RIP Red Carpet

My pandemic-addled brain was so excited to remember that the Emmy awards were on Sunday night. I love a dumb awards show, but kinda forgot they existed. What would all that pomp and glamour look like in a virtual format during a pandemic?

Overall, I thought the safely distanced Emmys were an improvement on the traditional format. Host Jimmy Kimmel acknowledged at the start that doing this kind of event in such dire circumstances feels silly and superfluous. But as he noted, when were the Emmys anything but? So the Television Academy turned it into a fundraiser to feed impoverished kids, which helps both the stars and the viewers feel less terrible about this indulgence. I appreciated that. I also appreciated the DJ who spun dance hits in place of the stuffy orchestra that plays people offstage when their speeches go too long. But my favorite part was getting to see the celebs’ living rooms via this surreal Zoom meeting of the stars; now we now know that Christina Applegate has a very nice fireplace and Laura Linney is a Chapo Traphouse fan. Those voyeuristic morsels helped make up for the absence of an awards show staple that cannot be replicated in a socially distanced format — the red carpet.

The red carpet arrival is usually the best part of any awards show (especially the Oscars, which I’ve found increasingly boring over the years). We love to see the stars be their most unimaginably beautiful and glamorous selves. When I imagine that grandeur, I always think of the opening scene from Singin’ in the Rain. 

Set in 1927 at the end of the silent film era, the movie opens with throngs of young fans gathered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the premier of The Royal Rascal. A procession of Rolls Royces deliver a bevy of starlets, including the mysterious and elegant Olga Mara in a spider-inspired, black sequined gown and Zelda Zanders (portrayed by a bouncy, young Rita Moreno) in a shimmery flapper dress. But they’re just appetizers for the main course. When Royal Rascal stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont arrive at last, the fans go absolutely bananas for these gorgeous figures clad in gleaming white. When we see people so perfectly styled, we naturally wish we could be them. How could life be anything short of fabulous when you’re surrounded by flashing cameras and adoring fans?

But of course this is all artifice. That’s what Singin in the Rain is about, how the dawn of talking pictures revealed that some performers — such as shrill, dopey Lina — could not act. But it also breaks down the illusion that glamorous stars must lead rewarding personal lives. Even there on the Royal Rascal red carpet, we get hints of the ugly truth. Gossip columnist Dora Bailey announces the arrival of each star with her very Hollywood commentary. Like when Zelda arrive with her aged sugar daddy, Dora notes he’s the latest in a long line of boyfriends, then adds, “Maybe this is true love at last.” My favorite is her comment on Olga and her aristocrat husband — “They’ve been married for two months already, but still as happy as newlyweds!” After Lockwood and Lamont arrive, Dora presses Don for juicy details on their rumored romance. He insists that he and Lena are just good friends. They look so great together, you want to believe otherwise. We soon soon learn Don hates Lina, though it helps both of their careers for him to pretend otherwise. Yet for those few, fleeting moments when we seem them looking absolutely stunning, we love to believe their personal lives match that beauty. 

If anything, this year’s Emmys made it clear that the stars are not doing great right now. Sure they’re wealthy, but most of them are stuck at home and out of work; it’s a good time to remember that in a Marxist sense they are also workers beholden to the whims of far wealthier bosses. Their garments seemed to reflect the whole gamut of quarantine moods, ranging from formal wear to business casual. It is a Zoom meeting after all, not everyone is going to try that hard. Apparently the Television Academy sent awards-bearing employees in hazmat suits to every nominees’ location, so no one would know until the last moment whether or not they won. When one of them handed a trophy to Regina King (wearing a truly rad Breonna Taylor “Say Her Name” t-shirt under a hot pink blazer), the disoriented actress said, “This is all so weird.” Actor Ramy Youssef tweeted the words “when you lose the emmy” with video of his hazmat suited friend waving bye-bye through a closed door. Every effort to keep the awards show spirit alive while also being safe just reminded us that we are living in surreal and unsettling times.

Will we ever return to the artifice that made the red carpet so dreamy? I just don’t know. Maybe this is quarantine brain speaking, but I can’t help feeling like the red carpet is dead. I just don’t see the entertainment industry coming back from all this tragedy and economic depression with that same unabashed display of excess. Or perhaps this is just a hiatus. In the meantime, we’ll have to find other distractions from an ever-harsher truth that we are living through a pandemic under rising fascism and looming climate collapse. Good thing we have this huge backlog of TV shows and movies to keep us entertained as we do our daily best to survive. And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, I suggest starting there.

Problematica: Tami Taylor, Leftist Organizer

Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

In July, I was hired as a field organizer for a local progressive electoral campaign. This includes participating in intensive training on the basics of organizing and how to persuade voters who may not be fully aligned with our anti-capitalist agenda. I love this work, way more than any job I’ve ever been paid to do. But striving hard to get better at it during a limited time period has been a mammoth and deeply humbling challenge.

I’m currently on a three day vacation in the Virginia mountains, trying to think about work as little as possible. Right after my last shift I got sucked into a Friday Night Lights marathon, which made me remember my favorite scene from the series: Dillon high school principal Tami Taylor convinces a misbehaving student’s parents to allow him to keep playing football. Coming fresh off a training on persuasion, I’ve decided Tami is one of my organizing role models.

In season 3 episode 7 “Keeping Up Appearances,” Dillon Panthers fullback Jamarcus Hall gets in trouble for accidentally lighting a science lab on fire. Since this isn’t Jamarcus’s first trip to her office, Principal Tami arranges a meeting with his parents. She explains that Jamarcus must improve his behavior or he could get suspended and miss some games. Turns out Mr. and Mrs. Hall had no idea their son played football. Tami later tells Coach Eric Taylor (who is also her husband) that the Halls have decided to pull Jamarcus from the team. Coach loses his temper, saying he wishes she had let him discuss the fire incident with Jamarcus’s parents. Tami insists that it wouldn’t have made a difference if he did, the result would have been the same. 

Coach and Tami later visit the Halls at home. As they walk up to the front door, Coach says, “Just let me do the talking.” Tami counters that she has an established relationship with the parents, but Coach snaps, “I know what I’m doing.” Tami just shrugs and follows him inside.

Mr. Hall doesn’t waste any time explaining his and his wife’s point of view. “We’re just not football people.” He’s an engineer at the local plant who’s moved his family several times, and says they’re “just passing through” Dillon. As Tami silently watches, Coach launches into his philosophical defense — “Football is about community spirit.” Now Mr. Hall snaps at him, saying, “All this time I thought it was just a dumb game that this whole wacked-out town is obsessed with.” 

Just gonna pause my recap here to say, I love this character. For me he might be the most relatable character in the entire series. I also don’t give a damn about football and would find a town like Dillon extremely alienating. I’ve got nothing against isolated, economically blighted, rural communities with few prospects for young people, because that’s just a small town version of the rust belt suburb where I grew up. But if I were expected to fangirl over my high school’s football team, or spend every Friday night at the game because it is the life blood of my community, I would have been miserable. 

But of course Coach can’t relate to that because he loves the game, so he becomes defensive. “I don’t think I’d be devoting my life to some dumb game.” Seeing where this is going, Tami defies their agreement and jumps in to acknowledge Mr. and Mrs. Hall’s viewpoint. “It took me a long time to understand all this fuss about football… But I’ve seen football do great things for kids.” Tami credits Coach for helping his players develop personal responsibility, which also pays off academically. When Mrs. Hall counters that their son has been lying to them for a year, Tami picks up on their need for discipline and assures them that Coach “will make him regret the day he ever did that.” Having made her case, Tami invites the Halls to attend the next game so they can see their son play. They agree, and Coach silently eats shit as he and Tami walk back to the car. Meanwhile she teases him mercilessly. “I think that went well! You’re opening the door for me? Oh, so sweet.”

I realized when I rewatched this scene that Tami employs a persuasive organizing tactic called Affirm-Answer-Redirect. The Halls want to pull their son from the team because they think football is a stupid distraction from his schoolwork. Instead of getting huffy like Coach and arguing that football is actually good, Tami affirms their opinion (she didn’t get the fuss either), answers the concern (it can actually help Jamarcus be a better student), and redirects the course of action (come see him play and then make a decision). Her strategy works because, as she told her husband, she’d already met the Halls. But more importantly, it works because she listens and responds to their concerns instead of coming in with some grand, prefabricated argument.

I’ve always loved and admired Tami as a mom but it only recently occurred to me that her empathy and listening skills would also make her an incredible organizer. They’re the qualities I recognize in the best ones I know. And wouldn’t you know it, most of them tend to be women and nonbinary folks. Effective organizing doesn’t hinge on star power, charisma, or telling people what to think. It’s about listening when people tell you what they want and need, finding common ground, and then encouraging them to become part of the solution. Of course Coach, being a strong-willed man, thought he would be the one to persuade the Halls. But naturally it was Tami — equipped with the skills of a former guidance counselor — who moved them to change their mind.

I also love that Tami values her own gifts. As she later explains to a nerdy student who is second-guessing the bright future she predicts for him, she says, “I am right 100% of the time. You can ask my husband.” 

Problematica: He Was a Wonderful Father

Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

A few weeks ago my husband and I listened to this “Democracy Now” interview with Mary Trump (Donald’s niece), who recently published a tell-all book about their deeply dysfunctional family. In the book, Mary talks a lot about her grandfather Fred Trump, drawing parallels between his cruel, misogynistic behavior and that of our president. 

Of course Donald Trump doesn’t appreciate his niece’s new book, as expressed in this clip:

“But look, let me just tell you, my father was — I think he was the most solid person I’ve ever met. And he was a very good person. He was a very, very good person. He was strong, but he was good. For her to say the kind of things — a psychopath? That he was a psychopath? Anybody that knew Fred Trump would call him a psychopath? And you know what? If he was, I would tell you. And I would say, “You know, Chris, I was with my father, and it was imposs”— my father was — he was tough. He was tough on me. He was tough on all of the kids. But tough in a — in a solid sense, in a really good sense. For her to say — I think the word she used was ‘psychopath.’ What a disgrace! She ought to be ashamed of herself. That book is a lie.”

As soon as I heard those words, I turned to my husband and slurred in my best drunk Irish Catholic lady voice, “He was a wonderful father.”

If you’ve watched and rewatched 30 Rock as often as we have, perhaps you may know this is a reference to season 1, episode 17 “The Fighting Irish.” In this episode, NBC network exec Jack Donaghy learns from his estranged brother Eddie that their deadbeat father Jim has died. In the spirit of family and forgiveness, Jack lets go of his resentment toward his brother and father, and even arranges a wake with their siblings. The scene in which the Donaghy children gather in Jack’s office to reminisce and guzzle Jameson shots is one of my favorite from the whole series. 

The scene begins with Jack introducing employee Kenneth to his brother Patrick and sisters Patricia, Katherine Catherine, and Margaret. Most of them are drunk and laughing a little too hard as they swap stories about their deceased dad. Katherine Catherine proposes a toast. Jack remarks with slight tension, “We’ve been toasting pop for over an hour now,” but she continues pouring shots anyway.

That’s when Patricia chimes in with this weepy observation — “He was a wonderful father. Always ready with rum balls in his pockets for the the kids.” She’s on the verge of tears, but you sense she’s just moments a from a seething outburst. Sure enough, when Katherine Catherine toasts their dad as “the sorriest bastard there ever was,” Patricia screams at her for talking trash about her “daddy.”

“He was a wonderful father” quickly become a personal meme for my husband and me. Whenever someone is in denial about their parent being garbage, I channel that moment. It’s the overcompensation that kills me. It isn’t enough to simply pretend that patriarchs like Jim Donaghy or Fred Trump didn’t physically or emotionally abandon their kids. These broken adult children have to tell themselves that their bad dads were “wonderful” or “the most solid.” But something about layering that denial with alcohol-fueled rage just gives it an extra punch (one that resonates for me personally, given my Irish Catholic upbringing). The way Patricia shifts from sentimental sobbing to rage — thanks to Siobhan Fallon’s pitch-perfect portrayal — really captures the soppy drunk’s version of this cognitive dissonance. 

I remember an old therapist telling me that his job was tossing grenades at dysfunctional families, blowing up the whole order, so at least his client could get free. When I look at a fictional family like the Donaghys or a real life family like the Trumps, I perfectly understand the motivation behind that grenade toss. What if somewhere along the way we saw a whole generation of children stop pretending their terrible dads were anything but? What if, instead of creating more Patricias and Donalds and Don Jr.s, we broke the cycle of lying to oneself? Just admit your miserable dad really was the sorriest bastard there ever was and maybe you won’t be such a disaster yourself.

Problematica: Pee Wee vs. the Yoga Karens

Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

The last job I loved quitting was cashiering at a health food grocery chain. I’d worked on-and-off with this company for eight years (both in Tennessee and North Carolina) and found it a pretty okay place to make a crappy wage. That is until I started working a checkout lane. Cashiers do the dullest, most repetitive work, and worse yet catch all the complaints. At a health food store, the insufferable yoga Karen quotient is off the charts. They’re just some of the worst customers you’ll ever meet. And since I was a head cashier, I often wound up being the “manager” with whom they needed to speak.

On my second-to-last shift I worked until close and had to open the next morning. And since I had to drive thirty minutes to get to this dumb job, I decided to spend that night at my sister’s house just a few blocks from the store. She and I had a couple drinks that evening, which put me in a jolly mood. Though I still had one shift to go, I was fully feeling that “no longer give a fuck” glee. She asked me all about the yoga Karens, because we share a deep affinity for hating terrible customers.

I impersonated this one woman’s deeply serious and self-important tone. “She was like, ‘I was here a few days ago and got the vegan collards from the hot bar… and there was a piece of meat in it! I have been a vegetarian for eighteen years. It’s very dangerous for me to eat meat. Because it’s been EIGHTEEN YEARS. I just wanted y’all to know.’” 

My sister and I groaned simultaneously. I laughed and said, “I know she’s probably full of shit and that didn’t even happen. She could’ve said something then and got her money back. She hangs out in the cafe with her bratty children all day so she had plenty of opportunities. She didn’t want a refund, she just wanted me to know she’s important.”

My sister asked, “What do you say to someone like that?”

I chuckled and said, “You know that part in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure when he accuses Francis of stealing his bike and they fight in the pool? And Francis’s dad breaks up the fight and Pee Wee’s like ‘I’m soooo sorry’ in this phony caring way right before he gives them the trick gum? I just channel that. I’m fake apologetic like Pee Wee in that moment and that gets rid of them.”

That’s when my sister fell out laughing. She knew exactly what I meant because she’s loved Pee Wee’s Big Adventure ever since it was released in 1985. But if you don’t know or recall what I’m talking about, here’s the context: Pee Wee’s amazing red bike gets stolen right after spoiled rich kid Francis Buxton tries to buy it off him. Of course Pee Wee immediately suspects his nemesis, so he sneaks into the Buxton mansion and busts into Francis’s private indoor pool. The two boys scuffle until Francis’s dad intervenes. Of course, Mr. Buxton refuses to believe his “angelic” son could be a thief and demands that Pee Wee retract his accusation. 

Then Pee Wee says in an extremely gentle, contrite tone, “I guess I was wrong. We don’t have to involve the authorities in this matter, do we Mr. Buxton? It was a simple mistake and I’m really sorry.” This appeases Buxton who then demands an apology to his son. Pee Wee then pleasantly offers them some trick gum and departs merrily, moments before black drool comes pouring out of their mouths.

I would love to have played such a prank on that yoga Karen — maybe stick a chunk of faux-chicken in her vegan collards — but that could’ve resulted in me getting fired. Throughout my many years of customer service, I’ve learned that simpering contrition really is the best way to deal with these creeps. Just as Pee Wee knows Francis is lying (he totally stole the bike), I know when I’m dealing with a wealthy, self-centered fibber who’s flexing their power over me. So I just channel Pee Wee’s fake apology to get rid of them as fast as possible. And then I daydream of the workers’ revolution. Trick gum and struggle sessions for all the yoga Karens.

The Introverted Comrade’s Guide to the Wackiest Election Ever!

I remember a simpler time, when I assumed the 2020 presidential election would be the worst part of this year. But as one comrade said, that prediction could still come true.

Getting into this national election cycle, I was bracing myself for voter disenfranchisement, Republican party corruption, and the Democrats doing everything in their power to stop Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination. What I did not expect was a pandemic speeding up this timeline while also making everything ultra weird. This is simply the weirdest presidential election I can remember.

I began 2020 giving everything I could to the Bernie Sanders campaign, all the while knowing our 1% ruling class and the Democratic party establishment would fully align against him. But I didn’t expect to lose my hope so soon. I officially gave up the dream of President Bernie on St. Patrick’ Day, when I saw a bunch of retired Floridians line up in stuffy polling places at the start of a pandemic to vote for Joe Biden. The Dems could have pushed to postpone those primaries, but they would rather sacrifice their aging centrist base to the virus than risk any chance of a democratic socialist winning the nomination. 

I guess I was past mourning by the time Bernie officially suspended his campaign on April 13th, because I wasn’t even upset about it. Four days prior he’d fought for and successfully passed a $600/week increase in unemployment insurance, and suddenly I was making roughly 50% more than the wage I’d been earning before I got furloughed from my retail job. This was an enormous windfall for me and millions of other low-wage workers, and I still can’t believe he got it passed. My conspiracy theory is that he made a lot of backroom deals to get that win, including suspending his campaign and shifting full support to Joe Biden.

Joe. Fucking. Biden. I’m still so pissed it came to this, but can’t pretend it’s at all surprising. He wasn’t the candidate I hated most (a tie between vapid, opportunistic rat Buttigieg and scumbag billionaire Bloomberg). But somehow I suspect those outcomes wouldn’t have made me as bitter as this one has. Joe Biden has a racist, anti-choice record, he’s demonstrated sex pest behavior on camera, and he’s been credibly accused of rape. He actively opposes Medicare for All. And, not for nothing, he’s showing signs of early stage dementia. When he entered the race, I knew there was an excellent chance he could wind up being the nominee, because conventional wisdom tells the average voter he’s the safest bet to beat Trump. The fact is, most people don’t know about Joe’s record, the accusations, or his stance on M4A*. But they do know him as Obama’s vice president, and might recall him as the wacky uncle character from eight years of articles published by The Onion. 

My other conspiracy theory is that the Wacky Uncle Joe character was an intentional PR campaign orchestrated by the Dems to cover up the fact that Joe is actually an enormous dick. Right after the 2008 VP debate, I was joking with my old hippie therapist about Sarah Palin’s ridiculous performance, and he said, “What really shocked me was that Biden was so restrained. I expected him to call her a dumb broad or something.”

I laughed and said, “What?”

“Oh yeah, that guy’s an asshole, really sexist.”

“Yeah… wasn’t he terrible to Anita Hill?” I wasn’t following politics much at this point, but that much I did remember.

“Yup. Do you know how hard it is for a guy like him to not tell Sarah Palin she’s a stupid bimbo? My guess is an advisor pulled a gun on him backstage and said they’d kill him if he did anything like that. That’s how this stuff gets done.”

I just laughed that off as my therapist being extra. But looking back, he had a point about why it’s important to contain Joe. From what we’ve seen this election cycle, Biden cannot keep himself from shoving his finger in someone’s face, or jabbing them in the chest, all, “Hey you bud, listen here man!” Except now there’s this additional awkward thing where he just goes off the rails because he forgot what everyone was talking about. The man is clearly losing his faculties. Remember how everyone was so worried that would happen to Bernie?

When someone would ask me what we’d do if Bernie lost his marbles after getting elected, I’d say something like, “That’s cool! Braindead Bernie can be a puppet for the administration. If we beat Trump and get that advantage with winning Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, it’s worth it.” I know that may sound horribly morbid and cynical, that I was ready to Weekend-at-Bernie’s Bernie. But I think my sinister plan actually speaks to the importance of the causes he champions. I am very fond of Bernie, but my intense support was never about him. It really was about winning basic rights and protections for us.

And now look what’s happening — in the most hilarious twist of the 2020 presidential election so far, the Dems are pulling a Weekend at Bernie’s on Biden! That weird nasty dude is almost nowhere to be found, because everyone knows that letting him out in the open is just a really bad idea. His appearances tend to be stilted and odd, as if he’s literally being propped up as a contender. He’s a puppet for just one cause, which is beating Trump. That’s his only job. The weirdest part of this whole thing for me is my reaction to it. At this point, I think it’s a great idea to keep that guy under wraps as much as possible. I sure as hell don’t wanna see him. That would just be a reminder that I’m actually gonna vote for this sex criminal.

So yeah, I’m gonna vote for Biden. For all the lefter-than-thou folks out there who are like, “But he’s just as bad as Trump!” No, he’s not. But he is absolutely terrible. I don’t expect him to reverse any one of Trump’s policies without enormous pressure from the left. But at least there is that small opportunity to push back. If we keep going with Trump (who will do everything he can to steal the election), we’re going to see a rapid, exponential increase in austerity and genocide.

And for all you centrist Sam the Eagles out there who are incensed at the notion that left-wingers might abstain or vote third party, y’all need to go soak your heads. Vote shaming doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve been on the other side of it many times. I voted for Gloria La Riva in 2016 because I lived in Tennessee and it didn’t matter. If you think that it did matter, then I guess you don’t know about that anti-democratic sham called the Electoral College, wherein we expect voters in a handful of key states to decide the election for us. I live in one of those states now, so I’ll vote for Molester Uncle Joe this time. But I will not attempt to shame anyone else into doing it. I’m tired of this expectation that we’re supposed to set aside our disgust and misgivings to support these weak, centrist, anti-working class creeps that the Dems love to foist upon us. I’m tired of being told that our deeply warped excuse for a democracy doesn’t function properly because everyday, struggling people don’t show up in big enough numbers for candidates they dislike. Neoliberalism always tells us its that our societal problems are the fault of many misbehaving individuals, not gargantuan institutions run by greedy psychopaths.   

So there you have it, that’s my big endorsement for Wacky Uncle Not Trump. If we had fair elections and/or weren’t living under quarantine conditions, I think he could beat Trump just by not being Trump. But sadly, some of us are going to have to fight hard to get this shadow of a once-lively scumbag elected to office. That’s what I want to happen, with the hope that his puppeteers are less fascist than the current set of ghouls running the show. Either way, we’ll keep on fighting.

*If they even know what Medicare for All is — my two years in M4A canvassing taught me that most people do not.

The One Big Reason Why Everything is Terrible

If you enjoy shaming people who don’t wear masks in public during a pandemic, that’s cool. Highly desperate times demand consequences for such risky, inconsiderate behavior. But I also need you to understand that if shame’s the only tool at our disposal, we’ll still see COVID-19 spread at an evermore devastating rate. Capitalism has again tricked us into overestimating the power of individuals. And individual solutions won’t fix this systemic disaster.

This would be my dream job.

To me, the whole purpose of a democratically elected government is to assign leaders who will make decisions based on what’s best for most people. But we don’t have that here in the United States. Instead we have a government that responds to the needs of corporations and billionaires. You might say, “Well screw the idiots who elected Trump,” but this isn’t just a Trump problem. Hell, this isn’t even just a Republican problem. Both of our political parties are beholden to the 1%. The system is rigged. But instead of blaming the greedy bastards who benefit from that system, we blame voters. Tricked again.

In this country, the onus is on YOU to figure out how to act right under a pandemic. Stay home. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. If you can’t socially distance (because maybe you live with a lot of people or you work in tight quarters) that’s your fault for being poor. You didn’t try hard enough in life. You think the government should keep paying you $15/hr to stay home and not work? Oh we couldn’t have that, so we reopened to force workers off unemployment. Most people in this country didn’t want to reopen. But we did anyway, and we mainly blamed that decision on gun-toting reactionary yokels and Karens whining about haircuts. Look, I despise the yokels and the Karens as much as anyone, but they aren’t the main reason we ignited the second wave. Our capitalist ruling class simply wouldn’t concern itself with managing the healthcare and financial needs of everyday people living under a pandemic, because that isn’t profitable. And we certainly can’t allow plebs to expect more money or healthcare. That sets a dangerous precedent! Better to let millions suffer.

So that’s this country’s game plan for handling the virus. Everyday people can either act right or just do as they please. You might get sick even if you acted right, because none of us can or should live in complete isolation indefinitely. The virus doesn’t care about your personal morals, and neither does the ruling class. 

We will never slow the spread of COVID-19 until our government institutes a widespread system of testing and contact tracing — a laughable dream based on the federal response so far. Can you imagine having a government that immediately invests in figuring out who’s sick, isolating them, caring for them, while also looking out for every person they encountered before they got sick?

Here’s the thing — I can imagine that scenario and I’m determined to help make it a reality. That’s why I’m a socialist. To the mask-shamers I say, let’s work together to target our real enemies. Collective action is the only way to win a government and economy that responds to everyday people’s needs. I see your passion for telling others how to act right. It’s time to funnel that zeal into socialism. Alone you might convince a handful of people to wear their masks. But together we can demand systems that push back on the virus and our ruling class. Our survival depends on us working as a massive team rather than as individual actors just trying to get by.

Take This Pandemic and Shove It

In my favorite pre-pandemic work days, I kept myself busy managing the aesthetics of an old-fashioned department store. I’d hum along to my favorite songs on the repetitive bluegrass soundtrack as I organized wooden signs that said things like “An Old Bear and His Honey Live Here” or “Wish I Was Born with Skinny Genes!” When a song came on that I hated, I’d groan loudly to my coworkers. Then we’d chat about our favorite TV shows as we filled 1/2 pound bags of Tootsie Rolls, wrapping dark red bows around the tops. After rearranging the cookbooks and refilling the Burt’s Bees lip glosses, I might grab a bag of popcorn from behind the register pit and hide in a corner to munch, away from the customers’ sight. Eventually an elderly person might approach me, wondering how long this store had been here (over 4 years) and what it was before (an early 20th century hardware store, these are the original floors). And then they’d tell me it was just like the downtown stores from their childhood. Then a little kid might run by squealing, because they’d just caught sight of the south wing, lined with candy barrels and shelves packed with toys. Those were idyllic times. 

And then in quieter moments, when there were barely any customers around and I’d finished all my chores, I’d pop a Mallow Cup in my mouth, stare down the long central aisle leading through the fashion department to the front doors, and think, “Sure is pleasant here. Wonder what it’s gonna be like when the economy crashes and this all falls to shit?”

Having grown up in the rust belt, I’m sensitive to the signs of an impending downturn. Like the cold chill of a Michigan winter, I sense it deep inside my bones. I couldn’t ignore the fact that there were some January days when I’d see barely any shoppers come in. Or how about our inability to retain young workers because none of them could afford to live on our wages? It all felt like a house of cards. 

But the pandemic… my god, I could not have possibly anticipated how swiftly it would all dissolve in a pandemic. I switched to full-time during holiday season to get on my own health insurance plan, which went into effect March 1st. By March 5th I was asking my boss if company leaders were talking about potential fallout from the coronavirus. “Nah, not really.” Over the next two weeks, as I watched the virus spread rapidly in cities like Seattle, New York, New Orleans, and my native Detroit, I became progressively more disgusted by the prospect of going to work. Many of my male workers scoffed at the notion that this virus might be A Big Deal; meanwhile the women in the fashion department started wiping everything down with Clorox.

Those last couple shifts before we closed felt torturous. I couldn’t help noticing that this folksy atmosphere we’d cultivated was encouraging dangerous social behavior. Business slowed, but dopey deniers were coming in swarms, so excited to be out and about to spite the libs. They loved to linger, sometimes for hours. One morning our department decided to skip making popcorn. An elderly customer noticed this and tapped on the window of the popper, demanding an explanation. “Well, we decided because of the pandemic that it seemed unsanitary,” I explained, He stared me down with raw disdain. “Don’t believe the hype, young lady.” He said this to me, a 40+ year old mom with graying hair. I wanted to grab a “Crazy Cat Lady” decorative pillow and scream into it.

Believe it or not, we sold a lot of this stuff before the economy went down the drain.

Management announced our closure on March 19th. For most of the following two months, I collected weekly unemployment checks that greatly exceeded my previous income. Being forced to not work wound up being one of the biggest financial boons of my life. My employers assured me that I could stay on my health insurance, and I would have a job once we reopened. But as the weeks passed, I knew that we’d be returning to work with a virus in full effect. We’d be reopening, not because anyone needs to shop for jigsaw puzzles, orange marmalade, or scented candles. We would reopen with the hope of possibly saving the company. We would return to work in an indoor space, with unmasked customers, for worse pay than we made when our only job was to stay home. And we would do it with the slight hope that maybe we’d be the ones who didn’t get laid off or see our store close permanently. I’ve been through this cycle before. Surviving a capitalist recession forces workers to compete.

I probably should’ve just stayed home and continued collecting unemployment. I could’ve said, “I’m not comfortable going back quite yet,” and stayed on that health insurance plan until someone forced me to either return or quit. But I had to know how if was gonna be. I couldn’t handle the suspense of wondering “What will my job look like post-quarantine but pre-vaccine?” 

I lasted three shifts.

Everything I’d enjoyed about my job — despite the low wages, corny tchotchkes, and the constant soundtrack of adult contemporary banjo music — was gone. Here we were, a skeleton crew managing fewer customers than I’d ever seen before. I had almost no one to talk to, but didn’t feel particularly chatty anyway. Straightening shelves and building displays felt pointless. There would be no more popcorn. And now that the candy barrels looked more like petri dishes, I didn’t want any Mallow Cups, either. These are not appropriate times to invite people to slow down, chill out on a rocking chair, play a game of checkers, and enjoy the great indoors. And while business remained slow, I couldn’t help but resent every one of the unmasked customers who walked through our doors, silently wondering, “Are you ignorant or are you hateful?”

So I quit. 

I’m in a fortunate position that I can choose to stop working here at the beginning of a depression. I can get back on my husband’s extremely expensive health insurance, and I guess we’ll just keep staying home and not spending money. We’re okay for now, but not forever. In the short term, I’m gonna take advantage of this opportunity to quarantine with my mom in Michigan for a bit. And then I will look for work, possibly on the electoral side of things. Or I might try to become a contact tracer. If I’m going to put my health at risk, it will be for work that has some social benefit. Until this pandemic is really over, I’m probably done with non-essential, customer-facing service jobs. This is the work I’ve spent most of my adult life doing. I was good at it, and sometimes really enjoyed it. But it’s time to move on.

In those pre-pandemic days, I felt the downturn in my bones. But I never expected that doing this work would put anyone’s health at risk.

The People You Can Trust in a Zombie Apocalypse

One night in early 2019, I noticed some of my Michigan mom friends were posting jokes on Facebook about “turning down to 65.” In the midst of a polar vortex, when temperatures had dipped to -9°, a fire broke out at a natural gas compressor station in suburban Detroit. State officials sent an emergency text to everyone in the lower peninsula, asking residents to turn their thermostats down to 65° to conserve energy and prevent blackouts while the station recovered. 

When it gets that cold outside, the indoors never feel warm. I shuddered recalling all the times I’d worn a thick hat and scarf in my house because I just couldn’t get rid of the chill in my bones. Lowering the thermostat even a few degrees sounded pretty awful. But imagine having no gas or electricity during a polar vortex. The general consensus among my mom friends was that no one wanted to turn down the heat, but of course they had to. As one friend posted, “Anyone who isn’t turning down to 65 can’t be trusted in a zombie apocalypse.”

But here’s what happened — the directive worked. Enough people chose to sacrifice personal comfort for the greater good. Together they prevented a deadly outage.

I’ve been thinking about that act of solidarity a lot lately. Just a week ago, before this mass uprising against police murder began, I was musing on the beauty of continued social distancing. Our political leaders may have chosen to reopen our states during a pandemic, encouraging economic growth at the expense of public health. Many people filled restaurants, salons, and stores, eager to “get back to normal” despite the dangers of close social contact. But a great many of us who understand how the virus spreads continued staying home as much as possible. We made that choice not only to keep ourselves healthy, but to keep others healthy too. If you know how a mask works, you understand that it is to protect others and not yourself. When we isolate ourselves despite our great longing to be more social, and when we wear uncomfortable masks even when it isn’t required, we are doing that thing we talked about during the Bernie Sanders campaign — fighting for someone we don’t know. My heart fluttered to think that everyone who continued to mask up and maintain social distance was engaged in a massive act of solidarity.

In the past week we’ve seen thousands of fed up people break social distancing to protest police violence. Cops murdering black people, followed by street protest, is certainly nothing new. But now we’re seeing that action take place during a pandemic, at the start of what looks to be a great depression. At first I thought the liberal consensus would be, “The killing must stop, but so must this dangerous protest.” Instead, I’ve been shocked to see widespread moral clarity and support – not to mention all the protest, every night, in cities across the country. The social distancing solidarity didn’t end when the uprising began. I believe it’s morphed into something much bigger and more profound. We see transit workers and public schools refusing to work with police. We see hospital workers and protesters cheering each other in the streets. I’ve seen people in my personal circles, who were never particularly outspoken about politics, encouraging their friends to donate to bail funds. The moms who were posting jokes about 65° are all vocally siding with protesters. 

Don’t get me wrong, we have a long way to go. We aren’t organized enough. We aren’t ready to seize power and abolish the police state. We need more of our good-hearted liberals to understand that murder and oppression aren’t signs that the system is failing, but rather that it is working as intended. We need them to stop cheering cops who kneel with protesters (which I suspect is a coordinated PR tactic meant to overshadow tear gas and rubber bullet attacks). But when I see a survey that says 54% of Americans believe burning that Minneapolis precinct was justified, I’m hopeful that we’ve entered a thrilling new phase in building multiracial, working class solidarity.

I love the people and I believe that most of us can be trusted in a zombie apocalypse. 

On June 2nd, Washington DC resident Rahul Dubey sheltered 70 protesters in his home after police began firing tear gas at them. He later said that he hopes his thirteen year-old son follows the protesters’ example (image: ABC News)

Problematica: Karma Catches Up with Jessica Wakefield

Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

Shortly before the pandemic hit, a Gen X coworker loaned me her Sweet Valley High books. Binging this guilty pleasure from youth has been the highlight of my quarantine! 

Launched in 1983, Sweet Valley High centers on the adventures of teen twin sisters Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. This pair of perfectly gorgeous California girls reside and attend high school in the idyllic community of Sweet Valley. Liz and Jess are blessed with “all-American good looks,” which means they’re identical blond, blue-eyed, size six, slender babes with peaches-and-cream complexions. But get this, you guys, their personalities are totally opposite!! Studious nice girl Liz writes for the school newspaper and treats everyone with kindness and respect while flirty cheerleader Jess is the the resident messy bitch who lives for drama. We’re supposed to see the twins as everyday girls. They’re not as wealthy as Jess’s snooty friend, Lila Fowler. Nor do they suffer the family dysfunction that once led Liz’s friend Enid down the path of substance abuse. No, they’re just your average Aryan supermodels who drive their mom’s old convertible and live in a split-level house with an in-ground pool.

Even at ten years-old, I knew these bitches were unreal. Liz and Jess were fake teenagers from a too-perfect family who didn’t have any of the troubles families like mine faced (money problems, for example). Granted, I was a jaded kid — the sixth of seven very sarcastic children — I understood the concept of hate reads at a young age. To me, Sweet Valley High was dumb, trashy fare, like soap operas for teens. It was fun staring through this peephole at moneyed hot people and their tawdry melodrama. But no part of me wanted to know or befriend the Wakefield twins in real life. I could relate to Liz’s writing hobby and her sense of fairness, but she was too corny to be cool. And while Jess’s bad girl behavior created most of the intrigue, there are moments in the early books when her behavior borders on psychopathic. For example in book #1 (spoilers), “Double Love,” Jess makes a play for hunky basketball player Todd Wilkins because she can see he’s interested in Liz; when he rejects her, she falsely accuses him of sexual assault. (They oughta have called that one “Double Cock Block”.) In the next book, “Secrets,” Jess learns about Enid’s past struggles with addiction and tells the whole school, because she’s jealous that she’s getting so much attention from Liz. In pretty much every one of the first ten books, Jessica does some psychotically bitchy thing that everyone forgives in the end because she’s hot and charming. Tween me NEVER accepted that outcome, perhaps because I’d yet to learn that pretty blond girls from “nice” families often do get away with murder.

Ah, but if only ten year old me had read book #10, “Wrong Kind of Girl,” I’d have seen Jessica receive the most absurdly overwrought comeuppance! I don’t know how I missed this one as I seem to have read all the other early installments. Rereading Sweet Valley High in quarantine has been somewhat surreal; bits of subplots and scenes would come back to me so I almost felt as if I’d traveled back to 1987 and the dank basement bedroom I shared with my sister. But I remember nothing about “Wrong Kind of Girl,” which has a ridiculous ending I could not have forgotten.

“Annie, are you OK? Are you OK, Annie?”
Jessica Wakefield is a smooth criminal.

The wrong girl in question is beautiful Annie Whitman, who wants more than anything to join the Sweet Valley High cheerleading squad. She’s got the moves and spirit, but she also has a reputation — known for dating a different boy every night, the other kids refer to her as “Easy Annie.” Co-captain Jessica adamantly refuses to have her squad associated with Annie’s loose loins and plots to keep her off the team. Unbeknownst to Jess, Liz is tutoring Annie to help get her grades up so she can qualify. As Liz gets to know Annie, she learns that her troubled pal has no idea that everyone thinks she’s a slut. 

We get a bit of subtle perspective on why Annie is this way. We meet Mrs. Whitman, her boozy fashion model mom (who cringingly refers to her daughter as “kitten”) and mom’s sleazy boyfriend Johnny. We learn Annie’s dad was never really around. Then Annie talks about doing some modeling when she was thirteen… there isn’t much explicit sex in Sweet Valley High which means that there isn’t explicit sexual molestation, but between Johnny and the modeling career, you just kinda know. All that coupled with paternal abandonment tells us what Annie’s deal is; one might now refer to it as “daddy issues.”

I have to admit that as an adult reader who’s on the other side of teen turmoil and hormones, there are are moments when Sweet Valley High strikes me as surprisingly sensitive. This book was first published in 1984 and I expected the slut-shaming to be much worse. Annie may be misguided, but she isn’t broken and she never apologizes for who she is. She even tells Liz in her very earnest way that getting into professional modeling so early made it hard for her to befriend girls her age. “I’ve got lots of boyfriends… but a lot of boys are shallow, you know? Sometimes after you break up, they don’t even respect you.” She then explains that improving her grades and making the cheerleading squad is her pathway to popularity and respect.

And here’s the other thing that’s less problematic than I expected — nobody other than Jess cares that Annie’s a slut and they DO love her amazing cheerleading moves. She wows everyone at tryouts and bewitches the not-so-hot but very sweet squad manager Ricky. When Annie guesses that Ricky has a crush on her, she asks Liz questions like, “How do you have a friendship — a relationship — like you have with Todd?” and, “How do you get a shy boy to talk to you?” Honestly, I found this a wholesome trajectory. Again, Annie isn’t bad for dating all these different boys; on the contrary, she seems to have a lot of fun! But she doesn’t have any real friends (just fuck buddies), so she’s lonely. I love that she goes for this nice nerd boy who might actually be good company to her.

But then Jessica starts spinning her web and the story goes completely haywire. Fearing her talented nemesis might win a spot on the squad, Jess starts whipping votes for the competition (honestly, the way she steamrolls Helen Bradley at the ice cream parlor — telling her the team’s reputation rests on her vote — kinda makes me wish progressive politicians had more Jessicas on their side). But when her chosen favorite Sandra Bacon literally falls on her ass during the final round, Helen chooses Annie instead. Furious, Jessica threatens to quit the squad, so they choose Sandra over Annie.

Annie is shocked when she later learns she didn’t make the cut. Knowing she aced the audition, she begs Ricky for an explanation. He clumsily explains, “Jessica brought up the stories that some guys tell about you.” Horrified, Annie runs away, not to be seen or heard from for days until — and here’s where the story gets really dark — Ricky finds her in her apartment, unconscious with an empty pill bottle at her side.

Ricky calls Liz from the hospital and she immediately tells Jessica what’s happened. And this is where the story gets REALLY good. Turning those pages, I could feel my ten year-old self rising up from within. Finally, at long last, I was gonna see that bitch Jessica get what she deserves!!

What happens next is both ridiculous and amazing. The twins drive to the hospital and Jess is wrecked. The guilt is SO strong. First comes the quiet muttering — “Oh please let it not be serious.” Then comes the full-on bawling in the waiting room — “I did this! You know I did. I’m the one who put Annie in there.” DELICIOUS. After Mrs. Whitman makes a dramatic entrance, screaming, “Where’s my baby?” a nurse leads her to Annie’s room. The young girl seems on the verge of consciousness, but never quite comes to. Dr. Hammond comes in and explains, “When people try to take their own lives, they often don’t want to be brought back. When you catch them in time, as in this case, they have another chance. But they have to want that chance, you see.” Clearly this guy went to the daytime soap school of medicine. His final analysis is that Annie has no will to live. 

Jessica retreats to the hospital lawn, where she cries and beats her chest. Liz soon catches up, telling her she’s not such a terrible person (though she is). When Liz mentions trying to reignite Annie’s will to live, Jess marches back in the hospital and confesses all of her treachery to Dr. Hammond. He listens to all of this (inexplicably) and then asks her, “Are you willing to have Annie on the cheerleading squad?” I REPEAT, THE DOCTOR ASKS A TEENAGE GIRL IF SHE’S WILLING TO ALLOW HIS COMATOSE PATIENT ON THE CHEERLEADING SQUAD. Jessica agrees wholeheartedly.

And then, for the next several hours, Jessica talks to Annie about how there was a big mistake with the points tabulation and Annie needs to be the eighth member of the squad. She literally spends an entire night telling an unconscious girl that they’re gonna cheerlead together. When Annie finally resurfaces, Jessica’s saying, “And then there’s the Pendleton game! The Pendleton Tigers have a really terrific cheerleading squad, but we’re going to leave them in the dust. Just you watch!” And that’s how Jessica saves Annie’s life — by begging her to be a cheerleader and bagging on the other team. Reader, I laughed myself to tears. This whole premise is so over-the-top, I’d like to think that no present-day Young Adult fiction writer would have the nerve to pen it. And yet, it completely satisfied every desire I ever had to see Jessica Wakefield put in her place. It’s so bad it’s beautiful.

Alas, I’ve run out of books from my friend’s collection. I’m now catching up on some of the later Sweet Valley High books via Kindle Unlimited. I just cannot imagine sheltering at home without these silly stories. If social distancing lasts as long as I expect, I’m afraid I’ll be recording podcast episodes in which I recap my favorites. Tune in to hear me laugh myself to tears.

Kinda Wish I’d Ditched This Place a Long Time Ago

I feel no satisfaction for correctly predicting my country would be the worst at containing the coronavirus and absorbing its economic shock. When I began to see in early March that the virus was definitely coming to prey upon our chronically ill and elderly, my mind immediately considered the tens of millions of uninsured and underinsured people in the United States. I thought of all the people I’ve met in the past few years who’ve avoided seeking health care because it’s too damned expensive. My stomach turned at the thought of all those undiagnosed and untreated comorbidities that make people more susceptible to death by COVID-19. I considered how our federal government, malnourished by decades of neoliberal policy, had no safety net in place for this disaster. Safety nets are for unlucky people, and we can’t be bothered with taking care of them. In this society if you’re born into poverty, or you get seriously sick, or get laid off from your job, that’s your problem. We expect people in these situations to somehow pull together an income that covers food, childcare, health care, and housing expenses. Now, with a staggering 30 million unemployed, our unlucky population has grown tremendously. As far as oligarchs like Trump are concerned, that just means the losers have become more expensive.  

In my young adulthood I wanted so badly to become an expatriate, to abandon my cruel and hateful imperialist homeland and move to a part of the world that took better care of its people. As the child of an airline worker, I had access to cheap tickets. So I knew how to get away but not how to reestablish myself. How does one start a new life in a place where you don’t know anyone? I wished I could be braver, like other expat Americans who’d managed to build a life abroad. (I didn’t understand then that trust funds often play a role in that life of daring adventure.) At the beginning of 2000, I dated a Swedish study abroad student and visited him in Stockholm after he moved back. When I returned home from that trip I told him I wanted to save up money and move across the world to be with him, but then he broke up with me. Alas, that was the closest I got to living under a social democracy.

Not long after that, I gave up on my expat dream and accepted that I was stuck with the USA for the foreseeable future. 9/11 happened. I knew the US would soon be ramping up for war with Iraq. It made no sense, except from a hawk profiteer’s point of view. So of course it would happen, just as sure as it would be a disaster. I felt no satisfaction in being right about that, either. But I longed for a reckoning. I hoped, at the very least, that idiot president W would lose his reelection bid. I thought the Abu Ghraib torture scandal would solidify that. But we all know what happened that general election night in 2004. I pretty much stopped paying attention to politics for the next ten years. That was how I could stand to live in the United States. 

In 2014 I stopped giving up once I saw large numbers of young people filling streets to demand justice for black people who’d been murdered by cops. Spurred by their commitment to action, I got involved in reproductive rights work. But I still never thought much about electoral politics before Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run. Then I saw him win states on a platform that highlighted the kind of Nordic social programs I craved in my young adulthood. In 2017, when I saw people of all ages pushing hard for single-payer healthcare, I decided to join a rapidly growing socialist organization demanding Medicare for All. For the first time in my life, I saw an opportunity to actually make the United States better instead of just daydreaming about living somewhere else. 

But I’m afraid this pandemic has viciously reignited my primal desire to escape. What a horrible country this is! Ultimately there is no getting away from the US horror show. Imperialism plus global capitalism means our policies taint the entire world. I feel a moral obligation to make us less awful. Now that we’ve tried and failed to put a decent social democrat in the White House, I’m pretty sure that building working class power through solidarity is our best strategy to weaken the oligarchs’ stranglehold on our government and economy. I would like someday to feel very satisfied in that prediction, instead of just being correct about imminent horror.