The Great Wall

So, now be prepared for my long ramble. Let's start with the stories themselves. Both are historical fantasy/fiction. One may even call them... fanfic?

Okay, but seriously. While nothing exists in a vacuum (except, you know, black holes and the like, ‘natch), the two stories, taken at face value and ignoring any other context or baggage, are set in the pasts of real people involving fantastical elements of magic and wonder (I mean, blatantly so with Kubo, and apparently Willem Defoe voices a dragon in Great Wall, so... yeah). While the story behind Kubo itself seems fine (as in not racist), the idea that a white dude was there when the Great Wall was being built and led the resistance against a siege of dragons that saved China is pretty bad. THAT story reinforces narratives that at least somewhat implicitly, if not very blatantly, present the idea that only white people (usually men) can solve the world’s problems. TV Tropes calls it “MightyWhitey," while most call it the “White Savior” narrative. It can be told in various ways, and sure, there may be people of color that play important roles in the narratives, and  they may  have great stories of their own within the overall narrative; shoot, they may  even have better development than the white character(s). But in the end, the “true” hero of the story is white. The one that solves the problem while surrounded by people  of color is the white person/team/etc.

I think in some ways, this trope is related to the White Man's Burden and White Guilt, but the reason it ends up problematic is, even if those intentions are good, the motivations come from a selfish place. In the end, the white people look like dufuses. 

This narrative, then, is problematic because, well,  obviously, white people aren’t the only problem solvers in the world. They don’t have the monopoly on intelligence, capability, resource management, or whatever else that ends up making things better in the end. There have been plenty of people of color that actually DID make history; and there are countless more that affected it and were ignored because of their ethnicity; and there are countless right now that are making a difference that go unnoticed, too. This trope is entirely fantasy, and a narcissistic one, at that. Putting white people at the center of a tale about people of color is kind of like the “All Lives Matter” of storytelling: we just can't tell a story about people of color without including white people, because that would be exclusionary!, or so says the white Zeitgeist. And while we’re at it, this is really about white people, anyway, right? It’s almost comical, really. Almost.

To be cynical, mainstream HISTORY is a White Savior narrative: You get sidestories about famous people of color, but they’re few and far between, and only recently did we get more information about people of color that helped organize against oppression and what have you. It’s why something that one would THINK is absurd such as Black History  Month is necessary. But in textbooks, people of color (and women) usually just get a special section every chapter (at best); the rest of the book is about the White Dudes moving and shaking. I mean, okay, I'm a feminist, and while I do think "herstory" is... a bit  much, I also do recognize there are serious problems in how mainstream history education rolls. It presents the main drivers of history pretty much always as white men; those little asides and extra sections for non-men and non-whites are snippets, like supplemental links you can hover over when reading something online to get an extra info bubble. 

So fictional stories that perpetuate the same exclusion of people of color reinforce the “truth” we “learn” in schools. So now, in The Great Wall, this fictionalized version of history immersed in a culture that isn't white, is being drawn up with a white man at center stage. He's not a token white guy, he's the central figure. That's whitewashing, even if it's fiction, because they're contextualizing the whole ruddy thing as the "true story behind the construction of the Great Wall of China." (Of course, that's not a direct quote, but the text on the poster and during the trailer indicate they're fictionalizing true events.) Now I wouldn’t say that it’s amoral to make any movie starring a white dude, but it is problematic, at best, to drop a handful of white people into a story about a large group of people of color, make the story about how those white people saved the day, and  then tout it as a triumph of diversity (as some try to do; not necessarily  this film in particular, but it happens  a lot with this trope, like with The Last Samurai for example), while also selling it as the "untold story" or whatever of a real Thing. 

In other words, they're ret-conning actual history to pretend that a white dude is responsible for the actual Great Wall.

This is also a problem from a representational standpoint. Here we have a movie with a premise that BEGS for a cast of entirely non-white people. Ideally, of Japanese actors (actually from there, or of Japanese ethnicity, at least). It is a perfect chance to give people of color big roles in a big blockbuster movie. And yet, we literally have a white dude as the poster child. And that, in itself, is ridiculous. And disappointing. 

And this is where the casting of Kubo comes back into play.  While the characters are all Japanese (or... animals... or... ghosts... or whatever...), the actors portraying their voices are not. And sure, as the piece I linked already states, they're animated, and we aren't seeing any actors' actual faces. But. It isn't like there are no Asian actors out there. And taking away these roles from them, is egregious. I mean, these characters in Kubo aren't just generic characters that were, as per usual, cast with white actors. They are Japanese people that are being voiced by white people. I mean, I love Matthew McConaughey** and Charlize Theron. They're wonderful actors. But they're both pretty damn white. I mean, c'mon:

I've referenced this blog post before, but I just don't think I can better describe why whitewashing is problematic, and don't think I ever will, because it is so simplistic and perfect. I encourage you to read it, and think of it in the grand context of representation in film, or in comics or books, or on TV, in video games... whatever. And while the version of whitewashing she's talking about is when a character's reboot or remake or whatever is changed from being a person of color to being white, the principal  is the same: The characters in Kubo are animated as Japanese, but portrayed by whites, so think of the bowls as the roles different actors could take; the left bowl, then, is roles that go to white people, and the one on the right is those going to people of color. See how it's a bad thing now? Yeah.

What's worse is that actors of color already have it harder, so casting a character that is written as Japanese with a white actor is exceptionally egregious. The best way I can describe it is imagine you were applying for a job, with the father of a friend of yours. Now, this friend, you may love the pants off of them (not literally), they may be a great person, but you know they don't need the job- they  already have one, and their dad's connections could get them another in less than a day, if something ever happened. But, more importatly, they aren't half as qualified as you. Like the job requires a degree in math, which you have, and theirs is in creative writing. But you get a rejection letter, and then come to find out their dad gave them the job, instead. It's basically racial nepotism, preventing people of color from getting acting gigs for which they're perfect. And it's bad enough when it's a generic casting call; when the role is for someone of color, it's not borderline offensive, it IS offensive.

And this has a lot to do with the financial aspect/ what Hollywood “will allow,” so to speak, etc. I find it very unfortunate that Matt Damon, who apparently has even promised his production company will strive to increase diversity in film, would agree to star in yet another White Savior film. Elysium is a wonderful example of how “Hollywood wouldn’t allow” a person of color star in a movie about… people of color. The writer and director of that film (Niell Blomkamp, same person that did District 9) wrote it with a cast mostly of people of color  in mind (at least, on the good side- anyone on  actual Earth was intended to be of color, and we’re supposed to root for people on Earth, not on the space colony), and, importantly, with a central character of Hispanic ethnicity. But the Sony mucky-mucks told Blomkamp he had to cast mainstream actors (read: a white man as the lead), or they’d pull funding and support. So this put him in a tricky spot: Decline on moral principal because he wanted to tell an intersectional story about race, class, and human  rights, or keep going to tell as much of the story he still could, sacrificing most of the racial element. In the end, obviously, he went with the former, and Matt Damon ended up taking that central role, previously intended for a Hispanic man.

Now, if Matt Damon is as smart as he seems (don't let the South Park goons fool you), then why didn't he decline? I would guess because he sometimes passes himself off as an activist, and a movie with such strong political messages was something he couldn't pass up, despite how white-wash-ee it was. He and Blomkamp may have denied it, but whatever. 

So the main thing to think  about is WHY a white executive would insist on a white lead. There’s no solid and real answer, but I personally  think it has to do with institutionally racist assumptions about what “people want” in movies. These white executives, perhaps subconsciously, project their own worldview onto what everyone that may watch a movie they fund would want to see. These guys may or may not be overtly racist in their everyday lives, but if subconscious, it's more about projecting the kind of people they personally would relate to on who they assume everyone else would. In the case of Elysium, and I think in the two films under larger scrutiny here, I think it's more that the companies want big actors to attract big dollars.

But this, of course, leads to the chicken-egg conundrum. If actors of color aren't given the chance to be in big movies, they won't ever draw in the big bucks. And having a handful like Sam Jackson, Halle Berry, and Morgan Freeman isn't nearly as proportional as for white actors- again, remember the raisin bit. And even if the Chinese companies involved in The Great Wall wanted a bunch of white actors, that doesn't preclude those decisions and actions from being racist. It's institutional racism, some of the worst kind. They may be Chinese companies, but they want to make money in a capitalist system, and capitalism is inherently racist, misogynist, ableist, etc.  The actors that have already drawn in the biggest money are white, so, naturally, the executives want  mostly white actors leading the cast. It's a self-sustaining, system, a self-fulfilling prophecy, IT'S AN ADORABLE DOG CHASING ITS OWN TAIL!

But Kubo also suffers from having an entirely white production crew and executives. Kubo, in my opinion, is a bad case of backdoor cultural appropriation. It  would be one thing if they bothered to give some of the main characters Japanese actors for their voices, but they didn't. It's a bunch of white people getting together to tell a Japanese story because it's cool. I'm sure the movie has great messages and is probably  really fucking amazing, but damnit, it's frustrating as Hell that the big wigs just decided they wanted to make a movie that is "a samurai movie at heart" and talk about making their characters "feel real" and not even match the characters' ethnicities to those of the actors portraying them. It's sloppy, lazy, and depressingly exemplary of white privilege.  I'm sure they picked  the white actors for similar reasons as the people behind  The Great Wall, but at least with Great Wall, some people of color will benefit, even if it's Chinese executives; and in that case, Chinese people were involved in telling their own story. In this case,  it's a bunch of white people.

Also, while we're on cultural appropriation, there is a larger discussion about white pressure on people  of color that are involved, not necessarily the filmmakers themselves, when it comes to film making, and how white people like to use token involvement to excuse their racist garble (the involvement of Comanche in The Lone Ranger is a lovely example of that); even though I don't see any evidence any Japanese people  were involved, it's important to remember this  happens a lot, that the white people Doing a Thing will get a blessing from a token person or small group of persons of color and say all's good in da hood, and despite a large amount of people of that minority group disagreeing. 

So sayeth errbody else

But we don't have to worry about that here too much... since they didn't involve any Japanese people. 

So, the short version is that The Great Wall is offensive because it perpetuates ideas that people of color can't solve problems or be heroes; and Kubo is problematic because it's an example of cultural appropriation; while both are kind of bad because they're casting perpetuates racist norms that prevent people of color from getting jobs in the acting business. I do think the decisions in the case of The Great Wall were driven more by capitalism, while those in Kubo's case had more to do with cultural appropriation. Neither is really okay with me, and neither should still be going on in this far into the 21st Century. 

*Oh, dude, that totally should be in Urban Dictionary; I already got one thing in, but I had at least heard that before... "Internet Indignation," I just made that up.

**CHRIST is that dude's name hard to spell. I had to have the IMD page open in a second window next door the first time; the second time, I copy-pasted it. Yeesh.

**This commercial could, itself, get analyzed, but the short version is Charlize is presented as the newest "bombshell," if you will, in a long line of iconic white actresses. There is one person of color I can spot after watching it a few times in a row: A black woman that gets shoved out of the way by Theron as the actress power walks to the runway. Sigh.